“Completing the Job” in Forsyth County
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 4, "Winter's Promise." Find more from that issue here.
The following article contains references to sexual assault.
The following article contains anti-Black racial slurs.
An incident of interracial rape, lynching and “night riding” in Northeast Georgia shortly after the turn of the century — such an event is depressingly familiar to anyone even superficially acquainted with the place and the period. That Forsyth County in 1912 was the scene of such an occurrence hardly merits individual attention, except for two distinguishing factors: first, due to tremendous recent growth in population and industry, Forsyth today is a major suburb of Atlanta. Second, other than an occasional delivery truck driver or visiting government official, there are currently no black faces anywhere in the county.
Blacks, as slaves, had lived in Forsyth since its settlement in the early 1800s. In 1910, the census still counted 1,098 blacks there — 9.2 percent of the county’s total population. When the 1920 census was taken, however, the number of blacks had diminished to 30 — an almost nonexistent 0.3 percent of the population.
In only one month of the decade between the two censuses Forsyth County and neighboring Dawson County were purged of an entire race. Now, almost 70 years later, a legacy of racism and hatred still governs those counties. The signs are gone which once marked Forsyth’s boundaries with the warning, “NIGGER DON’T LET THE SUN SET ON YOU IN FORSYTH COUNTY.” But their message still carries weight throughout the northern half of the state.
Blacks accidentally entering the county soon encounter overt hostility from a “welcoming committee” of militant whites. Sometimes, the blacks are merely harassed or threatened. Others reportedly are beaten. At least one has been shot in recent months.
Some residents of Forsyth, of course, do not agree with the extreme county-wide segregation — a businessman who works in Atlanta and wishes that he could invite black associates to his home on the lake, a bride whose black friends were afraid to attend her wedding. But these people are a minority, and the challenge of speaking out, they feel, is not worth the risks.
What precipitated the month-long purge— referred to locally as “the war?” Many of the sources for this account are descendants of the white participants; these people still believe that their ancestors were justified in what they did. Most versions begin with the disappearance of an 18-year-old farm girl on Sunday, September 8, 1912, from her home in Oscarville, an obscure community in eastern Forsyth — about halfway between the county seat, Cumming, and Gainesville. But trouble was brewing between the whites and blacks in Forsyth County even before this.
Three days earlier, several black men had been arrested and charged with the attempted assault of a white woman in Cumming. Grant Smith, a black preacher, was severely beaten on the Cumming public square for “allegedly insulting remarks” about the woman. Smith, too, was arrested, but he alone was released. “Likely he will be more careful about what he says about white women in the future,” one newspaper wrote. Another paper reported “threats of lynching, followed by rumors from a Negro picnic and barbecue near town of plots for dynamiting the town in the event any Negroes were lynched.” The atmosphere had become so explosive that, on Saturday, September 7, Georgia Governor Joseph M. Brown rushed two companies of the state militia to Cumming. “NEAR RIOT AT CUMMING” was the headline carried in the Gainesville News.
At this critical point, the search for the missing Oscarville girl was initiated. She was found in the woods early the next morning, unconscious and mostly naked, lying in a pool of her own blood — brutally raped, but alive. A small group of black people had the misfortune of being found standing over the abused body.
The girl was treated at the home of Dr. GT. Brice by Brice and Dr. John Hockenhull. After receiving medical attention, she rested comfortably and was expected to recover. She didn’t, but she did regain consciousness long enough to tell relatives and friends of her ordeal.
She said that on her way to visit an aunt, down a dirt road she had walked many times before without a thought of danger, she encountered Ernest Knox, a 16-year-old black whom she knew. Though newspapers later stated Knox “came upon her suddenly and dragged her into the woods,” the girl’s testimony was that she engaged the boy in conversation, as his presence in that area seemed strange. He soon began making carnal remarks, at which point she told him he should leave before he got into trouble. Knox then attacked her, she said.
Fiercely, and with some success, the girl fought back — until her assailant struck her head repeatedly with a rock. She said she was raped, first by Knox, later by two others — Ed Collins and Oscar Daniel. The trio then enlisted the aid of a large black woman to help in planning their escape, and she, in turn, invited still others to join in the goings on. That night, searchers had passed very near the point in the woods where the girl was being molested and might have seen the glow of a kerosene lamp, but the black woman covered it with the hem of her skirt.
Knox, Daniel and several others were arrested immediately. When the raped girl’s story became known, “wild rumors of lynching” circulated, and the prisoners were moved to the Hall County jail. A “considerable crowd” headed for the jail Monday night, arriving about an hour after the accused had been spirited away once more, this time to relative safety in a Fulton County facility. “As soon as they became satisfied that [Knox] was gone,” a newspaper related, “they quietly dispersed and no further talk of trouble was heard.”
But that was true only because people were tired of talking. Ed Collins was apprehended Tuesday morning. An account of his fate appeared in Wednesday’s Gainesville News: “[He] was taken from the jail at Cumming yesterday afternoon and killed, after which his body was strung up to a telephone post in the heart of town, by a mob of infuriated citizens. The sheriff had arrested the Negro yesterday and carried him to jail. Not long after, several hundred men gathered around the jail and finally broke into it. Collins was mutilated with a crowbar, a rope placed around his neck, his body dragged through town and strung up as above mentioned. After this was done the citizens quietly dispersed and no more trouble is anticipated.”
According to general accounts, the newspapers failed to report a second lynching. The fat black woman described by the rape victim was taken from her cabin, apparently without a struggle. In an unspecified spot, she was tied and staked to the ground, while several white men delivered speeches about “God’s will.” They placed a stick of dynamite between her legs and lit the fuse.
Thirteen militia men had been left in Forsyth County when the other prisoners were smuggled to prisons in Hall and Fulton. Their whereabouts during the lynchings are unknown.
Beneath the account of Ed Collins’ murder, the Gainesville News published this short editorial: “It appears that Forsyth County is having all its troubles at one time. Two criminal assaults in less than one week wrought up the people to a high pitch. They controlled themselves with remarkable self-restraint.”
Meanwhile, the girl’s condition grew progressively worse, and she died September 23. In romanticized versions, she lost the will to live the moment the rock struck her brow. Her deathbed wish, as reported by her relatives, was for the guilty to be punished.
The fates of Daniel and Knox were already sealed. Three companies of militia accompanied the two to Cumming, where their trial, on October 3, concluded with a guilty verdict and a hanging sentence set for October 25. Summarizing the outcome, the Dahlonega Nugget reported: “Jane Daniel, whose testimony convicted her brother and Knox, has been set free as well as one of the men who was arrested to be held as a witness. The fifth was given a 20-year sentence in the chain gang, and the sixth was lynched and has gone to hell.” The Gainesville News carried a message from the governor: “Governor Brown expressed great gratification over the conduct of the military at Cumming, and he also said he felt very proud of the citizens of Forsyth County for their forbearance and bowing to the law in most trying conditions.”
But most white Forsyth Countians had already turned their attention to larger issues. The “war” had begun. Nearly all the white men, heavily armed, had disappeared several days before the trial. Their fear-stricken families had deserted their homes and were hiding in the hills. One sentence in the Dahlonega Nugget hinted at the grim plight of the area’s black families: “Many of the Negroes have left the county for fear of getting into trouble.”
Actually, the white men were beginning the systematic elimination of every black in the county. “The conduct of those Negroes in Forsyth County,” said the Dahlonega Nugget, “has caused the organization of White Caps, who have notified the blacks to move out, and where they acted slow about it their homes were destroyed or damaged. A Negro church was burned to the ground.
“Persons returning from Dawson this week inform us that the situation is much worse in that county. A colored church has also been burned to the ground in that county, together with several Negro houses. One white man’s gin houses were badly damaged because he didn’t dismiss his Negro renters when notified. All the Negroes in the county have been notified to leave at once and they are going to.”
Another account read, “At one Negro house the White Caps, upon failing to find anyone at home, caught the Negro’s cow, tied it in the yard and after piling a lot of wood around the animal burnt it to death. At least 500 bullets were shot into some of the doors and walls of Negro houses one night last week, on account of the inmates not leaving out promptly as directed. Fortunately for them they were not there then. The situation is also troubling some of the farmers who have much land to rent and no one to take it.”
The marauding spread to surrounding counties as well, but white resistance was greater outside Forsyth and Dawson. In Gainesville, on October 10, a large crowd gathered downtown and proceeded to a building being constructed near City Hall by M.A. Gaines. With threats, they ordered the black brick masons to quit work. An outraged Gaines pressed charges, and five white men were arrested. Two nights later, in Flowery Branch, night riders visited a black home on the property of Raymond Carlile, a white man. Carlile met them with a shotgun and was able to ascertain their identities, which he promptly turned over to the sheriff. Five more whites were arrested. Beneath the headline, “LAWLESSNESS MUST CEASE,” the Gainesville News condemned the White Caps: “The Negro with any sense does not have to be told his place. He already knows it and will keep it.”
These events dampened further harassment of blacks outside Forsyth and Dawson. In those two counties, it didn’t matter anymore. The Dahlonega Nugget of October 18 reported, “A gentleman of Forsyth County, who was here last week, said every Negro who lived in it was gone, not a single one left to tell the tale.”
The only unfinished business was the execution of Knox and Daniel. The jury had specified that the execution be private, witnessed only by executing officers and sufficient guards, relatives of the condemned and desired clergymen. A wooden fence was built around the gallows. But on the night of October 24, the fence was burned, and a crowd of between 8,000 and 10,000 shouted and cheered from an adjacent hilltop the following morning as Knox and Daniel were led to the nooses. Quiet settled as a minister prayed for their souls, then a second benediction followed. At 11 a.m. on October 25, 1912, dual trap doors opened at the same second.
The bodies hung, dead, in the autumn air. The memory of that morning is in the air still.
The most lasting reminder has been the absence of blacks in a county which has, in the last decade, rocketed in population from about 16,000 to 25,000. Major new 28 industries have located there. Georgia Highway 400 now rolls through, making the area more accessible to Atlantans. Life there is taking on a faster, more urban pace. But for all the physical change, attitudes remain much the same.
One Forsyth county woman said recently, “My daddy said, many times before he died, ‘I have never been sorry that our people ran the niggers out of the county. I believe we could have run them all the way back to Africa. This is the only thing I’m sorry of, not completing the job. Sooner or later, they are going to be the downfall of this country.’ We must be willing to stand for what we believe to be right and never be ashamed. He believed he had to do what he did. I believe he was absolutely right. That is why I have helped to see his story written down.”
Most are not so pleased to see the story retold. This letter, one of several which followed the publication of portions of the story in the Gainesville Times, can probably be taken as an indicator of the feelings and logic of a great many Forsyth County residents:
“There’s a reason why you printed two stories about the 1912 incident in Forsyth County and that reason is there is afoot a movement because of the construction of Ga. 400 to move niggers into the area again. Those behind this move are property owners, realtors & politicians who stand to gain by an influx of niggers. The feelings of those who are opposed to the blacks are not given a thought. Anyone can take a long, hard look at Atlanta and clearly see what a takeover by niggers can do. Those Forsyth and Dawson County citizens who don’t want an influx of blacks will likely have their wants trampled on. There is much more black-white trouble ahead when niggers are asked or invited into the area. One big reason for the growth of the area is that this area affords a haven which is not polluted by niggers. The Bible says niggers are black because black is the traditional color of sin and blacks committed the first sin in the new world after Noah’s flood. They were made black because the Creator wanted all succeeding generations to know who the black curse fell upon and not because the sun made them black. The sun tans but niggers are black.”
Signed, “The Forsyth County Anti-Black Committee of Seventeen,” the letter cannot and should not be interpreted as representative of the opinions of all 25,000 Forsyth Countians. However, even if these 17 were alone in their feelings, they would still constitute a greater segment of the population than do blacks.
The daughter of one of the outcast Forsyth blacks commented on this story: “This is good. But you know what’s sad. It only scratches the surface of all the things that happened back then.” A former schoolteacher and a leader of the black community in Gainesville, she said, “My daddy didn’t talk too much about it [the 1912 incident], but I knew the story, even when I was little. I can remember him sitting out on the porch at night crying . . . tears coming down his cheeks. I didn’t understand what he was crying for . . . what had been lost.”
C. B. Hackworth
C B Hackworth is associate district editor of The Times, a daily newspaper in Northeast Georgia. He has received awards for his investigative reporting and short fiction, and is presently completing a novel. (1980)