CUMMING, Georgia — In October 1912, after the raped and abused body of Mae Crow, a white 18-year-old woman, was buried next to Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, Forsyth County’s white men rioted and drove its 1,098 black citizens — about 10 % of population – from Forsyth’s limits.
They had already dragged 24-year-old Rob Edwards, a black man, from a jail cell in Cumming Town Square, beat him with crowbars, riddled his body with bullets and lifted him over a telephone pole. Two black teenagers, Ernest Knox, 16, and Oscar Daniel, 18, would be hanged after the most flimsy trials.
But the citizens of this county north of Atlanta weren’t done yet. For much of the 20th century, they guarded the borders of Forsyth as the southern city was encroached upon by violence, intimidation, and a menacing understanding in greater Atlanta that this county should remain whites-only.
The people who drove Forsyth’s black residents from their homes and farms had no name for their hatred, no “Great Replacement” or “White Genocide” theories. But the notion that other races were plotting to “replace” the county’s lawful residents took murderous forms more than a century ago, said Patrick Phillips, whose attention-grabbing 2016 book Blood at the Root describes the county’s racial cleansing chronicled his growing up—and his own awakening to the fact of his all-white childhood.
A small group of black farmers began to thrive, acquiring land and outperforming some of their white neighbors, Phillips said.
You had to go.
If those who carried out mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, Pittsburgh, El Paso, Texas, and Christchurch, New Zealand showed how deadly such convictions can be in the hands of a single, well-armed killer, the 1912 Forsyth County showed, what a better organized terrorist operation could achieve.
But a century later, Forsyth County also refutes white supremacists who believe that Payton Gendron, the accused Buffalo gunman, put it, “Diversity is not a strength.” The county’s all-white century was one of stagnation and Isolation. It wasn’t until the sprawl of Greater Atlanta finally overwhelmed Forsyth’s defenses in the late 1990s and 2000s that that county experienced a boom.
“It imposed a stigma on Forsyth County for many, many years, and for some it still exists,” said Jason May, 48, the white owner of a real estate firm near Cumming Town Square.
And it’s booming.
The population is now more than 260,000 – up from 45,000 when remnants of the all-white Forsyth began to disappear. The black population, at 2.2% in 2000, is still only 4.4% – Alpharetta, just over the Fulton County line, is 12% black. But other demographic groups have also grown significantly, including immigrants. Asians, particularly Indian Americans, make up 15.5% and Hispanics 9.7%. The median household income of $112,834 just surpassed Calvert County, Maryland, becoming the 13th highest in the country. In 1993 it was $44,162 or $89,500 in current dollars.
“In my opinion, diversity can never be bad; I’m sorry,” said Barbra Curtiss, 71, a white businesswoman whose Cumming Town Square real estate firm includes a banner welcoming her newest agent, Maria Zaragosa, along with Spanglish services. “Diversity – it’s like death and taxes. You won’t be able to stop it no matter what. No matter how much hate speech, no matter how many mass shootings, it will not stop.”
Curtiss, who moved to Forsyth County in 1984, was aware of its whites-only status while living in Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta, when her then-husband — a “racist,” as she put it — wanted to move to an all-white county . Three years later, in 1987, a small group of local and Atlanta-based civil rights activists, led by Hosea Williams, boarded buses from Atlanta to Forsyth County to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the black expulsion. They were greeted with Confederate flags and shields that read, “Racial purity is Forsyth’s security” and “Forsyth remains white.” And when they tried to march to Cumming, they had rocks, bottles and bricks thrown at them until they retreated to their buses back to Atlanta.
A few weeks later, this time with national media attention, helicopters overhead and a phalanx of National Guardsmen clearing their way, the protesters returned in far larger numbers – this time with Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young and Oprah Winfrey to name a few a couple.
Among the protesters was Miguel Marcelli, a Black Atlanta firefighter who made the mistake of attending his girlfriend’s company picnic on the shores of Lake Lanier in Forsyth County in 1980 and nearly paid the price with his life after the couple broke into a fire on their way home was ambushed. They were less than a mile from Mae Crow’s grave. In November 1986, five Hispanic construction workers were beaten and told they would be killed if they did not leave the county immediately.
But despite all the publicity, Forsyth remained mostly white. Curtiss recalled her first non-white client, “a small Hispanic guy” in the early 2000s, who came to her after other real estate agents turned down her services.
“All I remember was it was heartbreaking because he said no one else would give him the time of day,” she said.
Tony Shivers, 72, remembers exactly when the first black man was hired by the town of Cumming: It was 30 years ago, and he was that man. He laid pipes for a contractor in Cumming; The city liked his job and hired him at the water treatment plant. A sign hung outside the sheriff’s office warning blacks—with a racial slur—that they shouldn’t be caught by the Forsyth County dogcatchers after dark.
His friends in Atlanta had told him he was crazy to go to Forsyth County and said he recalled incidents when he was told to go back to where he belonged. But he had been in the Marines. He would not be intimidated.
Many in the county do not know her story. Zaragosa said she was unaware of the county’s past. Instead, she struck a tone that many others here do as well: “Our main focus is business,” she said, just two months into her job at the real estate agency, which like others advertises “Se habla Español.”
For others, the stories are inescapable. The borough has made no attempt to bury its history: a plaque in Cumming Town Square tells the story of Edwards’ lynching and the racial cleansing that followed.
“The loss of black property to flee indiscriminate mob violence was common in this period, and black residents of Forsyth abandoned their homes and farms to flee, taking only what they could carry.” , it says there.
In fact, much of Forsyth’s wealth per capita was generated by the tremendous appreciation in the value of real estate that had been owned by Forsyth’s ancient families for a century – much of that property being taken from someone else.
Outside Cherians International Fresh Market, an Asian grocery store on the outskirts of Cumming, Avani Vallabhaneni spoke about the perseverance of Forsyth’s newcomers. When she and her husband arrived 12 years ago, she said she heard neighbors whispering behind her back to go back to where she came from. Her husband, who travels for work, once showed his business card to a knowledgeable Georgian, who was amazed that he lived in Cumming.
But she had her two children in Forsyth County, and the Native American population had increased so much, she said, that she no longer heard those whispers.
However, others still hear similar whispers today — though race isn’t necessarily the irritating factor.
Like Rev. Bogdan Maruszak, the pastor of a small flock of immigrants. He founded his Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2000 in a trailer on property outside of Cumming and took Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians and others, all white, to a forbidden area in northern Georgia, where he made ends meet by opening a church body shop. He only knew Forsyth’s story vaguely.
“I thought about it, but I wasn’t nervous,” said the Ukrainian-Polish immigrant over iced tea and soda just across the Fulton County line in Johns Creek.
As the war in Ukraine stokes fears of genocide and the mass shootings in Buffalo draw attention to the “white substitute,” Maruszak said, it is the duty of all of Forsyth County, not just its newcomers, to speak out and speak up for them use those who are threatened.
“We can’t watch passively,” he said. “We can do something. We should react.”
That’s not something to be taken for granted, said Phillips, the author of Blood at the Root.
Forsyth’s progress and remarkable wealth may be evidence that white supremacy is an obstacle, he said, but the county should not be credited with the revelation. Atlanta’s expansion steadily spread north until the wave “finally broke over Forsyth County,” he said.
“What you want to believe,” Phillips said, “is that there’s been a moral shift, people have seen their mistakes, and a light switch has clicked.”
But that, he said, didn’t happen.
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