In Forsyth County, Georgia in September 1912, alleged attacks of two white women by black men resulted in a variety of violence by whites against blacks: a serious physical attack by whites against a black preacher, lynching of a black suspect by a large white mob at the county jail, five blacks charged with crimes, and two of them convicted of rape and murder by an all-white jury, and sentenced to death by hanging at the ages of 16 and 17. In the early stages of the unrest, the Sheriff gained reinforcements of 25 National Guard troops, but they could not control the mob in the county seat. A prisoner was taken to Gainesville and Atlanta to protect him from the mob before trial.
In 1910 more than 1,000 blacks lived in the county, which had more than 10,000 whites. After the trials and executions, bands of white men, known as Night Riders, threatened and intimidated blacks in the county, forcing them out in an early racial expulsion. Most of the blacks lost their land and other property when they fled. Whites took over their abandoned property. Within the next four months, an estimated 98% of the blacks living in the county had left. In the surrounding counties, whites forced an estimated 50% to 100% of blacks from their homes. Most never returned. This has been called the largest case of black expulsion in the history of the United States. As late as the 1980s, no blacks lived in Forsyth County.
This racial expulsion or racial cleansing was explored in Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings, aired on PBS in 2015 in its Independent Lens series.
After the American Civil War, black slaves in the South were emancipated and granted citizenship and the franchise through constitutional amendments. But around the turn of the 20th century, all southern states disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites by passing constitutions and laws to raise barriers to voter registration and voting. In addition, these white-dominated southern legislatures passed laws imposing racial segregation in public facilities, and Jim Crow customs ruled. Most rural blacks worked as sharecroppers on white-owned land, and were seldom able to get free themselves from poverty.
The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 was waged by whites against blacks, and reflected tensions in a city that was rapidly changing. Dr. Ansel Strickland, a doctor in Cumming, wrote a firsthand account saying that "hundreds of Black were killed" by whites in the Atlanta riot. The rate of lynchings of blacks by whites in Georgia and the South had been high since before disenfranchisement, with accounts of the mob murders regularly published in the local papers. Whites thought that lynchings were a means to enforce white supremacy in social affairs, and ensure that blacks stayed in line.
In the 1910 census, Forsyth County was recorded as having more than 10,000 whites, 858 blacks and 440 mulattoes (or mixed race). The mixed-race individuals demonstrated that the official ban against interracial relationships was not absolute; white men frequently crossed the line with black women, although everyone tried to act as if that were a secret.
On the night of September 5, 1912, Ellen Grice, a 22-year-old white woman and wife of a highly respected farmer, alleged that Toney Howell and an associate, Isaiah Pirkle, two black men, attempted to rape her, but were surprised and frightened away by her mother.
Within days, Forsyth County Sheriff William Reid detained these two black men, in addition to suspects Fate Chester, Johnny Bates, and Joe Rogers. All five men were placed in the small Forsyth County jail located on the Cumming town square.
After the news came out about the attack on Grice, Grant Smith, a black preacher at a local Cumming church, was heard to suggest at a barbecue that maybe she had lied about what happened, after having been caught in a consensual act with a black man. Outraged whites horse-whipped the preacher in front of the courthouse, and by the time Sheriff Reid rescued him and took him inside for safety, Smith was near death.
Despite appeals by Sheriff Reid and local ministers for a growing crowd to disperse, angry whites attempted to storm the courthouse. Deputy Sheriff Mitchell Lummus had locked Smith in the large courthouse vault and saved his life.
Nobody was ever arrested or tried for the assault on Smith.
Based on rumors that blacks at a nearby church barbecue threatened to dynamite the town, armed white men patrolled Cumming to prevent such action. Fearing a race riot, Governor Joseph Mackey Brown declared martial law and activated 23 members of the National Guard from Gainesville, Georgia, who successfully kept the peace.
Later that day, Sheriff Reid sent Smith, Howell and Pirkle, and the other three black suspects to the Cobb County jail in nearby Marietta, Georgia for safety. Fearing that a mob from Cumming was en route, Governor Brown arranged for the prisoners and Smith to be moved again for their protection, this time to the Fulton County jail in Atlanta. No mob formed in Marietta.
The police said that Toney Howell had confessed to assaulting and raping Ellen Grice. He had also implicated Pirkle was an accomplice. Howell was tried by an all-white jury (blacks were excluded as jurors because they were largely prevented from voting) and convicted in February 1913.
on September 9, 1912, Sleety Mae Crow, a white girl aged 18, was allegedly attacked in the afternoon by Ernest Cox, age 16. She was walking from home to her aunt’s house nearby on Browns Bridge Road along the Forsyth-Hall county line. Cox was said to strike her from behind and drag her down a gully in the woods. Resisting, Crow early pulled up a young dogwood tree by the roots. Cox allegedly raped the girl and struck her at least three times in the head with a large stone, crushing her skull.
When Cox allegedly told three friends what he had done, they went to see for themselves. They were Oscar Daniel, age 17; Oscar’s sister Trussie “Jane” Daniel, age 22; and Jane’s live-in boyfriend Rob “Big Rob” Edwards, age 24, a close neighbor. They were said to discuss disposing of Crow's body in the nearby Chattahoochee River, but decided that was too risky, and left her in the woods.
The next morning, searchers found Mae Crow at 9 a.m. She was half naked, covered with leaves, and lying face down in a pool of dry blood. She was still alive and breathing shallowly. At the scene of the alleged rape, searchers found a small pocket mirror that was said to belong to Ernest Cox. Police arrested him at home, taking him to the Gainesville, Georgia county jail to avoid the recent turmoil of Cumming. On the way Cox was said to freely confess to the attack.
When word spread of the attack on Crow, a white lynch mob began to form that afternoon at the Gainesville jail. At midnight officers took Cox by car to Atlanta to prevent a lynching.
Oscar and Jane Daniel, and Rob Edwards were all arrested the next day as suspects in Crow's attack, as was their neighbor Ed Collins, held as a witness. They were taken to the county jail in Cumming, where an estimated crowd of 2,000 whites had formed by the time Sheriff Reid got them to the jail.
Later that day a lynch mob of an estimated several hundred to 4,000 whites attacked the county jail. They shot and killed Edwards in his cell, then dragged his body through the streets and hanged him from a telephone pole on the Cumming town square. His body was so mutilated that early newspaper accounts identified it as Ed Collins. A deputy sheriff hid the other suspects in the alleged rape cases from the mob. Sheriff Reid had left the vicinity.
Charges against Trussie Daniel and Ed Collins were dismissed; she agreed to a plea bargain and testifying as a state witness against her brother and Ernest Knox. Knox and Oscar Daniel stood trial. Each of the youths was rapidly convicted of rape and murder by the all-white jury.
On the following day, October 4, both teenagers were sentenced to death by hanging, scheduled for October 25. State law prohibited public hangings. The scheduled execution was to be viewed only by the victim’s family, a minister, and law officers. Gallows were built off the square in Cumming. A fence erected around the gallows was burned down the night before the execution. A crowd estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000 gathered to watch what was then a public hanging of the two youths. The total county population was around 12,000 at the time.
In the following months, a small group of men called “Night Riders” terrorized black citizens, threatening them to leave in 24 hours or be killed. Those who resisted were subjected to further harassment, including shots fired into their homes, or livestock killed. Some white residents tried to stop the Night Riders, but were unsuccessful. An estimated 98% of black residents of Forsyth County left. Some property owners were able to sell, likely at a loss. The renters and sharecroppers left to seek safer places. Those who abandoned property, and failed to continue paying property tax, eventually lost it, and whites took it over. Many black properties ended up in white hands without a sale and without a legal transfer of title. The anti-black campaign spread across Northern Georgia, with similar results of whites expelling blacks in many surrounding counties.
The racial expulsion or racial cleansing from Forsyth County was among the events explored in Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings, aired on PBS in 2015 in its Independent Lens series.
Patrick Phillips of Drew University wrote Blood At The Root, A Racial Cleansing In America, about the 1912 events in Forsyth County, published in 2016. Phillips, a longtime resident of the county, said in an interview with Terry Gross, that he first heard of the racial cleansing when he arrived in the county at age seven.