I checked BLOOD AT THE ROOT: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips (cover design by Gregg Kulick) out of the library because I thought it might be useful reading for Southern Discomfort. It is, so much so I might pick up my own copy. It’s also very good, though very grim.
The author’s family moved to Forsyth County Georgia when he was in second grade, and lived there for years. Phillips noticed the complete absence of blacks in the county, and learned that years earlier, the white residents had run them out. As an adult professor, he decided to research it, hence this book.
It’s ugly reading. In 1912, someone murdered Mae Crow, a white woman; a black youth confessed (it was that or get lynched) and was hung with a couple of friends (odds are, they were innocent). The whites then began driving black residents out by the usual terrorist tactics and threats, over the objections of the wealthier farmers (where would the farm labor come from?) and town families (who had black servants they cared about). They maintained the ban for most of the century, intimidating or threatening blacks who tried moving in, visited the parks, or simply drove through with a white employer. While of course insisting that this was perfectly reasonable, perfectly legal, and besides the 1912 attacks were just outside agitators, the KKK (who wouldn’t form their second incarnation for another three years), not the decent folk of Forsyth County, Ga.
I’ve heard of similar things before, enough that it didn’t shock me (though it did horrify me). But Phillips isn’t describing an abstract process, he’s putting names and faces to the victims, which gives the book much more bite. I highly recommend it (and yes, it is unsettling to realize the people who think like Forsyth did — it’s no longer all white — have just seen a resurgence).
And while it’s taking place 60 years before Southern Discomfort (which is set in ’73), it’s stimulating lots of thoughts (I feel slightly grotesque discussing my writing in the same post as an American ethnic cleansing, but here goes). Most obviously, this couldn’t have happened that far from where fictitious Pharisee is located; when black residents talk about how the McAlisters protected them, they’re probably thinking of shit like this (as well as the more mundane lynching and abuse). One of the characters will probably cite Forsyth as an example of being better off. And as my beta reader Michele Berger said, a place in the south where it was safe for black travelers to stop would have been a magnet, for both blacks driving cross-country, and people wanting to move in. Maybe even some Forsyth County black exiles. So I need to consider those aspects.
There’s also a lot of stuff in the book about railroads, the Cherokee, the growth of the area, the impact of tractors (which made it possible to get by without black farm hands) and the transition to an Atlanta suburb that will be useful as I work on sharpening my setting.
I also realized that an option I’d considered — Pharisee County is all white — isn’t anywhere near as big a stretch as I thought (I know all-white enclaves and towns existed, but from what I’ve read they occurred mostly outside the South, in areas that didn’t have Jim Crow to keep blacks in line). But that makes Pharisee far more unpleasant, racially, than I want. Plus, while it would be easier to deal with an all-white cast, “easier” isn’t a good reason for having an all-white cast. So, no.
Even if you don’t happen to be writing a fantasy set in Georgia in the late 20th century, Blood at the Root is worth reading.