Racial cleansings have occurred in America at various instances throughout history. But in 1912, an incident in Forsyth County, Ga. is remembered as the largest case of Black expulsion ever recorded.
Back in September of that year, two white women were attacked at separate intervals, allegedly by Black residents of the predominately white county. Ellen Grice, a 22-year-old wife of a farmer, claimed that Toney Howell and Isaiah Pirkle attempted to sexually assault her. The men were arrested along with three other suspects.
Grant Smith, a Black preacher at a church in the town of Cumming, was rumored saying that Grice was lying about the attempted rape and that act was consensual. This was based on an unspoken but well-known fact that white men often crossed the race line to bed Black women.
White mobs whipped Smith in front of the courthouse nearly to the point of death. Smith was protected by a white deputy sheriff at the courthouse after he was locked in the prison vault. Neither Howell nor Pirkle ever faced trial and charges were dropped based on lack of evidence. But Howell later confessed to the crime and named Pirkle as his accomplice. After facing an all-white jury, Howell was convicted.
The tensions of that event had barely cooled when rumors went around that Black church members were considering bombing Cumming. Armed white vigilantes began rounding up Black citizens, and Gov. Joseph Brown declared martial law, thus activating the National Guard to keep the peace.
On September 9, 1912, a white 18-year-old girl was allegedly attacked by Black teenager Ernest Cox. Cox reportedly struck the young woman from behind, then assaulted her before killing her. Cox told three of his friends what he did, who were all arrested after police found evidence at the scene. Police knew that taking Cox to the Cumming jail was a recipe for disaster so they took him to Gainesville instead. After an angry crowd formed at the jail, Cox was shipped to Atlanta.
Around 4,000 mob members attacked the Cumming jail and snatched one of Cox’s friends, killing him, then dragging him through the town. Cox and a friend were both sentenced to death by hanging, which was witnessed publicly.
Night Riders began patrolling the streets of Forsyth County, ordering over 800 Black and 400 mixed race citizens to leave their homes or face violence. Homes and buildings were torched and many Black landowners had to sell their property or else face death in some cases.
Driving out Black residents was so effective that even today Forsyth County is largely white and unwelcome to outsiders. The county has been the site of several protests. In fact, much of Northern Georgia went through a similar forced exodus.
A PBS documentary Banished was done on Forsyth, Georgia and other racial cleansings.
PHOTO: Public Domain, via PBS