1912 racial conflict in Forsyth County, Georgia

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In Forsyth County, Georgia, in September 1912 two separate attacks on white women resulted in black men being accused as suspects. One white woman accused two black men of breaking into her home in Big Creek Community and one of raping her. Another teenage woman was fatally beaten and raped in the Oscarville Community. Earnest Knox was linked to the Oscarville murder along with his half brother by a hair comb sold to him at the Oscarville store. When confronted, he confessed to the Sheriff and implicated his half brother and mother’s livein boyfriend. His mother testified against the sons during the jury trial which sentenced both to hanging. 21 days later the sentence was carried out.

In the Big Creek assault, a black preacher and his congregation drove to Cumming to demand the release of the men being held for the rape of a young girl from the Big Creek Community. He threatened to blow up the town if the man was not released. This resulted in a white counter mob showing up in confrontation. Tempers flared and the preacher was harshly beaten for having been heard to suggest that the first woman may have had a consensual relationship with a black man. The Forsyth County Sheriff locked the preacher inside the court house over night to protect him from the mob waiting outside.

Rob Edwards was arrested for the second murder and rape and was being held in the small 20x20 foot jail in Cumming. He was taken from the jail by a white mob, shot and beaten to death. His body was hanged from the telephone pole which stood near the entrance of the present City Hall. In all five blacks were charged in the second crime, and Rob Edwards who was lynched by a mob. Two youths (aged 16 and 17) in the case were convicted of rape and murder by a jury and sentenced to death by hanging.

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 from Cherokee and other nearby counties threatened and intimidated blacks. These families fled and sold their property at discounted prices with most fleeing to Hall and Gwinnett Counties. Within the next four months, an estimated 98% of the blacks living in the county had left due to Night Rider threats. Night Riders next moved on to Dawson and Hall Counties where they attempted to do the same. They were finally stopped when eleven Night Riders were arrested by the Hall County Sheriff.

This racial expulsion or racial cleansing was explored in the documentary Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings, aired on PBS in 2015 in its Independent Lens series.[1]


External audio
audio icon The 'Racial Cleansing' That Drove 1,100 Black Residents Out Of Forsyth County, Ga., 38:57, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, NPR, September 15, 2016.[2]

After the American Civil War, black slaves in the South were emancipated and granted citizenship and the franchise through constitutional amendments. But by the turn of the 20th century, all Southern states disfranchised blacks by passing constitutions and other laws to impede voter registration and voting. Georgia passed such a law in 1908, resulting in the disfranchisement of blacks in the state. In addition, the 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 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 the late 19th century, and accounts of lynchings were regularly published in the local papers, often maintaining that the blacks were responsible, guilty either of a crime or poor attitude. Lynchings were a means by whites 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 were proof that the official ban against interracial relationships was not absolute; white men had frequently crossed the line with black or mixed-race women.

Attack of Ellen Grice[edit]

Sheriff Bill Reid and Deputy Sheriff Mitchell Gay Lummus, c. 1912

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 his 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 near the Cumming, Georgia town square.

Assault on Grant Smith[edit]

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 the woman had lied about the event after having been caught in a consensual act with a black man.[citation needed] Outraged whites horse-whipped the preacher in front of the courthouse, and by the time Sheriff Reid rescued him and took him inside, 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. No one was ever arrested or tried for the assault on Smith.[2]

Whites patrol streets[edit]

Based on rumors that blacks at a nearby church barbecue threatened to dynamite the town, armed white men patrolled Cumming to prevent such action.[3] 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, Pirkle, and the other three black suspects to the Cobb County jail in nearby Marietta 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.[3]

Toney Howell convicted[edit]

The police said that Toney Howell had confessed to assaulting and raping Ellen Grice and had also implicated Pirkle as 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.[4][5]

Mae Crow assault[edit]

On September 9, 1912, Sleety Mae Crow, a white girl aged 18, was allegedly attacked in the afternoon by Ernest Knox, age 16. She was walking from home to her aunt's house nearby on Browns Bridge Road along the Forsyth-Hall county line. Knox was said to strike her from behind and drag her down a gully in the woods. Resisting, Crow pulled up a young dogwood tree by the roots. Knox allegedly raped the girl and struck her at least three times in the head with a large stone, crushing her skull.[citation needed]

Sleety Mae Crow's death has never been solved. Two African-American teenagers were falsely accused of the crime. After Knox allegedly told three friends what he had done, they went to see for themselves. They were Oscar Daniel, 17; Oscar's sister Trussie "Jane" Daniel, 22; and Jane's live-in boyfriend Robert "Big Rob" Edwards, 24, a close neighbor. They allegedly discussed disposing of Crow's body in the nearby Chattahoochee River, but reportedly decided that was too risky, leaving her in the woods. These allegations were never proven.

Arrest of Ernest Knox[edit]

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 Knox. Police arrested him at home, taking him to the Gainesville, Georgia county jail to avoid the recent turmoil of Cumming. On the way Knox, after being subjected to a "form of torture known as mock lynching", confessed to having attacked Crow.[6]:38–39

When word spread of the attack on Crow, a white lynch mob began to form that afternoon at the Gainesville jail. At midnight police officers took Knox by car to Atlanta to prevent a lynching.[6]:58

Suspects arrested; one lynched[edit]

Photo taken October 2, 1912. Although not identified by the newspaper they are believed to be: (Left to Right) Trussie (Jane) Daniel, Oscar Daniel, Tony Howell (defendant in Ellen Grice rape), Ed Collins (witness), Isaiah Pirkle (witness for Howell), and Ernest Knox

Oscar Daniel, 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. Some men gained entry and 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 Knox. Knox and Oscar Daniel stood trial. Each of the youths was quickly 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 became a public hanging of the two youths. The total county population was around 12,000 at the time.[5]

Aftermath: racial expulsion[edit]

In the following months, a small group of men called “Night Riders” terrorized black citizens, warning 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 had to abandon property, and failed to continue paying property tax, eventually lost their lands, and whites took it over.[7] Many black properties ended up in white hands without a sale and without a legal transfer of title.[7] This anti-black campaign was widespread across Appalachian Georgia, with Forsyth County being the third to expel its black population after Towns and Union,[8] whilst whites soon afterwards expelled blacks from the surrounding counties of Fannin, Gilmer and Dawson.[5]

Representation in other media[edit]

The racial expulsion or cleansing of Forsyth County was among the events explored in Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings, aired on PBS in 2015 in its Independent Lens series.[1]

Patrick Phillips of Drew University wrote Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing In America (2016) about the 1912 events in Forsyth County. 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.[2][6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings, 2015, Independent Lens, PBS; accessed 25 July 2016
  2. ^ a b c "The 'Racial Cleansing' That Drove 1,100 Black Residents Out Of Forsyth County, Ga". Fresh Air. NPR. September 15, 2016. Retrieved September 20, 2016.
  3. ^ a b "Forsyth County - articles". www.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 2017-12-10.
  4. ^ "The Atlanta Constitution from Atlanta, Georgia on September 8, 1912 · Page 1". Newspapers.com. Retrieved 2017-12-10.
  5. ^ a b c Bramblett, Annette (2002-10-01). Forsyth County: History Stories, The Making of America Series. Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. pp. 143–147. ISBN 978-0-7385-2386-6.
  6. ^ a b c Phillips, Patrick (September 2016). Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 304. ISBN 9780393293029. Retrieved December 27, 2016.
  7. ^ a b Jaspin, Elliot (2007-03-05). Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America. New York, New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-03636-3.
  8. ^ Loewen, James W.; Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, p. 179 ISBN 9781565848870

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