By Charlotte Brockway
“Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America” is a work of nonfiction written by Patrick Phillips, Associate Professor of English, which details the events that happen in 1912 Forsyth County, Cumming, Georgia, when the entire black population, 1100 people, were run out by white terrorists, night riders who used arson, gunfire and dynamite. The book is a largely forgotten history and has to do with the racial cleansing of the time period. Phillips, who is a poet, National Book Award Finalist and, with the publication of his first nonfiction work–a historian, details the events that inspired him to reexamine his hometown’s history and includes the reasons why this impacts Drew students given the increased attention of Drew and the media on racial conflicts. As of this year, Drew has been ranked as one of the Top 10 best race/class interactions by the Princeton Review.
“The book really grew out of my fascination and interest with a very dark and troubling period in the racial history of my hometown,” said Phillips, “it really gets into a kind of hour by hour account of what happened during this period of violence. But it’s also about the long shadow cast by those events. In terms of relevance to today, I think a lot of people have a desire, particularly in the white community, to think of this kind of episode as something from the distant past. But this racial band carried on into the 1990s. So when I was in High School there, I lived in-what was known as a ‘white county’. And like black delivery men, truck drivers, black employees would not go across the county line because they knew it was at risk of serious violence. And that was chewing the seventies, when my parents moved there. It was chewed through the eighties. My family were part of a Civil Rights march in 1987, where my mother and father and sister were attacked by a mob, who were angry at this peace-march.
I guess, part of the relevance is to say some of this is not very far back at all, it’s much more recent than we like to think. The story is also largely about a failure of the Legal System. A failure of Law Enforcement. This is how these events really unfolded in 1912. There were white terrorists who committed these crimes and were not prosecuted and did not face any real legal ramifications for their actions and I can’t help but look at the headlines and the episodes in Ferguson, Charlotte, and Charleston and realize that, particularly around the issue of police violence, that I think what the Black Lives Matter Movement is largely growing out of is very deep frustration at the perception and often the reality that there’s a part of our population whose actions seems to be above the Law, in a lot of places. I think the book is relevant to all of that in that it tries to get into the very, very long history of that, not just with what’s happening today but with a lot of this frustration that goes back generations in the Black community.”
The book was enabled by things that Phillips learned how to do in college, graduate school and in a doctoral program in English Literature.
“I had heard the legend of this racial cleansing,” said Phillips, “but it was always told in very mythic, vague terms. I had always been lead to believe that the real facts were unknowable, that it was too far back in the mists of time, that no one would really find out what actually happened and you couldn’t know names and dates and places. At a certain point, about eight years ago, I realized I had always wanted to find the book on the shelf that would tell the truth about what really happened and there was no such book. I finally came to the realization that if I wanted that story, I was gonna have to find it myself, that nobody else was gonna write it. That’s really what lead to the start of this project.
“But, I had no idea that when I was in an English Department as an undergrad or that when I was doing a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry and then I did a PhD in Renaissance Literature 17th Century British that any of that was preparation for a work like this. I was developing some skills at delving into the past, reading and very old documents, many things that were overlooked. This project involved a lot of time in the National Archives, at local history centers in the basements of the Forsyth County Courthouse. Essentially, it was a reading project. It involved finding the story that was scattered all over the place and assembling all of those pieces so I didn’t know it, but I was practicing all of that as an English major.”
Phillips’ doctoral work was on the Bubonic Plague of 17th Century London.
“The connection in my mind,” said Phillips, “is that both of those events–the racial violence in Georgia 1917 and the Plague outbreaks in 1603–traces of them are written traces and the way to know more about them is to look at primary sources and documents. I was looking at Plague roles and diaries, Plague orders. I was just interested in all that’s left from the culture surrounding Plague time London. I use a metaphor in the book where I say that using online databases and realizing how many libraries were digitizing their collections, when I was doing this graduate work, I came to think of the Internet as this hubble telescope that was aimed into the past. And we usually think that things in the past get hardier and hardier to know as you go forward in time, but technology is actually making the opposite true where it’s possible to know more and more as time passes and as more and more things are digitized and put up on the web, you can know more than you could twenty years ago.
“That whole experience was me taking that exact same skill set and just adjusting it to 1912, in my hometown and suddenly I found a trove of information and documentation about what happened that I didn’t really know had existed. I’m deeply connected to the subject matter. I grew up there. I was astonished to realize that my own history of home was profoundly wrong about a lot things and there’s a lot that I did not know. Personally, the experience has been amazing in that I’ve gotten to know the descendents of some of the families who were forced out. So there was this vanished African-American population who are from where I’m from and I found it to be a really astonishing and incredibly hopeful and heartening to make friends with some of the descendents of these people and connect across that racial divide.”
Patrick Phillips will be doing a reading of his book on Oct. 17, under the Writers@Drew event. Students can also go to his website at Patrickphillipsbooks.com for more information.