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Johnny Vardeman: Hall County has a key role in story of Forsyths racial history
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Hall County figures prominently in the book, “Blood at the Root — a Racial Cleansing in America.”

The book, which has gained national notoriety, is by Patrick Phillips, a writer who spent his youth in Forsyth County and witnessed the civil rights marches in 1987.

Some longtime Forsyth County residents might resent the racial incidents being raised again. But it is history and probably the most comprehensive look back at the county’s dark days as ever has been published.

There had been some racial tension in Forsyth County, as well as other counties throughout the state, prior to September 1912 when the pot boiled over. A white woman accused some blacks of assaulting her. Suspects were arrested, and a mob demanded they be turned over to them instead of waiting for a trial. A black minister was horsewhipped when he tried to intervene outside the courthouse.

That incident stirred up a crowd of blacks, who began to march to the courthouse, but retreated before an armed white mob.

Where Hall County comes in, the Candler Horse Guards, part of the Georgia Militia at the time, was called in to restore order and prevent violence. When the armed Horse Guards, along with other state militia, appeared, most of the whites went home, though not happy with the state’s intervention. The militia escorted the suspects to a Marietta jail to await trial.

That incident in early September 1912, however, was just the start of it. A week later, a white woman, Mae Crow, from a prominent family, was assaulted, and three black suspects were arrested. Before they could be tried, one of them was dragged out of jail and strung up on a utility pole on the Cumming square.

Mae Crow lived for a few days, but after she died, the violence intensified. Black churches were burned, along with many homes. Some white night riders had begun harassing black families to the point that they left Forsyth County by the hundreds. Many fled to Hall County, where they were accommodated, for the most part.

Sheriff William Crow of Hall County, a distant relative of Mae Crow, went to Forsyth County to assist in the investigation. The Hall County lawman also helped rescue a black suspect in the case after a mob threatened to lynch him. The suspect was taken to the Hall County jail in Gainesville, where a crowd of whites from Hall and Forsyth counties gathered. Fearing they would break into the jail, sheriff’s officers later spirited him away to the more secure Fulton County jail.

Among the hundreds of blacks fleeing to Hall County were some from prominent families. The Rev. Byrd Oliver, his wife Delia and their seven children were among a group of 75 traveling together. However, his wife and some of the children became separated before they crossed the Chattahoochee River, and where they ended up is undetermined.

The minister became prominent in Hall County, with his second wife, Beulah Rucker Oliver, famously establishing a school for blacks. The author of the book quotes from an article in The Times, who interviewed his daughter, the late Dorothy Rucker, about what her father had told her about the family’s exodus from Forsyth County. Dorothy Rucker became a school teacher and active in several Hall County organizations.

Another refugee from Forsyth County was Levi Greenlee Jr., whose father had established one of the churches that night riders burned. His son, the late T.J. Greenlee, operated a funeral home in Gainesville for many years.

A Savannah newspaper headlined a story about the black exodus from Forsyth County, “Gainesville Invaded.” The influx of so many new blacks in Hall County raised racial tensions, an example being when a white crowd demanded black workers on a downtown building leave. Several whites were arrested, and the blacks went back to work.

A black worker was dragged off a train by a white crowd when it stopped in Flowery Branch, but he was rescued by a white train employee.

Night riders in Hall County harassed blacks, but other whites came to their defense, and Sheriff Crow actively pursued the whites responsible. Phillips puts Hall County in a better light for acting against white night riders.

Hall County didn’t escape racial discord, however, as a few years later, whites tried to run blacks out of the northern part of the county. Again, whites in that area came to blacks’ defense, though many blacks eventually left.

A Hall Countian played a key role in the dramatic change in Forsyth’s reputation as a “whites only” county. Dean Carter and Hosea Williams, a black civil rights activist, led the first protest march in Forsyth County in January 1987 when they were pelted by counterprotesters with rocks and bottles.

The next week a second march featuring prominent civil rights activists attracted more than 20,000 protesters from all over the country, far outnumbering counterprotesters. It seemed to send a message that blacks should have no worries about traveling through, working or living in Forsyth County. Unlike the past, blacks are a common part of the community today.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.