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Johnny Vardeman: North Georgia had its share of racial discord in years past
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Recent remarks by a Georgia legislator defending the Ku Klux Klan dredges the memory of some dark days in the state’s history.

Many are familiar with the almost total absence of blacks from Forsyth and Dawson counties until just about three decades ago. The unwritten, but sometimes actually written, message to blacks was “Don’t let the sun set on you in Forsyth County.” Blacks feared riding through those counties in that era.

Blacks left Forsyth County pretty much en masse in 1912 following the conviction and hanging of two black men accused of raping a white woman. The Ku Klux Klan took credit for running them off.

In 1987, the late civil rights activist Hosea Williams led a march on a rural Forsyth County road. Scores of whites pelted the marchers with rocks and bottles and generally harassed them out of the county. A week later, civil rights marchers from all over the country staged a protest march that numbered anywhere from 14,000 to 20,000.

Ever since, blacks have returned to Forsyth and Dawson counties to peacefully live, work and play.

While those incidents in North Georgia’s racial history are fresh in the memory for many, it isn’t generally known that a similar incident happened in north Hall County and southern White and Lumpkin counties in late 1920 and early 1921. Whites ran most of the blacks out of those sections.

Trouble had been brewing between the races for about six months. A headline in the Gainesville News read, “Racial Trouble Acute in Upper Hall.” Signs began to be posted warning blacks to leave. Black homes, as well as a church and school were burned; black graves were vandalized. Some of the incidents, including shootings, occurred in the area of Dewberry Baptist Church No. 2, which today sits on U.S. 129 just south of Quillians Corner.

Many blacks did leave north Hall County, settled in Gainesville or south into Jackson County, finding jobs or sharecropping. Those who stayed were defended by their white landlords, who posted guards around their black workers’ homes.

The situation became so tense, however, that Gov. Hugh Dorsey sent in some state militia to protect the blacks. Sheriff W.A. Crow made some arrests; a Hall County grand jury would investigate the disturbances, but didn’t mention them in their presentments.

That probably was because things began to settle down with the presence of state authorities. “There’s no place outside of the gang for bad white men as well as Negroes,” the Gainesville News wrote.

The Ku Klux Klan wasn’t mentioned in any of the news articles about the trouble, but held rallies and parades in North Georgia over the years, some in recent memory.

The trouble wasn’t quite over between blacks and whites, as a later incident demonstrated. A white man hired two black men in a car they used as a taxi to take him to Shallowford Road at the Chattahoochee River. When he asked them to stop the car, he shot them both, one of them dying, and took the car.

This was one case where swift justice prevailed. A second man had joined the white suspect, and they were caught before boarding a train at the depot in Ellijay. The two had stolen a goose and a mule in Dawson County and sold the stolen car for $40.

The two white men were taken back to Hall County, where the one who shot the two blacks was tried within three weeks and sentenced to life in prison.

• • •

At least one of the current presidential candidates suggested deporting all illegal immigrants from the United States immediately.

In 1908, Dr. E.W. Watkins of Ellijay, running for Congress against Rep. Tom Bell, the incumbent from Hall County, proposed deporting all blacks to the Philippines. At the time, 8 million blacks lived in the United States. Bell said it would cost $287 million and take 370 years to accomplish that, but he would be against it anyway.

The two were running for the Democratic nomination, Bell easily winning by 12,000 votes, carrying all but one county in the district, that being Watkins’ home county of Gilmer, which Watkins won by eight votes.

Bell, early in his career, had opposed immigration to Georgia of people from other countries, fearing they would take local residents’ jobs.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.