Please enjoy our series of interviews with each of the finalists for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. For your chance to win a copy of Blood at the Root, follow @bookistreader on Twitter and tweet the link to this interview by midnight CST tonight (December 15, 2016) using the hashtag #Carnegie2017giveaway. We’ll announce the winner on December 16 on Twitter. For information about the other ways were celebrating this year’s Carnegie Medal finalists, click here.
Noted poet and journalist Patrick Phillips’ first nonfiction book, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, is a harrowing chronicle of the white-on-black violence that happened in Forsyth County, Georgia, at the turn of the twentieth century—events that feel eerily contemporary and all-too relevant. He recently spoke to us about the book and how his background influenced his writing.
REBECCA VNUK: A unique facet of this story is that you grew up in Forsyth County. Was it difficult to write about the place where you grew up, or do you feel that your personal insight made some things about the process easier?
PATRICK PHILLIPS: Being from Forsyth certainly had advantages, and it meant that I was deeply familiar with the mythology of white Forsyth. All my life, I’d heard a vague, legendary story of Forsyth’s racial cleansing, and perhaps that made me even more determined to try to replace it with the truth. Unlike a writer from somewhere else, I’ve been thinking about this story since I was seven years old, and wondering what really happened.
I think being local also helped me when I was interviewing longtime residents. I could always begin by talking about my second grade teacher, Mrs. Holtzclaw, who taught generations of kids at Cumming Elementary. I could tell them that I got my first baseball glove at Benson’s Sporting Goods, and that I grew up riding dirt bikes with Billy Mashburn’s boys, out on Brown’s Bridge Road. That kind of thing put people at ease, and often led them to assume that we agreed on the subject of race. I have no doubt that this got some people to open up to me in ways they might not have for “an outsider.”
At the same time, being from the county also made me very aware of the risks. In 1980, when I was 10, an African American firefighter named Miguel Marcelli was shot just a few miles from our house, and I remember how furious people got when my mother went around asking questions. In 1987, when I was 16, I saw men with nooses parading around the town square, and heard them chanting “White Power.” So while being a former resident had its upsides, it also made me very conscious that I was breaking my home’s most powerful taboo, and might become a target for some dangerous people. That may sound like an exaggeration, but anyone from Forsyth County will understand.
Tell us a bit about your research methods. You note that you were able to speak with some descendants of those driven out of Forsyth County—how did you track then down?
My greatest resource for finding descendants was Ancestry.com. In the 1940s and 50s, the Mormon church sent people all over the nation to photograph and microfilm courthouse records, and now those records have now been digitized and indexed. Ancestry.com allowed me to construct elaborate family trees for almost every individual who was named in newspaper accounts from 1912. I sent dozens of messages, asking other Ancestry users if they were related to the people in their trees, and if so, whether they’d ever heard stories about Forsyth. I also relied on the 1910 county census and the “Colored Tax Rolls” from 1912, which helped me reconstruct Forsyth’s banished African American community.
At a certain point I realized that as rich as the digital archives were, they left out far too much. That’s when I started taking trips back home. In the basement of the county courthouse I found the deeds to black churches that had burned to the ground in 1912. And using land lot numbers, I was able to go out and walk the land and see those places today. Talking with descendants also helped me recover parts of the story that simply do not exist in the written archives, since many of the Forsyth refugees were illiterate.
In hindsight, this might sound like a straight line from research to book, but it involved a lot of wrong turns and dead-ends; far more red herrings than eureka moments. But there is a lot to be said for hustle, and at a certain point I decided that I would search for every scrap I could find, and not try to make sense of it all until I had a gathered a mountain of evidence. I scanned and photographed every document I found, and used a research and writing program called Scrivener to tame the ever-growing collection.
Then, when I finally sat down to write, I was amazed at just how much primary material I had. I used to think that the truth about 1912 was buried, but it turns out that it was only scattered—and had been waiting a hundred years for someone to bring the pieces back together.
Blood at the Root portrays the terrible things that have been done throughout American history to people of color. Given the current state of this country’s politics, what hopes (or fears) do you have for the future?
As I was working on the book, it was impossible not to hear echoes of 1912 in our own recent newspaper headlines. The man lynched in Forsyth, Rob Edwards, was widely known as “Big Rob,” and around the time that I was learning about him, my New York Times arrived with the story of Michael Brown being killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. I couldn’t help but notice how many of his neighbors referred to their lost friend as “Big Mike.”
What horrified me most about the seemingly endless stream of videos of police killing African American men was the frequent failure of our legal system to engage at all. This, too, seemed terribly familiar, given everything I’d learned about the waves of white terror that transformed Forsyth. The racial cleansing of 1912 was made possible by a profoundly biased legal system, and my research showed just how little state intervention it would have taken to stop the violence.
In neighboring Hall County, for example, a series of arrests managed to stop the very first night riders, who in 1912 tried to create a “whites only” county there too. But officials in Hall jailed white terrorists, convicted them in court, and printed their names in the paper for all to see. The sheriff of Hall County proudly declared that he had “stopped this thing in its infancy.” By contrast, there is not a single record of a warrant or arrest during the waves of lynching, arson, and shootings in Forsyth, and the local papers called them the work of “persons of unknown.”
All of this has convinced me that while it would be wonderful to change the hearts and minds of all white Americans, a more realistic way forward is to actually enforce our laws equally. Recent police acquittals—and failures to indict—suggest that just as in Forsyth in 1912, there are cops in America who operate as if they are exempt from the law. . . which indeed some of them seem to be. So my hope, above all, is that we begin fairly prosecuting and convicting those who commit violent crimes against African Americans, even (and especially) when the shooters carry a badge.
My liberal, activist parents raised me to believe in progress: the idea that each day America gets a little more just, and that each day we move a little closer to racial equality. But I no longer believe that, because I’ve seen how many black families in Forsyth were better off in 1868—when they had a Federal Freedman’s Bureau office on the town square—than they were in 1912, when the local sheriff was a Klansman named Bill Reid.
All of this makes me fear for the future, particularly as we enter the age of Donald Trump. This is not the first time in American history that the gears of progress have been thrown into reverse, and not the first time that angry white men have celebrated the election of a racist—as they did when Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913. In such dangerous times, my only hope is that more white Americans will wake from their sleep of ignorance and indifference, and actively fight against the bigotry that has now, once again, spread to the highest reaches of our government.