Racists Once Terrorized This Georgia County. Diversity Made It Prosper.
"The slow return of diversity to an area that brutally drove out its Black residents has been accompanied by a boom that gives the lie to “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories.
CUMMING, Ga. — In October 1912, after the raped and brutalized body of Mae Crow, a white 18-year-old, was laid to rest beside the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, the white men of Forsyth County went on a rampage, driving its 1,098 Black citizens — about 10 percent of the population — from Forsyth’s borders.
They had already dragged 24-year-old Rob Edwards, a Black man, from a jail cell in the Cumming town square, beaten him with crowbars, riddled his corpse with bullets and hoisted him over a telephone pole yardarm. Two Black teens, Ernest Knox, 16, and Oscar Daniel, 18, would hang after the most specious of trials.
But the citizens of this county north of Atlanta were not done. For much of the 20th century, they would guard Forsyth’s borders as the city to the south encroached, through violence, intimidation and a menacing understanding in Greater Atlanta that this county was to remain for whites only.
The people who drove Forsyth’s Black residents from their homes and farms had no name for their hatred, no “Great Replacement” or “White Genocide” theories. But the notion that other races were plotting to “replace” the rightful inhabitants of the county took murderous form more than a century ago, said Patrick Phillips, whose attention-getting 2016 book “Blood at the Root” chronicled the racial cleansing of the county he grew up in — and his own awakening to the fact of his all-white childhood.
A small group of Black farmers were starting to prosper, acquire land and outdo some of their white neighbors, Mr. Phillips said.
They had to go.
If those who carried out mass shootings in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, El Paso and Christchurch, New Zealand, showed how deadly such beliefs could be in the hands of a single, well-armed killer, the Forsyth County of 1912 showed what a more organized operation of terror could accomplish.
But a century later, Forsyth County also refutes white supremacists who believe that, as Payton Gendron, the charged Buffalo gunman, put it: “Diversity is not a strength.” The county’s whites-only century was one of stagnation and isolation. Only after the sprawl of Greater Atlanta eventually overwhelmed Forsyth’s defenses in the late 1990s and 2000s did this county boom.
“It put a stigma on Forsyth County for many, many years, and for some, it still exists,” said Jason May, 48, the white owner of a real estate company just off the Cumming town square.
And booming it is.
Its population is now over 260,000 — up from 45,000 when the vestiges of all-white Forsyth began falling away. The Black population, at 2.2 percent in 2000, is still only 4.4 percent — Alpharetta, just over the Fulton County line, is 12 percent Black. But other demographic groups have grown substantially, including immigrants. Asians, particularly Indian Americans, represent 15.5 percent, and Hispanics 9.7 percent. Household median income, at $112,834, just surpassed Calvert County, Md., to become the 13th highest in the country. It was $44,162 in 1993, or $89,500 in current dollars.
“Diversity can never be bad in my book; I’m sorry,” said Barbra Curtiss, 71, a white businesswoman whose real estate company off the Cumming town square includes a banner welcoming her newest agent, Maria Zaragosa, along with “Spanglish” services. “Diversity — it’s just like death and taxes. You’re not going to be able to stop it, no matter what. No matter how much hate speech, how many mass shootings, it’s not going to stop.”
Ms. Curtiss, who moved to Forsyth County in 1984, knew of its whites-only status while living in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, when her husband at the time — a “racist,” she said — wanted to move to an all-white county. Three years later, in 1987, a small group of local and Atlanta-based civil rights activists, led by Hosea Williams, boarded buses from Atlanta for Forsyth County to mark the 75th anniversary of the Black expulsion. They were met with confederate flags and signs proclaiming “Racial Purity is Forsyth’s Security” and “Forsyth Stays White.” And when they tried to march into Cumming, they were pelted with stones, bottles and bricks, until they retreated to their buses, back to Atlanta.
A few weeks later, this time with national media attention, helicopters overhead, and a phalanx of National Guardsmen clearing their path, the marchers returnedin far larger numbers — this time with Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young and Oprah Winfrey, to name a few.
Among the marchers was Miguel Marcelli, a Black Atlanta firefighter, who in 1980 had made the mistake of joining his girlfriend’s company picnic on the Forsyth County banks of Lake Lanier, and nearly paid with his life after the couple was ambushed as they headed home. They were less than a mile from the grave of Mae Crow. In November 1986, five Hispanic construction workers were beaten and told they would be killed if they didn’t leave the county immediately.
Yet for all the publicity, Forsyth remained nearly all white. Ms. Curtiss recalled her first nonwhite customer, “a little Hispanic guy” in the early 2000s, who came to her after other real estate brokers refused their services.
“All I remember was that it was heart-wrenching, because he said nobody else would give him the time of day,” she said.
Tony Shivers, 72, remembers exactly when the first Black man was hired by the town of Cumming: It was 30 years ago, and he was that man. He was laying pipe for a contractor in Cumming; the city liked his work, and took him on at the water treatment plant. There was a sign outside the sheriff’s office, warning Black people — using a racial slur — that they had better not be caught by the dogcatcher in Forsyth County after dark.
His friends in Atlanta had told him he was crazy to go to Forsyth County, and he said he remembered incidents when he was told to go back where he belonged. But he had been in the Marines. He wasn’t going to be intimidated.
Many in the county do not know the its history. Ms. Zaragosa said she was unaware of the county’s past. Instead, she struck a note that many others here do: “Our main focus is on business,” she said, just two months into her job at the real estate agency, which, like others, advertises: “Se habla Español.”
For others, the stories are inescapable. The county has not tried to bury its history: A plaque on the Cumming town square tells the story of Mr. Edward’s lynching and the racial cleansing that followed.
“The loss of Black-owned property in order to flee arbitrary mob violence was common during this era, and Forsyth’s Black residents left behind their homes and farms to escape, taking with them only what they could carry,” it reads.
Indeed, much of Forsyth’s per capita wealth was generated by the vast run-up in value of properties that had sat in the possession of Forsyth’s old families for a century — much of that property taken from someone else.
Outside Cherians International Fresh Market, an Asian grocery store on Cumming’s outskirts, Avani Vallabhaneni spoke to the perseverance of Forsyth’s newcomers. When she and her husband arrived 12 years ago, she said, she heard neighbors stage-whispering behind her back that she should go back to where she came from. Her husband, who travels for work, once showed his business card to a knowing Georgian, who marveled that he lived in Cumming.
But she had her two children in Forsyth County, and the Indian population has grown so much, she said, that she does not hear those whispers anymore.
Others do still hear similar whispers today, however — though race is not necessarily the irritant.
Like the Rev. Bogdan Maruszak, the pastor of a small flock of immigrants. He started his Ukrainian Orthodox Church in a trailer, on a plot of land outside Cumming, in 2000, bringing together Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians and others, all of them white, to forbidding territory in North Georgia, where he made ends meet opening a body shop. He knew vaguely of Forsyth’s history.
“I was thinking about it, but I wasn’t nervous,” the Ukrainian-Polish immigrant said over iced tea and lemonade just over the Fulton County line in Johns Creek.
With the war in Ukraine heightening fears of genocide and the mass shooting in Buffalo focusing attention on “white replacement,” Rev. Maruszak said, it is incumbent on all of Forsyth County, not only its newcomers, to speak out, and to speak up for those who are threatened.
“We cannot be passively observing,” he said. “We can do something. We should react.”
That can’t be taken for granted, said Mr. Phillips, the author of “Blood at the Root.”
Forsyth’s progress and its remarkable prosperity may be proof that white supremacy is a hindrance, he said, but the county should not be credited with the epiphany. Atlanta’s sprawl spread steadily northward until the wave “finally broke over Forsyth County,” he said.
“What you would like to believe,” Mr. Phillips said, “is that there was some moral change, that people saw the error of their ways, and a light switch clicked.”
But that, he said, isn’t what happened."