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February 22, 2022

Descendants of Forsyth County’s racial cleansing in 1912 tell their stories

Descendants of the 1912 racial conflict were in attendance at a panel discussion at Poplar Hill Baptist Church in Buford on the 1912 Forsyth racial cleansing. – photo by By Scott Rogers

Conner Evans

Published: Feb 19, 2022, 10:22 PM

Few Black people, if any, lived in Forsyth County for more than five decades. 

In 1912, more than 1,000 Black residents in the county were forced out of their homes, following the lynching of Robert Edwards, who was one of three Black men accused of killing a young white girl. Two other Black men, Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel, were quickly found guilty and publicly hanged. 

Violence against the rest of the Black community near Cumming, forced a mass exodus, and few Black people lived in Forsyth County for decades. 

On Friday, Feb. 18, some of the descendants of those who lost their homes came together at Poplar Hill Baptist Church in Buford to share their stories.

“You all will never know how much this is appreciated, there’s just no way for you to know,” said Elon Osby, whose grandfather had to leave 60 acres he owned in Forsyth. Osby’s mother was 2 years old when they left. Osby said she visited the property her grandfather had owned, now a subdivision likely sold off for pennies on the dollar after he left. 

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Suwanee, who organized the event, recently introduced a resolution to recognize the lynchings in Forsyth County, calling the mass exodus that followed “an appalling racial cleansing.” 

“While this resolution cannot undo the terrible things that happened to the Black community in Forsyth in 1912, it is an important step in increasing the public’s understanding of this issue and finding ways to reconcile what was lost for many of the descendants who are here today,” Bourdeaux said. 

The painful history of Forsyth County has grown in recognition of late. “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” was published in 2016 and focuses on the 1912 events. This week, several Forsyth County churches partnered to create the Forsyth Descendants Scholarship, which offers a $10,000 four-year scholarship for applicants who are descendants of those who were forced out of Forsyth.

Durwood Snead and Adrienne Hershey, who helped start the scholarship fund, were present for the event. 

“We know that this doesn’t right any wrongs,” Hershey said. “We know that this doesn’t fix anything, but we also know that we want to take steps in the right direction to acknowledge this history and to honor the families that were affected by those events.” 

Four descendants spoke on a panel during the event, saying it was important to share their stories and remind people of the history that came before them to continue making progress.

“One of the things about history is that some of the things are kind of ugly,” said Billy Green, whose paternal grandfather was born in Cumming in 1895. “These things don’t get talked about because nobody really wants to discuss tragedies. … In these ways some of our history is lost. … It’s good I think for us to remember, as painful as it is, as hard a story as it is to tell.”

“Nightriders,” white residents who came through at night on horseback, burned down homes and churches and threw explosives into nearby buildings in 1912, according to archived reporting by the Gainesville News and Dahlonega Nugget.

Rodney Harris, who is a Gwinnett County Juvenile Court judge, said his family is buried in a Forsyth County cemetery where Black people and white people are still separated. 

The racial divide was felt for decades after, and can still be felt. James B. Nuckles used to lay brick in the county, but his father would force him and his brother to be home by sundown. 

 “Several times we did not get a chance to eat until we got back over into Fulton County,” said Nuckles, whose great-grandfather was a farmer in Forsyth. When his family was pushed out, they were also split up, he said. He still does not know relatives who live in Hall County and elsewhere in Georgia. 

Osby said she was 30 years old before she knew the details of 1912. 

“African-American parents back in that era … they didn’t talk about the bad,” Osby said. “You’re just struggling to live.”

The event allowed audience members to ask questions and speak from their hearts about how to cope with persistent racial issues. At one point a Forsyth County mother asked how panelists felt about the Forsyth County school board recently banning eight books from school libraries and continued angst over Critical Race Theory and how to teach American history. 

The main message from panelists: History cannot be forgotten, even when it’s messy. 

“We study our history, so we understand why things are the way they are now,” Bourdeaux said. “I think this is an important part of that discussion so we can heal.”

This article was originally posted by the Gainesville Times, a sister publication to Forsyth County News. 

Rodney Harris speaks Friday, Feb. 18, 2022, during a panel discussion at Poplar Hill Baptist Church in Buford on the 1912 Forsyth racial cleansing. Congresswoman Carolyn Bourdeaux held the event with descendants of the 1912 racial conflict. – photo by By Scott Rogers