Race relations: Be honest about the past

February 18, 2017 GMT

Inspiration for his book, "Blood at the Root," came from a question from a friend, according to author and poet Patrick Phillips.

Phillips was the featured speaker at One Community United’s Hearts United Gathering II event Friday evening at Rome First United Methodist Church. He talked about his book and the reasons why he wanted to shed light on the history of Forsyth County’s race relations.

"My friend Natasha Trethewey and I were at a conference and we were riding in a taxi and she asked me a very direct question," Phillips said. "She asked me why she wrote about blackness as a woman of mixed race, but I as a white man never wrote about whiteness. She asked me, ‘Why do you think you are not involved?’"

This question started him on a quest to find the truth behind the stories he had grown up hearing.

Phillips and his family moved to Cumming in 1977 and he was raised in Forsyth County. When he moved there, he was startled by the lack of people of color in the county.

"I was 7 at the time, and I saw a lot of open and unabashed racism," he said. "I asked why there were no people of color in the county and my classmates told me the story of a white girl who was raped and murdered by three black men in 1912."

Phillips then recounted the time in 1987 when the entire world turned to Forsyth County during the civil rights march held in 1987 by Hosea Williams.

"I was 16 then," he said. "I remember arriving late and walking through my town square where I’d bought my first baseball glove and had lunch with my family after church on Sundays. I ran into a group of KKK members celebrating the fact that they’d surrounded the marchers and thrown rocks and bottles and stopped the march."

Fast forward two decades later, Phillips had the conversation with Trethewey and decided he would learn the truth behind the 1912 story of the 1,098 African Americans ran out of Forsyth County, forced to leave their land, which was overtaken by white community members.

He searched records and newspaper clippings and archives and chronicled his findings — which revealed misconceptions and untruths about the tale.

"People always said the KKK did the chasing out, but that wasn’t true," he said. "This was done by people in the community. The allegations against the three men were tried in a kangaroo court. The archives tell a very different story from the stories told by everyone I grew up with."

Writing the book won him a few harsh critics, he admitted.

"Many want to know why I am dredging up the past," he said. "So many want to let bygones be bygones, but you can’t do that. I challenge everyone to delve into the history of their hometowns. I know talking about race relations can seem like a minefield in 2017, but it has to be done."

Ignoring the past is not a way to improve things, he added.

"Before, I thought I was being respectful and polite, but I wasn’t," he said. "I was being woefully and dangerously incurious."

Now, seeing things from a perspective of a white man who did investigate the past of the town he grew up in, Phillips said he sees things much more clearly.

"I shake my head at my former timidity," he said. "Writing this book gave me a glimmer of hope that the truth can overcome."

Today from 9 to 11:30 a.m., there will be a town hall and breakfast with Phillips at Lovejoy Baptist Church, 436 Branham Ave. Participants are invited to ask questions and discuss what they learned from the presentation that will help Rome and Floyd County move forward in race relations.