Racial cleansings at one time was the norm in America. The cleansings happened so often that many people expected it was just a way of life. However, in 1912, an incident in Forsyth County, Ga. is remembered as the largest case of Black expulsion ever recorded.
In September of that year, two white women were attacked at separate intervals, allegedly by Black residents of the predominately white county. Ellen Grice, a 22-year-old wife of a farmer, claimed that Toney Howell and Isaiah Pirkle attempted to sexually assault her. The men were arrested along with three other suspects.
Grant Smith, a Black preacher at a church in the town of Cumming, allegedly said that Grice was lying and that the attempted rape was actually a consensual interaction between Grice and the men. This was based on an unspoken but well-known fact that white men often crossed the race line to bed Black women.
White mobs formed and whipped Smith in front of the courthouse nearly to the point of death. Smith was protected by a white deputy sheriff at the courthouse after he was locked in the prison vault. Neither Howell nor Pirkle ever faced trial and charges were dropped based on lack of evidence. But Howell later confessed to the crime and named Pirkle as his accomplice. After facing an all-white jury, Howell was convicted.
The tensions of that event had barely cooled when rumors went around that Black church members were considering bombing Cumming. Armed white vigilantes began rounding up Black citizens, and Gov. Joseph Brown declared martial law, thus activating the National Guard to keep the peace.
On September 9, 1912, a white 18-year-old girl was allegedly attacked by Black teenager Ernest Cox. Cox reportedly struck the young woman from behind, then assaulted her before killing her. Cox told three of his friends what he did, who were all arrested after police found evidence at the scene. Police knew that taking Cox to the Cumming jail was dangerous, so he was taken to Gainesville instead. After an angry crowd formed at the jail, he was shipped to Atlanta.
Around 4,000 mob members attacked the Cumming jail and snatched one of Cox’s friends, killing him, then dragging him through the town. Cox and a friend were both sentenced to death by hanging, which was witnessed publicly. Night Riders patrolled the streets of Forsyth County, ordering over 800 Black and 400 mixed race citizens to leave their homes or face violence. Homes and buildings were torched and many Black landowners had to sell their property or else face death in some cases.
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