Book Examines Towns that Forced Out Blacks
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Human rights advocates use the term racial cleansing to describe what happens when one group forces another out of a community, usually by force or even genocide. Elliot Jaspin's controversial new book, "Buried in the Bitter Waters," looks into 12 incidents of racial cleansing in America in the first decades of the 20th century.
Jaspin's work has gotten him in hot water. His employer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wouldn't even run part of what he'd written. Jaspin told NPR's Tony Cox that he got interested in racial cleansing eight years ago after visiting a small town in Arkansas that once had slaves.
Jaspin noticed that generations later the town was virtually all white. Curious, he asked a local resident about it.
Mr. ELLIOT JASPIN (Author, "Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America"): I said by the way, I don't see any blacks in this area, why is that? And the woman said oh, the Klan keeps them out. That caught me up short. And I specialize in something called computer-assisted reporting. I take databases and analyze them for news stories.
So when I get back to Washington, I got census data for Arkansas and I said, you know, show me all the counties that are white or virtually all white. And what I recall is about a third came up on the list. I was just amazed by that, and so I started to look at the rest of the country and I saw this pattern again. When I talked to somebody about it, they said well, you know, I'm from Georgia. And Forsyth County, they ran all the blacks out.
So I put together a computer program and looked for black population collapses where, between two census, there was a dropped of 50 percent or greater. I expected maybe, you know, two or three counties. I had literally hundreds.
COX: Now let's talk about that, because in the book you chronicle 12 incidents of racial cleansing across the country going back a number of years. One of those is in a place called Corbin, Kentucky, and the counties of Laurel and Whitley in 1919. Tell us about that one - I understand you chronicled this one in part because it had the best-documented evidence of racial cleansing of any of the others that you studied.
Mr. JASPIN: What happened there was it was a railroad town. It had a relatively small black population. And then two things happened, the railroads decided to expand the railroad yard in town. To build the railroad yards, they imported a work crew that was apparently all black. So the town, which had had maybe 40, 50 blacks, suddenly there were probably in the neighborhood of 200 to 300. And the town, they just became frightened.
There was an incident where allegedly a railroad worker was attacked by two black assailants and robbed. And that theoretically triggered what took place. It's not clear whether he was actually was attacked by blacks, but that being the case, a mob led by a guy named Steve Rogers, who also is known as Pistol Pete, basically took over the town, rounded up all the blacks at gun point, marched them to the railroad station and put them on trains and sent them packing. And so in a space of about 12 hours all but three blacks were driven out of town.
We found the affidavits from both blacks and whites who were there at the time. And it's largely through those affidavits that I was able to piece together what actually happened. And one of the strange quirks of this racial cleansing was there was a band that was marching through town, the local town band, unaware that a racial cleansing was underway and they were playing "There'll Be A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." They ran into the mob, the mob took them over and ordered them to play as they went from home to home rounding up blacks. So it was like the first musical racial cleansing.
COX: You know there are stories of towns all across America where blacks have been mistreated and have been run out. One of the things that makes your approach to this different, it seems to me, is that you also talked about how in this towns like Corbin, for example, and some others where ethnic cleansing took place that even today, 2007, black people are still not found in these towns. Is that right?
Mr. JASPIN: Yeah. In fact, I had to limit the number of racial cleansings that I would describe in the book because there were so many. And so one of the rules that I set for myself was that to be included in this book, they had to have been a successful racial cleansing, which is to say that the town remains white or - the county, I mean, remains white or virtually all white today.
And one of the interesting things that I came across in doing this research is there are basically two histories for the United States. There's a black history and there's a white history. And in the white history, what took place in these towns is vastly different from the black history. In fact, in a number of places there's just complete denial that anything took place.
I remember in Forsyth County one of the white residents was asked what happened and she said well, the blacks just left. And this was probably one of the largest racial cleansings in the country.
COX: We're going to talk about Forsyth in just a moment…
Mr. JASPIN: Sure.
COX: But before we get into that, because I know that leads into another whole set of series of issues with you and your employer. You talked about a lot of these ethnic cleansings were spontaneous. You talk about that in the book quite a bit. What generally sparked this outburst from the whites against the blacks?
Mr. JASPIN: In about half the cases it was the allegation of rape, or rape and murder, but there are also instances where it was economically based. In other words, where whites saw blacks as a threat economically as they competed for jobs. So if you drove out the blacks, you improve your economic position. And so that clearly was the case for example in Polk County or in Marshall County, Kentucky.
COX: Let's talk about Forsyth County, Georgia. Now this was 1912 when you recount the ethnic cleansing that took place there. But you can move forward 70 years, 70-plus years and the issue of racial involvement or the lack of racial involvement in Forsyth County is still a sore point, is it not?
Mr. JASPIN: Yes. Yes.
COX: What happened, briefly, in 1912, and then what happened when you tried to get that story told?
Mr. JASPIN: In 1912, a young girl was raped and murdered. Two blacks were convicted of that crime. After they were convicted, they began intimidation of blacks in Forsyth County, which spread to other counties, Hall County, Cherokee County. At its height, it engulfed an area about the size of Delaware. And there were slightly over a thousand blacks living in Forsyth County, and within a matter of months it had been reduced to around 20. And in a neighboring county it went down to zero.
In Forsyth County, the fable was, yes, the blacks left but they were paid for their land and so no harm, no foul. And you will be amazed at the hold that these fables have on the public. In the case of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, they were particularly upset about the idea that black-owned land had been stolen.
I went and traced every piece of black-owned land in Forsyth County. And despite what the newspaper printed in 1987, which was the last time that they actually visited this issue. And there they quoted somebody as saying that most or all of the blacks were paid for the land.
In fact, the majority were not. The land was indeed stolen. When I wrote this in 2006, they became extremely angry. They claimed that I hadn't proven my case and therefore, you know, refused to run the series.
COX: Now the editors at the AJC have gone on record as saying that they made an editorial decision not to run your material in part because they said nothing was new and secondly because they had some questions about, again, the veracity and the validity of the research that was done. That's the last word we have publicly from them.
Mr. JASPIN: Well, I detail their objections in the book. And the fact of the matter is that what they wrote in 1987, which was the last time they visited this issue, is wrong and it's easy to document that it's wrong. And I invite anyone to double check my research.
COX: Last thing is this, what's the follow up to this? Where does this take us? We have the information now. Where do we go with it? What do we do with it?
Mr. JASPIN: Well, one of the things that I hope is that this will spark more research and that will develop a fuller picture of exactly what took place because this history is just not known. And I'm also hoping that it will spark a debate, for example, like with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how we come to terms with our history.
CHIDEYA: That, again, was NPR's Tony Cox with Elliot Jaspin. Jaspin's book is called "Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America."
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