The ‘Racial Cleansing’ That Drove 1,100 Black Residents Out Of Atlanta

In the autumn of 1912 in Forsyth County, Georgia two different alleged black on white rapes took place that threw the county into turmoil and changed the region for years to come. First a woman named Ellen Grice claimed to be attacked. Then three days later in the same county another young white woman was attacked and later died. One black man, Rob Edwards, was lynched in the town square. Later, two black teenagers; Ernest Cox and Oscar Daniel were put on trial and found guilty and later hung for the crime. Before the trial had even started blacks in the county were being harassed and driven from their homes by a small band of men. Within the next four months an estimated 98% of the black living in the county had left, and in the surrounding counties anywhere from 50% to 100% of blacks were forced from their homes never to return again. It has been called the largest case of African-American banishment in the history of the United States.

Archival photo from Banished


With the American Civil War having ended just 47 years before Blacks were now free, but not still considered equal by most whites. Many former Civil War soldiers who had fought to keep slavery were still alive. While slavery was abolished, sharecropping was in wide use and confined black farmers to poverty. Just six years before, the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 took place and were still fresh in the minds of residents of the county. A firsthand account from Dr. Ansel Strickland, a doctor in Cumming, said that “hundreds of Black were killed” <> in a large anti-black riot. The distrust and Lynchings were somewhat common place in Georgia and accounts of lynchings from all over the state and south were common place in the local papers. Lynchings were seen not only as a method of justice, but of showing dominance and control over the local black population. It was also general considered to be a determent of any future unlawful behavior from the minority population.

A historic black-and-white photograph of two African American women and one man standing outside

The Ellen Grice Case

On the night of Thursday September 5, 1912 Ellen Grice a young 22 year old white woman claimed that a black man came into her bedroom and attempted to rape and fled out the window when a family member opened her bedroom door. Two days later on Saturday morning the Forsyth county sheriff, William Reid, detained five black men in connection with the case: Tony Howell, Isaiah Pirkle, Fate Chester, Johnny Bates, and Joe Rogers. Tony Howell was accused of the crime, but Isaiah Pirkle was a witness for Howell and said that he was with Howell when the attack took place. All five men were placed in the small Forsyth County jail located in the Cumming town square. That afternoon a barbecue picnic was being held just outside of the town square. All of the black churches in the county had been invited to the event. When news reached the gathering of the five men being arrested people there became agitated.

Men waving a Confederate flag stand behind a sign reading “Racial Purity Is Forsyth’s Security”

Attempted Grant Smith Lynching

‘’’Grant Smith’’’ was a black preacher at a local Cumming church. When he was walking on the square he was overheard making comments suggesting that Mrs. Grice was caught in bed with a black man and just claimed it was rape. As soon as white men around him heard the comment they immediately attacked him for disparaging the character of a white woman. They whipped him with horse buggy whips on the street in front of the courthouse. He was close to death when Sheriff Reid intervened and took him into the courthouse for safety. The small crowd that was there began to swell in numbers becoming 100-200 people strong and demanded to either burn Smith alive or hang him immediately. The sheriff Reid and local ministers tried to make appeals to the crowd to leave, but an attempt was made to storm the courthouse and take Smith by force. Once they were inside they could not get Smith as deputy Mitchell Lummus had locked him in the large courthouse vault. Soon rumors began to circulate among the crowd that some young boys had heard black men at the nearby barbecue were talking of dynamiting the town. White men sent the women and children home began to patrol the town with guns. Governor Joseph Mackey Brown was called for help and he then sent the 23 members of the National Guard from Gainesville, Georgia to prevent a race riot. Later that day, Sheriff Reid sent the five black men in jail, and Smith to the Cobb county jail in nearby Marietta, Georgia for safety. Shortly after arrival, a lynch mob began to form outside of the jail coming a car or wagon at a time from Cumming. The Governor was called again who then arranged for the prisoners and Smith to be taken to the Fulton County jail in Atlanta.


The Mae Crow Assault

The next day on September 9, 1912 ‘’’Sleety Mae Crow’’’ age 18, was attacked in the afternoon by ‘’’Ernest Cox’’’ age 16 when walking to her nearby aunt’s house near Browns Bridge Road along the Forsyth-Hall county line. According to the 1900 and 1910 United States Census records, Cox was completely uneducated, did not know how to read or write, was separated from his family, and as early as the age of four was not living with his father. Cox struck her from behind and dragged her down a gully in the woods. Crow resisted and nearly pulled a young dogwood tree up by the roots. Cox raped her and struck her at least three times in the head with a large stone crushing in her skull. Cox then told his friends what he did who then came to investigate the scene. ‘’’Oscar Daniel’’ age 17, Oscar’s sister Trussie “Jane” Daniel age 22, and Jane’s next door neighbor and live-in boyfriend Rob “Big Rob” Edwards age 24. They discussed disposing of the body in the nearby Chattahoochee river but it was decided that it would be too risky to move and left her where she lay.


Arrest of Ernest Cox

The next morning, around 9:00 a.m. searchers found Mae Crow. She was half naked, covered with leaves, and laying face down in a pool of dry blood. Surprisingly she was still alive and breathing shallowly. At the scene of the rape a small pocket mirror was found that was recognized as belonging to Ernest Cox. When neighbors found Cox at home and took him to the Gainesville jail to avoid the recent turmoil just a couple days ago in Cumming. On the way Cox freely confessed to the crime. When word spread of the Crow attack a lynch mob began to form that afternoon at the Gainesville jail. At midnight Cox was taken by car to Atlanta to prevent a lynching.


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