The Cherokee Fires: An N.A.A.C.P. Investigation (1916)

The Cherokee Fires: An N.A.A.C.P. Investigation (1916)

Cherokee County, Georgia, suffered four incendiary fires during the twenty-four hours commencing at one-thirty on the morning of Sunday, December 5, 1915. At that hour two barns belonging to Gus Coggins, on the outskirts of Canton, the county seat, were set on fire. Mr. Coggins is one of the largest stock dealers in the South. In one barn 159 mules and two horses perished; in the other 16,000 bushels of corn, many tons of hay, seven carloads of cottonseed hulls, and a car and a half of cottonseed meal, together with farming implements of every description, were consumed. Out of the largest corn crop ever produced in north Georgia and the greatest number of stock gathered under one roof, nothing was saved but Coggins’ celebrated racer, Sledmer.

At almost the same hour, a tenant house belonging to W. F. Bell, five miles east of Canton, which had been vacated by a Negro tenant named Parks Bates the Wednesday previous, was burned. Bates had for some reason departed too suddenly to take with him his household goods, which were burned with the building. In a split board placed in a wire fence nearby were three matches covered with a printed card bearing the inscription “move rapidly.”

About one o’clock Monday morning the residence and barn of Otto Sherman, one-half mile east of Hickory Flat, were set on fire and totally consumed. Housed in the barn were eight fine mules. Mr. Sherman was in south Georgia at the time. When neighbors reached the fire and liberated the animals it was discovered that “plugs” had been substituted for the Sherman mules and the good stock run off.

Within a few minutes after the Sherman fire, the torch was applied to the residence and barn of Guy Stringer who lives only a short distance from Sherman. Besides his crops and household effects, seven head of live stock perished in the Stringer blaze. Two old plugs were rescued from the burning barn which did not belong to Stringer.

The Governor of Georgia immediately issued a proclamation offering $250 reward.

The insurance companies sent in detectives to work on the theory that the owners of the barns near Hickory Flat set them afire to get the insurance. The finding of six of the mules by the sheriff, abandoned in a pasture up in Pickens County, led some to believe that the fires were but a blind to cover plain horse stealing. The belief held by the average man one talks to, however, carries directly back to the anti-Negro “pogrom” of 1912 in Forsyth County.

Forsyth County is a sparsely settled Piedmont section wherein scattered hardwoods alternate with fields of cotton and corn. At the time of the Terror the population was 12,000, of whom 2,000 were colored. No railroad touches the county, nor the counties to the north. The region is in all respects backward, but decidedly the most backward thing in the county was the cracker who came into direct competition with the Negro. These two classes were alike either tenants of the larger landholders, day laborers, or one-mule farmers of their own land. White and colored were paid alike from $.75 to $1 a day, but no one would hire a cracker for farm labor or teaming when he could get a Negro. The colored people, too, had a monopoly of the household positions, and the independent Negro farmers had established credit with the bank and the stores to a much larger degree than the crackers. This third class of small capitalists unanimously testifies that Forsyth County for the most part had an industrious, law-abiding, reliable lot of “niggers.”

Three of them, however, in the neighborhood of Brown’s bridge in eastern Forsyth, raped a white girl named Crow on a Sunday in October, 1912. They had her during one night and a part of the next day. At the end of the orgy they beat her on the head with a rock and left her for dead in the woods covered with boughs, although as a matter of fact she lived for two weeks after and died of pneumonia rather than of her wounds.

The sheriff from Cumming brought in one particularly “sorry nigger” that public opinion adjudged guilty, together with several suspects. Those of the Brown’s bridge neighborhood who escaped arrest began to find themselves in limp heaps of two or three along the roadside.

Cumming, the county seat, with its population of 300, is built around the four sides of Court House Square. On one corner are the bank and the hotel; diagonally opposite is the lock-up, a red brick, one-story box about thirty feet square. On Wednesday (October 17) the mob went to the house of the sheriff and demanded the keys. He told them they would have to find them, and they proceeded to search his house, without success. So they procured a sledge, led aside the deputy who was on duty in front of the jail, and smashed in the locks and the Negro’s skull with a hammer. With a pair of new harness reins taken from the buggy of the rural mail carrier they dragged the Negro around Court House Square by the heels, and hanged him to the cross-arm of the telegraph pole in front of the bank. There was just a quiver of life in the body when they strung him up at three o’clock in the afternoon.

A colored teamster driving his mules around the corner into the square, seeing that symbol dangling in front of the most respectable institution in the county, quit his wagon and ran.

“Let’s run ’em all out,” the wielder of the hammer suggested.

By the time they cut the body down at sunset the exodus from Forsyth County had commenced.

“Those of us who should have known better,” a well-to-do Cumming merchant told me, standing there in that peaceful backwoods market place, “looked on and said the niggers deserved to be killed. We didn’t mean it, and we didn’t foresee the consequences. But that low-down gang took it as literally as they do the advice of Tom Watson.”

They started in to rid Forsyth County of the last one of those two thousand colored people. A Negro would receive an anonymous letter giving him twenty-four, thirty-six hours, occasionally ten days to quit the county. That meant in some cases precipitate flight and the abandonment of everything owned in the world. In other cases it meant a sale at a few days’ notice, at which a cow worth $25 would bring $8–9, and hogs worth $15–20 sold for $4–6. House and land brought nothing. If the Negro owned a mule he moved out his furniture, otherwise it was burned after his departure. Failure to vacate on the date set meant a stealthy visit in the night and either dynamite or the torch. The result was a state of terror which caused one Negro family to accept a twenty-four hour notice from two children aged five and six respectively who had learned the game from their elders. At the hotel in Cumming the owner kept one servant on until January after repeated notices, but let her go then for fear of inability longer to protect the servant’s life. A genial, poverty-stricken white farmer named Bagwell described the final incident:

“Old man Roper yonder had a nigger he well nigh couldn’t live without, knew every stone and stump on the farm. The boys warned him time and again to get shet of him, but Roper would keep him on. So one night they jest had to put a stick of dynamite under the nigger’s house. Blew him clean through the roof. No, it didn’t kill him, but it started him for Hall County right smart. … I reckon they won’t be back; you see the young fellers are growing up sort of with the idea that this is a white man’s county.”

The return to law and order in Forsyth County was celebrated by a triumph as impressive as the spectacle of the 17th October. Two Negroes who were in jail on that date as witnesses of the raping were taken to Atlanta by an escort of militia, returned to Cumming guarded by the troops, and were convicted on the testimony of the sister of one of the men who turned State’s evidence and swore to holding a lantern while her brother ravished the Crow girl. (She was shot shortly after the trial.) A hundred and fifty militiamen were brought in for the hanging to see that the convicts arrived at the scaffold alive. In exchange for the lumber used to construct the blinds about the scaffold, a Cumming doctor offered the use of his pasture on the edge of the town for the execution. The night before, however, he was cheated of his reward by the gang which burned down the blinds. The following day, by actual count, over 10,000 citizens of the State parked their Fords and tethered their mules in the doctor’s pasture to witness the formal dedication of Forsyth County, Ga., to the white race.

The county to the north of Forsyth, Dawson, produces nothing in the northern parts but timber and “blockade” whisky. In the southeastern corner, however, along the Etowah River from Palmour to the county line, are exceedingly rich alluvial flats. The corn of this region requires field labor, and in this rich section had settled what Negroes there were in Dawson County, about a hundred all told. According to “Colonel” A. W. Vandiviere, a lawyer at the county seat who was for years the county school commissioner, there was a maximum of forty children enrolled at the colored school under one of the graduates of Morehouse College. Eighteen of the men were registered voters, and they paid taxes on about $5,000 worth of property, most of the number being tenants. He says they were an unusually industrious, responsible group, none of whom had ever been accused of any such crime as that committed in Forsyth County.

Nevertheless, a gang of about a dozen crackers, with one John Jackson as the leading spirit (according to Col. Vandiviere) took advantage of the situation in the next county and began serving notice on the Negroes in Dawson. As they had nothing against them excepting their color and competition, however, they did give them generally two weeks in which to leave. As in Forsyth County, the night-riders were poverty-stricken, cowardly crackers who hoped by driving the Negroes out to be able to rent whatever land they desired, and to command their own price for labor. Not one in the gang, according to Robert A. Gober, paid over $2 a year taxes.

This Robert Gober is the strong man of Dawson County. He is postmaster at Dougherty, the center of the Etowah Valley district, owns the only store and gristmill in the region, is a large landholder, and had over $5,000 at stake in provisions advanced and money loaned to colored men on ungathered crops in the two counties when the trouble started. It should be stated equally distinctly that he is a big-boned, big-hearted mountaineer with a rudimentary sense of justice and five well educated sons to his credit. He is the one man in the two counties who had the courage to fight.

Mr. Gober told his colored tenants and laborers that he would protect them as long as they would stay. From Gainesville he sent one of the Hall County officials down to Atlanta to try and get help from the Federal Government.

“If we could have gotten a few detectives sent in here right at the start and obtained the evidence to convict one or two of them, the rest would have been frightened out,” he believes.

Failing to get help from outside, he went to the life insurance agent, told the company exactly what he proposed to do, and persuaded them to take him as a special risk for five years. Night after night for months, while the colored women and children fled to the woods, afraid even to light a fire, he slept with loaded guns handy in the hope of detaining some tangible evidence when they came to blow up his tenants’ houses or burn down his store.

A neighbor who followed his example in paying no heed to the warnings to “get shet of your niggers,’ heard a fusillade a hundred yards up the road one dark night, and then, as the Negroes fled, saw the flames licking up the sides of their quarters. The gang threw a couple of dogs and a shote into the flames to show their courage and disappeared into the dark. Mr. Gober was unable to keep any of his colored people after this incident except Homer Palmer.

“Homer was a nigger that was always ready to do anything I asked of him day or night,” Mr. Gober says. “I would send him to the bank at Gainesville with $500 just as quick as I would my son—he’d a fit for that money. When my son was dying of pneumonia, Homer jumped on a mule in the worst blizzard we ever had in these parts and rode twenty-five miles for the doctor and twenty-five miles back. We had to pry his fingers open to get the reins out of his hands when he rode into that yard in the middle of the night—clothes frozen stiff. That nigger saved my son’s life, and I’d be fighting for him yet if he’d a stayed on.”

Homer did stay until the March after the Forsyth lynching, through five months of terror. After the burning at the Roland place he sent his family out. Each night Mr. Gober came over to Homer’s little shack on the other side of the river and the two waited, armed with two rifles and four double-barreled shot-guns, for the nightriders to blow them up. In March, however, the strain and the separation from his people, the knowledge that he was the only colored man in two counties drove Homer out, and Dawson County was as white as Forsyth.

What of the counties into which the Negroes were driven? Railroads cross both Cherokee County to the west and Gwinnett and Hall Counties to the east, giving a somewhat different complexion to society. Big capital is invested and dominates the local governments. At Ball Ground and Canton in Cherokee County are large marble finishing works, and the cotton mill at Canton employes between four and five hundred hands. Gainesville, the county seat of Hall County, is a town of 6,000. The modern industrial conditions in towns like these need an abundant supply of cheap labor.

When the crackers in Hall County started to pass the Forsyth fugitives along and make a sweep of their own county at the same time, the word went out, according to local gossip, to spend ten thousand dollars if necessary to crush the thing in its infancy. Hall County realized that it couldn’t afford to let the poor whites meddle with its colored labor supply. Eleven arrests were made within twenty-four hours after the terrorization started, and it subsided in a few days.

In Cherokee County the crackers did succeed in driving out several of the “sorriest” Negro families, but public sentiment wouldn’t stand for interference with the others.

The crackers who drove the Negroes out of Forsyth and Dawson Counties boasted that they would rent any land they wanted after that, and that they would get anything they asked for their labor. They had driven out 2,100 competitors out of a population of 13,000. So secure they felt in their monopoly of the labor market of the counties that white women in Cumming are reported to have demanded $2.50 a day for their services when asked to do the cooking and washing that had previously been done by colored women. Mrs. Gober complains that the only white woman who would come to work for her under any conditions insisted that wood and water be brought in for her, although the well is but five or six feet from the kitchen door. The men were equally prone to be dictatorial in laying down the conditions under which they would work. A dealer in fertilizer who had kept six teams with Negro drivers hauling all the time told me the crackers were so shiftless and so touchy that he couldn’t work them.

The result with the last named gentleman was that he sold his mules and quit that part of his business rather than try to run it with white labor.

“What’s more, I get up before daylight on Monday mornings and do our washing myself now. They drove out a cook who had raised seventeen children out of my kitchen,” he said with some remarks about the class of whites who had brought him to that pass which will not bear repeating.

His is a fairly typical case. In every family in the two counties the wives are doing their own housework. The hotel in Cumming is the only place I heard of which boasts a white house servant, whereas formerly every considerable landholder and the merchant class in town all kept a colored menial. It would be difficult to strike a community in a more vital spot.

The small capitalist class hit below the belt by the driving out of their servants retaliated on the active instigators of the “pogrom” by refusing them all credit at their stores, by refusing to rent an acre of land to them, and by declining to hire them as day laborers. Mr. Gober said that this policy has literally starved out all but one or two of the dozen men who constituted themselves the vigilance committee in Dawson County; some have gone into neighboring counties, one or two have migrated to Texas. Col. Vandiviere said he had declined to recommend a man for a job just recently because it was rumored he had participated in the Negro baiting.

The bleaching of Forsyth and Dawson, so far as I could ascertain, has in no respect benefited the poor whites who drove the Negroes out.

If the crackers gained nothing but the distinction of living in a “white man’s country,” the counties have lost certain definite items of material prosperity. First and most important is their credit in the money market. A Dawson County farmer who recently refused $12,000 for his farm, went during the month of December to Atlanta to take out a $2,000 mortgage on his place. Atlanta bankers told him his property was all right except its location—they didn’t care to do business in such lawless parts. The cashier of the bank at Cumming corroborated that story and stated frankly that Forsyth County has no credit with the outside world. Secondly, the farmers with Negro tenants lost a very large part of the cotton crop the year of the exodus because they could get no one to pick it. Mr. Gober told me he lost over $5,000 in money and supplies advanced to Negroes against the crops they were prevented from gathering, and other landholders of course lost accordingly. Thirdly, the district is still losing to the extent that land owned by Negroes who have been unable to sell at any figure lies idle, growing up to weeds as their empty cabins decay. This last is of course an insignificant item in the counties’ resources. And finally, they feel the judgment of the commercial world in the increased insurance rates which are demanded. In Cherokee County, since the fires of last month, the editor of the Cherokee Advance stated, the insurance companies have refused to issue policies on any terms.

It is now easy to understand the explanation for the Cherokee County fires of December 5 which is currently accepted in both Forsyth and Cherokee Counties by the average man one talks with. Gus Coggins is one of the largest employers of Negro labor in the county, having taken on several of the Forsyth fugitives. Sherman and Stringer both employed Forsyth Negroes, and both have stated that they received warning to get rid of their colored help. Parks Bates and one other Negro who thought it time to move again were fugitives from across the Forsyth line. It looks decidedly as though the crackers thought it a good time to kill two birds with one stone by driving out the Negroes with fire while running off some valuable mules under cover of the confusion.

The proceedings of the Circuit Court which opens in Canton on February 1, may show the fires to have had no connection with Negro baiting but the general opinion is that they marked the beginning of an effort to drive the Negroes from Cherokee which died after twenty-four hours when the gang saw that the Governor and the sheriff intended to get them if possible.

Citation: Nash, Royal Freeman. 1916. “The Cherokee Fires: An N.A.A.C.P. Investigation.” The Crisis. 11(5):265–268, 270.