The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America





Mr. Jaspin is the System Editor for Cox Newspapers, where he specializes in computer-assisted reporting. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979.

The story of how I found America’s racial cleansings begins in an unlikely place: the small town of Berryville in northwest Arkansas. I was visiting there in 1998 and, with time on my hands, I decided to tour a small history museum in the center of town. It was a quirky place - one room was devoted to antique embalming equipment – with all sorts of bric-a-brac piled on tables. As I wandered from room to room, a picture on one wall caught my eye. In the top of the frame was a photograph of a farmer and his wife taken some time before the Civil War. Below the picture was the farmer’s will.  On separate lines he carefully recounted each of his earthly possessions, parceling them out as he went to family and friends. It was what you would expect until I reached the fourth or fifth line. Wedged between livestock and land were five slaves to be given away.

A friend once described walking into a vault in the New Orleans courthouse and seeing stacks of old record books listing the slaves that each person owned. He stood there in horror. Before him was row after row of moldering books with their ghastly roll call. I understood the shock he tried to describe because it was what swept over me as I stared at that will. How do you describe an encounter with the artifacts of slavery? It is the corpse at the funeral. In it we see both our own loss and the loss of someone else. It dawns that freedom, like life, is never certain.

I stared at the will and as the shock drained away, a question began to form. I had been in the area for several days. Until that moment it had never occurred to me that, in all the time I had been there, I had not seen a single African-American. Yet here in front of me was proof that at one time blacks had lived here. Were they still here? If not, when had they left and why? I walked out of the museum with the questions nagging me.

Over the next few days as I drove to my different appointments, I kept searching for even one black face. Tourism was one of the pillars of the local economy and along the main roads were hotels, restaurants and concert halls for country music fans. The people shopping in the stores were white. The people behind the counters were white. The people working in the motels were white.  I began checking the people in cars as they passed. All white.

On my last day, I finally asked the person I was interviewing if there were any blacks in the area. “Oh no,” she said, “The Klan keeps them out.”

When I got back to Washington, D.C., I decided to take a closer look. Using census data I had downloaded from the Internet, I sorted the information from Arkansas to see how many counties had a black population of less than 1 percent. As I recall I soon had a list that included about a third of all Arkansas counties. I thought that Arkansas, as a slave-holding state, would have a more even distribution of its black population. Perhaps I was mistaken.

I collected census data for other southern states. Tennessee. Georgia. North Carolina. Kentucky. Texas. Each time I found counties that were either all white or with so few blacks as to be virtually all white. This was not what I had expected.

By one of those happy coincidences, on one of the days that I was going over the census data, a person from Atlanta was in the office. As we chatted I told her about the odd distribution of blacks in some southern states. She launched into a story about her brother who is a cook. He had been recently hired as a chef in a restaurant in Forsyth County just outside of Atlanta. On the day she visited him there, she said the Klan was holding a rally on the courthouse lawn. She explained how all the black had been run out of the county around the turn of the century and had been kept out ever since. I went back to my census tables and found Forsyth County. In 1990, there were 12 blacks living in a county of over 40,000 people.

I drove to the National Archives in Maryland and copied census books from the turn of the century. At night I would sit at the kitchen table and pore over the columns of numbers. I would compare counties from one census to another looking for a sudden drop in the black population. Here and there I would see a strange gyration in the numbers.  I had a gut feeling there was a pattern lurking in all these census tables but the work was tedious and far too slow. There had to be a better way.

Back in my office I began searching the Internet for a place that had historical census data. Almost immediately I found a database maintained by the University of Virginia. I began downloading census data from 1890 through 1930 for a small list of Southern states. I then wrote a short computer program that would sort the data by state and county and compare the black population between each census. If there was a drop of 50 percent or greater between two decades, the data from that county would be saved in a separate file.

I punched the Enter key and in a matter of seconds the program had completed its work. I opened the new file I had created and began to scroll the list of counties where there had been a black population collapse. It was a moment of shock.  Page after page of counties scrolled by. I had expected four or five counties but I now had dozens. This could not be. I had made a mistake. I went back and checked the numbers. They were accurate. I downloaded data for more states from the University of Virginia and reran the program. The list grew. I started adding states outside the South and the list grew even longer. What had happened?

I made a list of four or five counties that seemed to be the most suspicious and went to the Library of Congress. By cross checking my list with the New York Times Index for the decade when each collapse occurred, I found the dates when there had been stories written about some of the counties. I mounted a microfilm reel and turned the crank.  As I fiddled with the focus in the dark of the library’s microfilm room, a headline appeared: “ALL NEGROES DRIVEN FROM INDIANA TOWN.” 

The seven-paragraph story was to the point. “Negroes began leaving this mining town early this afternoon, following the warning issued by white residents to be out of town by 7 o’clock to night...”

I mounted another reel and found another story: “MISSOURI MOB’S WORK, Kills Three Negroes, Burns Their Homes and Drives Every Negro Out of Pierce City.”

“For nearly 15 hours, ending at noon today this town of 3,000 people has been in the hands of a mob of armed whites, determined to drive every negro from its precincts.”

I had found America’s racial cleansings.


From the book, to Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America by Eliot Jaspin. Copyright © 2007. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group (www.perseusbooks.com). All rights reserved.


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Spencer H Turnage - 8/5/2007

Far too many of these type stories not well known. I keep bumping into them and learned of a few of them from traveling through the years.


Spencer H Turnage - 5/11/2007

I often find we live in a known lie and refuse to look at the sunject. Those few who do live in denial quite often.


monica davis - 3/6/2007

Book available on Lulu.com
Description:

A century ago, the segregated South had a deep secret--black farmers owned the majority of farmland in the region. Then came the 1910 Census results along with an organized effort to drive black farmers off the land. Through lynching and intimidation, and predatory use of federal farm loan programs, hundreds of thousands of black farmers, 90% of African-American farmers, were driven from the land through a 60 year orgy of lynching, murder, intimidation and theft. Many found refuge in factory towns and became middle class through factory work, especially in the auto industry. Others gathered in segregated ghettos in the nation's urban hell holes and continue to fuel the nation's prisons.
Product Details:
Printed: 218 pages, 6" x 9", perfect binding, 60# cream interior paper, black and white interior ink , 100# white exterior paper, full-color exterior ink
ISBN: 978-1-4303-1985-6
Publisher: Lulu.com
Rights Owner: MONICA DAVIS
Copyright: © 2006 by Monica Davis Standard Copyright License
Language: English
Country: United States
Edition: First Edition


monica davis - 3/6/2007

Racial cleansing involved land piracy, lynching for profit and the hijacking of black farm land. After the 1910 census came out, it was discovered that black farmers owned the majority of farm land in the Deep South. This was the launching point for a massive outbreak of lynching for profit, some of which I cover in my book:


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Land, Legacy and Lynching: Building the Future in Black America

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Description:

A century ago, the segregated South had a deep secret--black farmers owned the majority of farmland in the region. Then came the 1910 Census results along with an organized effort to drive black farmers off the land. Through lynching and intimidation, and predatory use of federal farm loan programs, hundreds of thousands of black farmers, 90% of African-American farmers, were driven from the land through a 60 year orgy of lynching, murder, intimidation and theft. Many found refuge in factory towns and became middle class through factory work, especially in the auto industry. Others gathered in segregated ghettos in the nation's urban hell holes and continue to fuel the nation's prisons.


mark hitchcock - 3/6/2007

Sir,
I sit here in Iraq helping to fight a war to help end what you described in your book. I am an African-American Army Officer fighting the war on terror. As an American I cannot help but be appalled by what you described in your book. As a ardent student of history, I find it fascinating that this story was never told to young American students.
Can we continue to hold the moral high ground and try and shape the world to our ideals of freedom and democracy when we refuse to face our past? Does America really want to provide equal opportunity for all men and women regardless of race, creed, or religion or has this just become a good soundbite?

Our nation has great potential, but we will never reach that potential if we don't face our past. I think your book should become a must read for students of American history.

V/R,

Mark A. Hitchcock


James W Loewen - 3/5/2007

Jaspin is right: county after county got rid of their black populations, mostly between 1890 and 1940. Using town rather than county as the unit of analysis, thousands of towns expelled their African Americans or took steps to prevent them from ever coming in, some as recently as 1954. Jaspin focuses on "Southern" communities (broadly construed, including Texas, the Ozarks, etc.) but includes some in Indiana, etc. My own book, SUNDOWN TOWNS, finds even more of these communities in the Midwest, Oregon, California, etc. This is still a wide open field, and historians need to jump in and find out more about given communities that did/did not "go sundown." See my website, uvm.edu/~jloewen/, for research suggestions.