Bodies Under Lake Lanier; The Genocide and Expelling of a Black Town


Juliana Henry, In-Depth Writer

   The city of Atlanta, and its neighboring areas, have a long history of terrorizing the Black community. Unfortunately, like so many others, the story of Lake Lanier has been buried, stolen and drowned under lengths of anguish and agony. In 1912, White residents orchestrated a campaign of terror to drive almost all of Forsyth’s 1,098 Black residents out of the county. They were forced to leave in a matter of weeks, whether they were wealthy or poor, educated or illiterate. Everything was destroyed and stolen, from farms to tombstones, by marauding locals. The burnt remains of homes and churches vanished into the weeds until all of Forsyth was forgotten.


The Town of Oscarville

      The Buford Dam was completed in 1956, resulting in the creation of Lake Lanier, a vast 57.92 square-mile reservoir. To gain a better understanding of how and why this monstrosity of a lake came to be, let’s go back to 1912, in the African-American community of Oscarville. Of the 1,098  Black people that lived in Oscarville, a majority of them were emancipated after serving in the Civil War. Many people worked in the cotton fields making a fair livelihood and supporting their families.


Before the Downfall of Oscarville

      The townspeople of Oscarville were able to create and live in a thriving community, but soon a spark of events led to its demise. A young, White woman known as Ellen Grice stated that two Black men tried to rape her on September 5th, 1912, and the Sheriff apprehended five Black men for the supposed assault.  Grant Smith, a prominent Black pastor, urged the Sheriff to let them go. He argued that there was not enough evidence to convict all five persons of assault. Many White residents were horrified by his claims, and an enraged mob attacked and horse-whipped the preacher on the courthouse steps, nearly killing him.


      Another White woman, Mae Crow, was raped and abused in Forsyth a week later, on September 12th, 1912. Ernest Knox, a 16-year-old Black boy, was arrested at his home and then forced to a simulated lynching, which prompted him to confess to the incident. A lynch mob erupted in front of the jailhouse almost immediately. The following day, four more Black men were apprehended and placed into custody, all of which were suspected of being accomplices to the 16-year-old. Soon after, another enraged crowd of almost 2,000 White citizens invaded the county jail, murdering one of the alleged suspects. His body was hauled from the jailhouse and hung from a telephone pole in the town square by the mob.


      Ernest Knox and one of the other Black men, Oscar Daniel were reported guilty of raping Mae Crow. They were (illegally) sentenced to death by hanging in violation of the law. 8,000 White residents gathered in the town square to witness two teenage boys being publicly hanged for a crime they never had the chance to defend. 


Black Residents Murdered and Driven Out

      Fear would progress after this event, as a White terrorist group known as the “Night Riders” made it their duty to run every Black person they came across out of town. Black churches and Black-owned businesses were set on fire by the “Night Riders” and other White rioters. Over the course of a few years, 98 percent of the city’s Black population were either forced to flee or were murdered for refusing to move. More than 1,100 Black people would lose their jobs, and Oscarville and Forsyth County’s formerly thriving Black population would vanish.


      Pieces of the land were sold to the government over time, and by 1950, a plan to develop Lake Lanier was up and running. The resulting reservoir was named to honor Sidney Lanier, a White Confederate. Oscarville was now completely submerged underwater.


Afterward In Forsyth

      After White vigilantes drove out the Black population, the community maintained a White-only policy far into the 1980s. To convey a sense of how committed Forsyth County residents were to racial purity in the 1950s and 1960s, there were no “colored” drinking fountains in the courtroom and no “Whites only” restaurants. There were no inhabitants to segregate in the county, and spaces were solely open to White citizens. 


      National civil rights activists organized the Brotherhood March in 1987, which drew a considerable number of people from outside the county. They were quickly overwhelmed by crowds of rock-throwing rioters yelling vehement racial slurs.


The Story Of Lake Lanier

      In the years since Lake Lanier’s creation, over 500 accidents and deaths have occurred on its waters leading residents to share folklore about the site. However, stories of Lake Lanier being “haunted” strip the story of names, dates and locations. It reduced the expulsion of the county’s Black community to a myth, like it was something lost in time and impossible to comprehend rather than a premeditated and continuous campaign of terror. As we grow closer to the truths of the past, history begins to pour into the present. Unfortunately, tales like these can be found all over the south. Towns like Oscarville are only small fragments when it comes to understanding the fear that southern Black people suffered following the Civil War.