Remembering the Importance of a Georgia Black Church Destroyed During the Red Summer of 1919

The Carswell Grove Baptist Church, in Millen, Ga., was burned to the ground in 1919. Efforts to acknowledge what happened have created unlikely allies.
Credit: Lynsey Weatherspoon for The New York Times

Around the bend of a rural road in Eastern Georgia, towering pines give way to a gnatty glade dotted with aging tombstones and floral bouquets. Secluded and serene, it was the site of a horrific racial trauma.

A century ago, a white lynch mob set fire to an African-American church on this land just north of Millen, Ga., sending hundreds of black parents and their children scrambling out of windows in a frantic effort to escape. The mob, which was out to avenge the killing of two white law enforcement officers, would lynch at least three black males, including a 13-year-old, and leave the Carswell Grove Baptist Church in an ashy heap.

It is a little-known piece of history in a community where Southern politeness can mask racial strife. But on the centennial anniversary of the attack in 1919, efforts to acknowledge what happened have created unlikely allies.

Among those who gathered last year in advance of the anniversary to commemorate the church burning and lynchings were black residents whose ancestors were victims of the violence, and members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization for those whose ancestors fought in the Confederate army.

The attack in Millen was among the first in a series of clashes across the country in one of the bloodiest — yet largely forgotten — seasons of racial violence in American history. From Elaine, Ark., to Chicago to Washington, hundreds of black people died in more than two dozen separate incidents during what is now known as the Red Summer.

Beyond the lynchings, that violent summer became notable for another tactic that white mobs used to strike at the heart of African-American communities: attacking black churches just as they were emerging as the center of black life in America.

Carswell Grove was one of more than a dozen churches burned in three Georgia counties that summer, according to various media accounts.

The attacks on black churches have not ended entirely up until today. Four years ago, Dylann Roof killed nine African-American churchgoers who had gathered for Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. This past spring, three African-American churches were burned in central Louisiana over 10 days. It is being investigated as a hate crime.

“The black church was the most formidable structure in the community,” said Geoff Ward, associate professor of African and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis who documents historical acts of racial violence. “So physically, the structure, this monument to black achievement, would have been offensive to white supremacist sensibilities. And of course, its loss would be devastating, the memory of the burnings carried by its survivors.”

Those memories in Millen have largely faded with time, as have the fortunes of the town and the church. Jenkins County, of which Millen is the seat, was hit hard when its largest employer, the Jockey plant, closed more than a decade ago.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, John Eligon and Audra D. S. Burch