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Interview with Elliot Jaspin: Racial Cleansing in America

Elliot Jaspin, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize (1979), is the author of the just-published book, Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hiden History of Racial Cleansing in America (Basic Books), the March HNN Book of the Month. He is the System Editor for Cox Newspapers, where he specializes in computer-assisted reporting. In 2006 he wrote a series for the Cox chain about a number of campaigns to force blacks out of largely white communities that took place in America between the end of the Civil War and the 1920s.

Let's start with the discovery you made. What did you discover?

What I found was that from as early as 1864 until at least 1923 white Americans engaged in campaigns of racial cleansing. The white community would issue an ultimatum to blacks that they would have to leave within a certain amount of time – usually measured in hours – or they would be killed. These racial cleansings occurred both in the North and South and in at least 12 cases emptied whole counties. Because this has been a very painful chapter in America’s history, the story of these expulsions has largely been hidden. Yet the legacy of these events has been enduring. The twelve countywide racial cleansings I describe in my book have all been successful. That is to say the counties remain virtually all-white today.

Just how extensive was racial cleansing in America? And was it confined mainly to the South?

No one really knows how many racial cleansings there have been. While I detailed a dozen in Buried in the Bitter Waters there obviously have been many more. Because I restricted my book to cleansings that were countywide and “successful,” I did not include towns like Dothan, Alabama where blacks were driven out or counties such as Lincoln County, Nebraska where blacks were driven out but later returned. It will take years and much more research before we get a full accounting of what happened.

In the course of your research did you discuss your findings with historians? If you did, did they indicate shock at what you had found?

Typically when I would tell historians about what I was finding, they would correct me and say I had confused racial cleansings with the “great migration.” I am willing to bet I have had the “great migration” explained to me more times than any other person on the planet. There was, however, the official Polk County (TN) Historian who said she did know what had happened there, but would not talk about it because “it would only cause trouble.”

Was there an active effort by people living in the places where ethnic cleansing took place to hide what had happened? Or was this sorry chapter in their local history simply forgotten?

In some cases like Vermillion County, Indiana or Sharp County, Arkansas people involved in the cleansings simply would not talk about what happened. The result was that the history was not passed on. When I showed residents old newspaper clippings describing a cleansing, they were genuinely shocked. But in a number of counties, residents have fashioned a fable that recasts what happened into a history that is more palatable. Typically the blacks are blamed for goading whites into driving them out. The racial cleansing itself is portrayed as the least harmful alternative. (We could have killed them all but instead we told them to leave.) And whites congratulate themselves for conducting the cleansing in a fair-minded way.

In Forsyth County, Georgia, for example, the fable is that whites, enraged by the rape and murder of a white woman by blacks, ordered all blacks to leave. The rape/murder becomes the justification for the cleansing. But in a show of white magnanimity, the fable says that all blacks were paid for their land. In this way, the campaign of terror including bombings and burnings that drove more than a thousand people from their homes seems almost benign. This fable is still retold today and widely believed.

I am sure you are asked why we should dig up this unpleasant history. What do you tell people?

One of the cleansings I described in my newspaper series took place in Corbin, Kentucky in 1919. In the story I included a comment from Shawn Livingston, a black who grew up and still lives in Kentucky, who said he had been warned as a boy never to go to Corbin.

After the newspaper series was published, I received the following email from the editor of the local paper.

[Your] irresponsible reporting about Corbin, Kentucky was meant to inflame and distort conditions as they are today. It is not dangerous and has not been for many years for blacks to drive through Corbin. The quote from Shawn Livingston was an exaggeration and an attempted smear on Corbin for the actions of some about 100 years ago. There are blacks in Corbin's schools and in employment in the area. Mr. Jaspin should do his research and give credit to Corbin's progress. [You] owe the citizens of Corbin an apology.

I replied as follows:

While I am sure it is painful for you as a member of the Corbin community to read comments that are less than flattering about your town, I do not think it is fair to call me irresponsible. While Shawn Livingston was one of the most articulate people I interviewed, he was by no means the only person who mentioned Corbin as a place that blacks should avoid. As you noted in your email to me, "It is not dangerous and has not been for many years for blacks to drive through Corbin." What that implies is that at one time it was dangerous. In fact, in my research I came across letters by a local prosecutor as well oral histories describing just how dangerous it was for a black to be in Corbin.

Times change and the practice of beating up blacks who wander into Corbin is, I trust, a thing of the past. Yet the past has a hold on the present. It is not merely that blacks are wary of your town. It is that Corbin is unwilling to come to terms with that past. A few examples will suffice. I called the library and asked for the name of a local historian. The gentleman they recommended spent several hours explaining how there was never a racial cleansing in Corbin and that it was the invention of "the damned media." I reviewed the reaction to the 1989 documentary "Trouble Behind" and was struck by how Corbin residents tried to minimize or explain away what occurred in 1919. I interviewed one of the people -- a Corbin resident -- who collected oral histories on the racial cleansing and was surprised to hear him claim that it was only a few transient railroad workers who were run out.

What is very clear to me is that there are two versions of Corbin's history. The white version is that a few black railroad workers misbehaved and the town ran them off. The black version is that a mob of whites in Corbin rounded up all the blacks in town, sent them packing and with considerable violence established an all-white preserve. And that is the point of my series. Nearly a century after these events we have two versions of history, one white and the other black. And your email only reinforces my conclusion. You are angry and outraged that anyone would think that your town would be suspected of racism. Based on the town's version of history, what you believe is perfectly logical. But blacks who remember what, in fact, did happen are leery. When both sides try to talk, misunderstanding is almost guaranteed. What I have tried to do is to describe as clearly and completely what did happen in an effort to find a common history.

I have found numerous eyewitness accounts by both blacks and whites of what actually happened in 1919. Some whites behaved badly while others--in particular a local doctor--displayed great bravery. I hope that you will celebrate the unacknowledged heroism of those who once lived in Corbin. But the larger point is that you will have a history that is as accurate as I can make it.

Should Congress pass a resolution apologizing for racial cleansing? Should we build a monument somewhere to the people whose lives were disrupted by this practice?

There is an inherent problem with Congress apologizing for racial cleansings at this time. No one today knows exactly what happened. What would such an apology be for?

What must come first is an examination of what actually took place. In a sense this examination would be like a truth and reconciliation commission except that instead of having people testify – they have long since died – there would be scholars reconstructing long-ignored expulsions.

The result would be far more valuable than any monument. It would be the story of our past.

Americans admit that in the past there was racism and they certainly know white Americans held black Americans as slaves. Do you think though that Americans generally will be reluctant to face the evidence of racial cleansing that you accumulated?

Laretha Clay, a member of the Texas Historical Commission, told me that when it comes to black history, whites don’t think it is important and blacks don’t want to talk about it.

I was told the same thing in a different way by literary agents. No one wanted to represent the book because as one agent put it, “Who wants to pay $25 to find out what terrible things their ancestors did?”

I assume that both whites and blacks will be reluctant to read about this past. What I hope is that the stories of these racial cleansings and how they affect people today will be so compelling that it will overcome that reluctance. People did terrible things but these were also times when people showed great heroism.

There's a strong similarity between your book and James Loewen's Sundown Towns. Are both of your stories different chapters in the same book of American racism?

I think of the books as complimentary. Lowen’s book is a broad brush account of how blacks were either hounded out of towns or never allowed to settle in certain places. My book is a very detailed account of 12 racial cleansings and I try to tell the story through the lives of people who were driven out as well as people today trying to cope with the legacy of these events.

This book grew out of a series you prepared as a journalist working in the Washington bureau of the Cox chain. You reveal that some of the chain's newspapers (such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) refused to run your series because it reflected badly on some of the communities they serve. Isn't it understandable that they would want to soften the story a bit to make it more palatable to readers? Or is that part of the problem?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) did not run the series because they said I had not proven my case. Those who read the book can make their own judgment.

My personal feeling is that the editors in Atlanta were unwilling to face their own past. The AJC has consistently defended the fable that I mentioned above and, by not running the series, they were defending the fable again. In this they failed themselves and their readers.

I can understand why they did it. As a journalist I cannot condone it. Newspapers must tell their readers the truth no matter how difficult that may be at times. To do any less, contaminates the public debate.

Are you worried about being fired? Being sued?

Go ahead, make my day.