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Oscarville : The black city buried under the Lake

Lake Lanier is the most popular lake in the southeast and is the largest lake in Georgia. The water in Lake Lanier comes from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia. In 1956, the Buford Dam was build on the south end of the lake and turned the area’s Chattahoochee and Chestatee Rivers into Lake Lanier.

The Lake Lanier that many know today is a tourist spot, especially during Georgia’s warmer months, as people from all over the state come to the lake’s surrounding parks, campgrounds and marinas. Families go to hang out at the parks, residents take their boats out either just for some fun in the sun or to spend a couple of hours fishing, people take time to exercise or relax on a walk down surrounding trail. As the sun beats down, families find themselves heading out to Lake Lanier to enjoy themselves, but many may not know about the relics from the lake’s history that still sit waiting far beneath the surface. Before this lake was built, there was the town named Oscarville.

This African-American town was formed in the late 1800s during the reconstruction era. Settled along the Chattahoochee waters was home to roughly 1,100 black folks, most of whom were freed after fighting in the American Civil War. Many worked as hands in the cotton fields or performed odd jobs for white residents in the surrounding neighbourhoods. They managed to make a decent living for themselves, by creating a healthy community with churches, schools, and small businesses. But On edge from the Atlanta race riots of 1906, many locals feared that violence could erupt at any time. It was clear that blacks in Atlanta lived in constant fear. For the town of Oscarville, that fear turned into brutal reality.

On 5th September, 1912, a 22-year-old white woman named Ellen Grice claimed two black men tried to rape her, but were unsuccessful because they were scared away by her mother. The County Sheriff arrested five black men for the alleged assault. News of the attack and arrests caused a turmoil in the surrounding black communities. A black preacher, named Grant Smith, appealed to the Sheriff to release the men that were arrested. He claimed there wasn’t much evidence against these five men who were arrested for assault, and also suggested that one of the men could have been in a relationship with Grice. Many whites were outraged by Smith’s allegations and an angry mob beat Grant Smith on the steps of the courthouse, almost killing him. A week later, an 18-year-old white woman named Mae Crow was raped and beaten in the Big Creek community of Forsyth County Georgia. The next morning Crow’s body was found half-naked and hidden under a pile of leaves. Her skull had been thrashed with a stone, but she was alive and barely breathing. Searchers allegedly found find a small pocket mirror at the scene of the crime that was said to belong to Ernest Knox, a 16-year-old black boy from Cumming, Georgia. Knox was arrested at his home, then subjected to a mock lynching, which led to his forced confession for the attack on Crow. As word spread of the confession of Knox, whites became increasingly angry. A mob formed in front of the jailhouse where Knox was being kept. The Officers had to sneak Knox out the back door late that evening, just to keep him from being hanged. He was taken to a jail situated in Atlanta for his protection. The next day, four additional men were arrested and taken into custody, suspected to be confederates to the 16-year-old. All of them black. Soon an angry mob of whites stormed to the county jail, gaining access to the cells. They shot and killed Rob Edwards, onw of the accomplices, and dragged his body from the jailhouse, and hung him from a telephone pole in the town square.

Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel were both found guilty for raping Mae Crow. They were sentenced to death by hanging, even though it was illegal by state law at that time. 8,000 whites gathered in the town square of Cumming to watch two teenage boys publicly hanged for an alleged crime they never truly had the opportunity to fight. It was after this hanging that the terror began to spread, as a white group of terrorists known as the “Night Riders” made it their mission to kill every black person they came across.

Oscarville ended up being one of their main targets, and over the short period of just a few years, 98% of its black residents ended up either leaving their homes or being killed for refusing to move. Black property papers found their way to the white neighbours without any bill of sale or transfer and this allowed many whites to steal the land once owned by their black neighbours when they were driven out by the “Night Riders.” More than 1,100 blacks lost their livelihood, and in little time, the once functioning African-American town of Oscarville turned into a ghost town.

Over time, pieces of the land were sold to the government, and by 1950 a plan to build Lake Lanier was in full effect. Soon the entire town of Oscarville was underwater, intentionally flooded in conjunction with the Buford Dam to support the growing demand for a water supply to the nearby cities. The reservoir was named after Sidney Lanier, a poet, and musician (who was also a Confederate private). In the end, construction destroyed more than 50,000 acres of farmland and displace more than 250 families. It also relocated 20 cemeteries and their corpses to erase the sins of its past.

Aritri Ghosh
Student of Journalism and Mass Communication
Amity University


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