UPDATE: This historic church burned to the ground on 16 November 2014, with inital reports suspecting arson.
When I found the National Register of Historic Places listing for Carswell Grove, I was drawn to its architecture. I was equally interested in its neighbor, Big Buckhead Baptist Church. I knew Carswell Grove was founded by the former slaves of Big Buckhead’s members. In researching further, I uncovered a much more complicated history. I discovered that a lynch mob had burned down its predecessor in April 1919 and began a cycle of racial violence that would come to be known as the Red Summer.
Wall Street Journal staff reporter Cameron McWhirter published a powerful essay about the troubling events in the Summer/Autumn 2011 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. “The Spiritual Ground of History” details the violence of a day that began as a celebration of Carswell Grove’s history and ended in its senseless destruction.
McWhirter writes, in part: “One beautiful Sunday morning a few years back, I drove 180 miles southeast of my home in metro Atlanta to visit the remote site of a forgotten mass killing. The site was a church.
On April 13, 1919, the Carswell Grove Baptist Church in Jenkins County, then one of the largest black congregations in East Georgia, with about 1,000 members, held its annual gathering to celebrate its founding. When two white police officers showed up, an altercation erupted. To this day no one is exactly sure what caused the violence, but both police officers and a black man were killed. Another black man, Joe Ruffin, who tried to defuse the situation, was shot in the head and severely wounded.
A white mob quickly formed and went on a rampage. The mob burned the church down, then killed two of Ruffin’s sons—one of them a thirteen-year-old. Rioters threw the bodies in the flames, then spread out through the area, burning black lodges, churches, and cars. They killed several other people; no one knows how many. The wounded Joe Ruffin was saved from the lynch mob only because a white county commissioner drove him at high speed to the nearest big city, Augusta, and put him in the county jail there.
Ruffin was charged with the murder of the two white officers and for months was threatened with lynching. No one was ever charged with the killings of his sons, the destruction of the church, or other crimes against African Americans throughout the county.
Later he told a jury: “There is nobody as worried for what happened at Carswell Grove Church on that awful day as I am.”
“That awful day” was the start of the worst period of anti-black rioting and lynching in American history. Riots erupted across the South, in cities like Charleston and Knoxville. They spread to major northern cities as well, like Chicago and Omaha. A riot paralyzed Washington, D.C., with shooting erupting right outside the White House. The months of April to November 1919 were so bloody that NAACP leader and writer James Weldon Johnson labeled it the “Red Summer.” Despite the shocking violence, the Red Summer has been largely forgotten today.“
McWhirter’s fascinating book, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (Henry Holt, 2011) begins with a chapter on Carswell Grove and retraces the unprecedented violence of that summer.
National Register of Historic Places