Carswell Grove Baptist Church, 1919, Jenkins County

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

 

 

9 thoughts on “Carswell Grove Baptist Church, 1919, Jenkins County

  1. BellParker

    Brian–I’m sorry to report that Carswell Grove Baptist Church was destroyed by fire Sunday, November 16, apparently by arsonists. I terrible ending for a wonderful building that arose after the previous building was likewise burned to the ground in 1919.

    Reply
  2. Palmer Lewis

    I am Deacon Palmer Lewis, GOD gave me a charge – to- keep to restore this old church (Carswell Grove Baptist Church Historical Foundation). I am the fourth generation of the Lewis family. My grandfather and his three sons built this church after the burnihg in 1919. I initiated a Bar-B-Cue sale in the month of August 2013 in the city of Millen, Georgia to raise money to began the restoration. Also,
    a second event was held at the church on October 12, 2013 with the
    presence of Mr. Cameron McWhirter “RED Summer” in support of the restoration. Any monetary assistance from any source will be most appreciative. The Carswell Grove Baptist Church Historical Foundation
    is a Non -Profit Organization specifically organized for the restoration
    of the old church. Please mail any sources of funding or donations to
    the :Carswell Grove Baptist Church His. Fd., P.O. Box 16, Perkins, Georgia. 30822.

    Reply
    1. John Kirkland

      I would like to speak with you about Carswell Grove. I am a photographer associated with Historic Rural Churches of Georgia (www.hrcga.org) and recently photographed the exterior and cemetery and discovered the great history of this church. HRCGA’s main mindset is to bring attention to these historic treasures and get people to understand why they need to be preserved for future generations. We would like to post the story of your church on our website and give your efforts some additional exposure. I would love to get a few interior shots and I can put you in touch with others from HRCGA who I am sure would love to add a side to the story. If you are interested please contact me at aug333@yahoo.com.

      Reply
  3. Jesse Bookhardt

    Brian,
    I commend you for your attention to this terrible incident. The old building, a replacement for the one that was wantonly destroyed by hatred, still stands as a monument to that fateful day nearly one hundred years ago. It is vanishing a little each day. Your picture and article will help its message last a while longer.
    Many Georgians today don’t want to know what happened in the past for it leaves a sickening feeling. Others don’t want to know, for it leaves a feeling of guilt, though none of us today had anything to do with what happened then, Yet some still harbor racist thoughts . Reading the newspapers of the period is a real eye opener. In the decade of the 1910’s, print media were filled with accounts of gross injustices done to black people and other minorities such as Leo Frank, a Jew. We should have learned our lesson and many have, but it is sad that I still hear racist remarks made when I am out in the public. My hope is that more and more will reject such thinking and soon, after hundreds of years, Georgians and all Americans will have banished a pattern of thought that is centered on color and race. Old buildings that remind us of our history need never vanish but the history that they witnessed in many cases should never be repeated.

    Reply
  4. Ken Peterson

    There was a big Riot here in Winston-Salem ,NC in 1919. There was a big article in our paper about this riot about 3 weeks ago. Long article in the Sunday paper.

    Reply
  5. Neeks

    Wow, what a history. What a place. I hope it can be preserved so that others may know of the terrible things that the ignorant are capable of.

    Reply

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