Stacey Abrams made history Tuesday night by being the nation’s first black woman nominated for governor by a major political party. She also upended Georgia’s conventional wisdom about minority candidates.
If there was a conception that African-Americans will have trouble winning primaries in areas without many minorities, Abrams shattered it; she won everywhere and by huge margins.
In fact, out of Georgia’s 159 counties, she won all but 6 of them, besting rival Stacey Evans in many white enclaves across the state.
Particularly notable is Abrams’ resounding victory in Atlanta-area Forsyth County, which was considered hostile to African Americans for nearly a century. Before some recent changes, it was referred to for years by area residents, and virtually was, a whites-only county.
As recently as 1990, 14 black residents lived in Forsyth County.
But on Tuesday, Abrams carried 63 percent of the vote, out of about 6,300 Democratic votes cast (the county was among the top 20 of 159 for Democratic primary turnout in Georgia.)
The sin of Forsyth County’s purge dates back nearly 100 years to 1912. That year, the county’s black population, about 1,000 people at the time, were driven out altogether after what was essentially a white riot. A young white woman had been murdered. One of the black men accused of the crime was beaten and lynched. Widespread attacks and burning of African American homes across the county followed.
The horrible episode was documented by Patrick Phillips, who grew up there and called it a “racial cleansing” in his book Blood at the Root.
“You know, this is – was not unique to Forsyth that there was an attempt at racial cleansing. What’s really unique to Forsyth is that it’s a place where it succeeded and that effort was successful for, you know, almost 100 years. It was still a, quote, unquote, “white county” when I was growing up there in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And it really in some ways - I mean, in the book, there’s a flashpoint in 1912,” Phillips told NPR in 2016.
In the late 1990s and into the new century, the picture slowly began to change, but black residents remained a slim minority. The last complete Census in 2010 shows that only 4,510 African Americans lived in the county, out of more than 175,000 people.
Forsyth has tried to shed its racist past in recent years, and to some extent has succeeded in making minority populations more welcome. In 2016, a black Democratic candidate even ran for state senate and garnered 22% of the vote against the heavily favored Republican on Election day. It is unlikely that Abrams will do much better when voters choose their next governor in November.
President Donald J. Trump won the county by a huge margin that year, with 75% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 25%. There were about 6,300 people who voted in the Democratic primary Tuesday night. Closer to 19,000 voted in the Republican primary. Clearly, it remains a Republican stronghold.
But Abrams’ resounding victory in Forsyth – even though just among Democrats – could be a harbinger of a more broader appeal. November, of course, will tell us just how much.