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The truth behind Oscarville, the once prosperous Black community now covered by Lake Lanier
Lake Lanier

Many living in North Georgia have heard the tales of what lies beneath Lake Sidney Lanier.  

From graves buried by the water to alleged supernatural sightings near Browns Bridge, rumors surrounding Lanier continue to be shared not just across Georgia but across the country, garnering attention toward what some call Georgia’s most haunted lake.  

Some of those stories shared highlight Oscarville, a rural majority Black community that once stood in northeastern Forsyth near the border of Hall County on a portion of the land later used to build the lake. 

Though Oscarville has become a source of legend, what follows is the community’s tragic real-life story as recorded in historical records and other sources. 

‘Strong Black community’ 

Many remember Oscarville simply as a rural area that was later taken up as land to make room for Lake Lanier. But many years before that time, it was a bustling Black community.  

Just before 1912, there were nearly 1,100 Black residents in Forsyth County — with 58 of those residents being landowners, mostly in Oscarville. According to the Digital Library of Georgia, 109 Black residents paid the farm tax, meaning they rented or owned farms. Other Black residents worked in Cumming as craftsmen or other laborers. 

There seemed to be a feeling of community in the town, which quickly became known for their churches. Pastors such as Grant Smith and Levi Greenlee Jr., were “spiritual leaders and outspoken advocates for Black residents,” according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. 

Not only did they help to protect the community, but they worked to bring Black residents together. Surviving records from Greenlee’s church show they organized picnics for churchgoers and collected tithes from many in the community, including some White residents in Cumming. 

A local newspaper archived by the Georgia Newspaper Project showed that Oscarville was a “strong Black community” where many children also attended local schools. A 1908 Georgia schools census shows that 316 children of color were enrolled in school in the county. 

But at the time, some White residents in Forsyth saw this community as a sort of threat. 

One White subscriber wrote a letter to the local paper, expressing a fear that the children attending school might eventually be able to pass the state’s literacy tests for voting that were created to keep Black residents away from the polls. 

And by the end of 1912, two incidents in the county led to the complete abandonment and destruction of what was a successful Black community. 

Racial cleansing 

In September of that year, two alleged assaults against White women were reported in the county. The first alleged assault took place on Sept. 5, when a woman reported that two Black men had assaulted her in Cumming. 

By Sept. 7, Sheriff William Reid had arrested the two men and four “accomplices,” according to the Digital Library of Georgia. 

Just days later, the body of 18-year-old Sleety Mae Crow, a White resident, was found in the woods just east of Cumming. Several Black residents were named as suspects for the alleged rape and murder, including Ernest Knox and Robert Edwards. 

In an effort to provide safety, Knox was transferred to a jail in Atlanta while the remaining suspects stayed at the jail in Cumming. Despite Knox being transferred, a mob of angry White residents gathered outside of the jail that night. 

The mob seized Edwards, a 24-year-old farmhand, from the jail, beating him to death before he was hanged from a telephone pole in the town square. 

This instance started a wave of violence directed toward the Black community in Forsyth County. Mobs came through Oscarville, threatening residents and firing guns into homes. 

“Night riders,” White residents who came through the town at night on horseback, also burned down homes and threw explosives into nearby buildings, according to archived reporting by the Gainesville News and Dahlonega Nugget. 

The violence continued until nearly all of the county’s Black population was forced to flee. 

According to “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” a book written by Patrick Phillips and published in 2016, the county’s Black residents fled in all directions, but the majority made their way to Hall County. 

Oscarville was abandoned, the churches and pillars of their community burnt to the ground. The residents who used to live there were forced to start over, securing jobs and opening businesses where they could in Gainesville. 

And those who owned land in Oscarville no longer felt safe coming back to claim what was theirs. 

What lies beneath Lake Lanier 

Moving forward nearly 40 years, the land that once made up Oscarville in Forsyth County was still mostly abandoned as the Black population in the county remained low. 

Some say when it came to building Lake Lanier in the 1950s, the area was specifically chosen to cover up the town to silently remove the history from the area.

Robert David Coughlin, the author of “Storybook Site: The Early History and Construction of Buford Dam” and a former park ranger on the lake, said the construction of Buford was originally planned in Roswell. It was later moved to Forsyth County because the area was more rural at the time.  

Through the process of preparing for Lake Lanier, the U.S. government acquired the rights to more than 56,000 acres of land in Forsyth, Hall and Dawson counties to make room for the 38,000-acre lake and more than 700 miles of shoreline. 

This included several small towns, most of which consisted of farmland. 

And the acquisition of much of the land did not go smoothly. Coughlin said many families in North Georgia held their land close to their heart as it had been passed down from generation to generation. 

Some refused to leave their land despite generous payments offered by the government, and at least one resident had to be physically removed by force. 

These removals did not seem to be targeted toward Black landowners at the time.  

Records suggest that Black residents did, however, lose the land they once owned in Oscarville after they were driven out of the county after 1912.  

According to Elliot Jaspin, a historian and journalist, only about 24 of the nearly 40 Black landowners in Forsyth County at the time were able to sell their land. The other properties have no record of sale, and some believe the abandoned land was simply taken by White residents. 

Today, Lake Lanier provides water to the metro Atlanta area and draws more than 10 million visitors to its shores each year. Most of that shoreline is in Hall County, though it also borders Dawson, Forsyth and Gwinnett counties. It is Georgia’s most popular lake and also sees several drownings in a typical year, earning it a reputation for being dangerous and deadly.

This article was published in The Times and compiled from information originally published in the Forsyth County News, sister publications of DCN. 

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