• Tue. Jun 7th, 2022

Not too long ago, Forsyth County in Georgia was a whites-only territory. Now, it’s a symbol of change in a state that is currently at the epicentre of U.S. politics.

Dec 29, 2020

In 1990, the census listed14 Black people as living in Forsyth. Now, there are nearly 10,000 Black residents, making up 4.4 percent of a population with large minority communities.
Today,nearly one-quarter of the county is a visible minority, as people flock here from elsewhere in the U.S., South Asia and Latin America. That trendline will only accelerate, asarea schools are even more diverse than the general population.
Retired teacher Anna Purcella-Doll witnessed the change first-hand. A native of Albuquerque, N.M., she and her husband moved to Georgia for his job in the insurance industry and settled in Forsyth in 1997.
A woman of Mexican descent, Purcella-Doll recounts mentioning to her husband something she’d noticed upon their arrival. “It’s really strange,” she recalled saying. “I’m the only person who looks like me here.”
A native of New Mexico, retired teacher Anna Purcella-Doll arrived in the county in 1997. She wondered initially why so few people here looked like her, and was shocked to learn the history. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)
She later asked a girlfriend about the absence of minorities on the outskirts of Atlanta’s suburbs. The friend replied: “Anna, you [don’t] know about Forsyth County?”
Another friend, a Black man, once expressed disbelief that she lived there. Working as a trucker, he avoided assignments to Forsyth.
Purcella-Doll recalls the first time she saw a Black person working in the Cumming area: it was the year 2000, at a Verizon store. Nowadays, she estimates nearly one-third of the people in her housing subdivision are people of colour.
Like many newcomers, Purcella-Doll brought her politics to Georgia. A lifelong liberal, she’d stamped envelopes for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972 and worked for a Democratic senator on Capitol Hill during the 1974 Watergate hearings.
Yet upon arriving in Forsyth, she occasionally organized events for Republican candidates she liked who were running in down-ballot races. The reason was simple: there were no Democrats competing locally.
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Connecticut native Eric Cohen tells a similar story. The e-commerce entrepreneur arrived in 2008 after living in different parts of the country. He came to Georgia because his wife’s family is here, and they chose Forsyth for the good schools and low taxes.
He experienced culture shock when he brought his boys to school.
“Basically everybody’s blond and blue-eyed. You’ve got these kids with a Jewish dad going into this public school and it was quite jarring,” Cohen said, sitting for an interview on his front porch. “The kids were basically the only dark-haired children in the school.… I don’t want to say [it was] a time warp — but things were different.”
Cohen arrived just weeks before the 2008 presidential election. He recalled driving around the county and seeing only four Barack Obama campaign signs.
He said being a Democrat in this area, especially back then, created a chill in conversations. He said people would unironically tell him things like, “You’re a Yankee.”
Connecticut native Eric Cohen arrived in Forsyth in 2008. He experienced culture shock when he brought his boys to school. ‘Basically everybodys blond and blue-eyed. Youve got these kids with a Jewish dad going into this public school and it was quite jarring.’ Cohen said. (Alexander Panetta/CBC)
When it came to politics, “you’d kind of speak in code language,” Cohen said. “Democrats [here] were essentially closeted.”
After Donald Trump’s election win in 2016, Cohen got involved again in partisan organizing. He now volunteers locally with the Democratic Party, which he said distributed between 700 and 800 signs in the area for Joe Biden this year.
Until recently, Democratic Party meetings were held in a local funeral home. The establishment’s owner, a Republican who just got elected to the state legislature, offered free space for meetings as a civic favour.
“It was a running joke that Democrats met at a funeral home, because the party was dead,” said Melissa Clink, the Democrats’ chair in the county. “Now [Republicans are] paying attention to us because we’re putting numbers on the board.”
Indeed, Biden actually won aprecinct on the southern edge of the county, closest to Atlanta. A Democrat also won a seat in the U.S. Congress that includes that southern tip of Forsyth; in fact, it’sthe only new seat in the House of Representatives that the Democrats picked up anywhere in the country this year.
The county is split into two political worlds. That southern zone, closer to Atlanta, is increasingly Democratic; the more rural northern part, farther from Atlanta, is ruby-red — in fact, in one remote northern precinct, Biden got just 18 per cent of the vote.
Clink alluded to that divide when, during an interview in the middle of the county, a truck zoomed by with Confederate flags fluttering from it.
“Now you’re getting north,” she said.
Clink grew up in diverse places like Charleston, S.C., and Orlando, Fla., and moved here 11 years ago to be near Lake Lanier and the area’s bountiful nature.
“When I got here, I was culture-shocked,” she said. She recalled sharing her political views once with a work colleague, and the woman said, “I can’t believe it. I’m gonna tell my husband I met a Democrat.”
Clink’s not just any Democrat — she was a delegate at the 2016 Democratic convention for Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist senator.