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Column: Image problem with Lake Lanier has little to do with its name
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

Should Lake Lanier be renamed? That’s the question the feds are asking, as you may have read recently.

Lake of Death? Hauntings Lake? Lake Too Many Drownings? Perhaps one of those would be more appropriate, based on the perception reflected on social media.

Lanier could use some serious rebranding, especially for those living in the big city to our south. It’s a beautiful spot visited by 12 million people a year, but mention boating on Lanier to someone in Atlanta and you may well get a raised eyebrow.

Combatting that negative perception is not exactly what the feds have in mind, though. Their effort would be a rebranding of sorts — moving away from all ties to the Confederacy — but that has little to do with the realities of Lake Lanier.

I couldn’t have told you Sidney Lanier served as a private in the Confederacy before this recent reporting, though if I’d looked at the time period he lived, I might have guessed.

The lake’s namesake was known for his poetry and wrote “The Song of the Chattahoochee,” which seems to be what was being celebrated when the lake was named. He also was summoned to enlist in the Confederate Army, where he served until his capture by Union troops.

That’s a lot of signs to change over an issue that doesn’t seem to have been the point in the first place.

The bigger issue for many has been Lanier’s supposed ties to Oscarville community and the tragedies committed against Black residents who lived in that area of Forsyth County before they were forced out.

So back to that reputation — these rumors have taken on a life of their own in urban folklore, spawning TV show segments and even horror films.

Part of this story is tragically true. What it has to do with Lake Lanier — I haven’t figured that out. 

In 1912, the Black residents of Forsyth County were forced to flee their homes following violence and lynchings.

Several Black men were accused of assaulting White women, in particular 18-year-old Mae Crow, whose body was found in the woods near Oscarville. What ensued was a bitter fight between White and Black communities, with White residents trying to take what they may have believed to be justice into their own hands. A mob seized one of the men accused and hanged him from a telephone pole in the town square. Others were quickly convicted by White juries and hanged. Learn more about the events in this exhibit from the Georgia Library Learning Online. A wave of violence surrounded it all, with White residents riding through the Black community burning homes and throwing explosives into buildings, according to reports at the time from the Gainesville News and Dahlonega Nugget. 

Decades later, Forsyth County still struggled tremendously with racial tension and hatred and it was known as a place unwelcome to any Black people. Riots and marches that garnered national attention were held in the 1980s. Some have worked to heal those deep wounds, and Forsyth has become a more welcoming place as it has grown.

So, now back to Lake Lanier — the timeline has been conflated, touching off the folklore and rumor of Lanier being haunted by those involved in the 1912 tragedies. 

Lanier was built in the 1950s with the damming of the Chattahoochee River. Many residents, most but maybe not all of them White, were relocated as the government worked to secure the land needed for the future lake. Many Black residents had previously lost their land. Of the 58 Black landholders forced out in 1912, 24 were able to sell their land, below its value, according to reports documented in the GALILEO exhibit. For others, there is no record of sale and White neighbors were able to take it and gain ownership by paying the property taxes on it. 

The lake does cover some of what was once Oscarville, while the community still exists in eastern Forsyth County.

While parts of this story have gotten twisted into literal horror films, the Forsyth County tragedy seems much more important to Georgia residents than any ties of Lanier’s to the Confederacy. Maybe the feds will discover that as they move forward in their considerations of whether to rename the lake. Maybe the truth of what happened can become the dominant storyline rather than the supposed hauntings and mishmash of pieces of history.

Rather than renaming the lake and spending who knows how much on signage — perhaps our federal tax dollars would be better spent educating the public about the facts of what happened in Forsyth decades before the lake was built. Or perhaps we could spend that money working harder to prevent the tragedies that happen each summer as people drown in Lanier’s murky waters. 

Whatever its name, it’s been a huge asset to North Georgia and it also demands a healthy fear from any person who wants to play in its waters.

Shannon Casas is director of audience for Metro Market Media, parent company of The Times. She is a North Hall resident.