6 Degrees of Savannah Civil Rights – Part One

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“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately” 
— Ben Franklin

I’ve just returned from a rather cold 5-mile walk in the cemetery under a powerful full moon, or what’s leftover from last evening’s Super Blood Wolf Moon. My soundtrack? Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic speeches here on the nation’s annual holiday just several days after King’s birthday. There was something about the combination of the moonlight illuminating so brightly that objects became stark black and white, King’s God-like voice echoing off of granite and marble headstones like they were his gathered, listening flock. Sadly, King, now more among them, even if the legacy of his words and hypnotic voice live on forever and resonate as vibrantly if not more so.

It has become almost a ritual for me now that I give myself a Dr. King Day every January 21. Generally, I will turn on Savannah State University’s 90.3FM and listen to his speeches and the various interviews and commentaries they play. For an entire day, his voice fills both the foreground and the background of my household. It’s generally a day where I don’t leave the house much, I become that immersive in the spirit of his memory and the meaning of his life. I’ve found its usually a sunny, but colder day in Savannah on King’s Remembrance Day and am embarrassed to admit that I usually skip the morning parade. It’s just that the day wants me to be more meditative and singular, surrounded by my animals and books and the smell of coffee. More Thoreau-in-the-woods kind of experience. Martin would approve but would probably tell me to add a carton of Kent cigarettes. After all he was an intellectual before Minister. 

Young Martin Luther King, Jr, arms open in the way a book is like a friend. After so much reading, Martin was ready to be read like one and he spoke volumes.

Tonight I’m moved to write about Dr. King and The 6 Degrees of Civil Rights’ Separation in my own life. No, I was not there but I moved to a town that was center stage and have, met and in some cases befriended key players who knew other majors. I never got to meet my hero Dr. King, who, at a very young age, became part of my spirit and voice as communicator and orator and storyteller. So to meet people who did, to make studies of their faces and words as they’ve related this story or that one? And to now call these people “my new heroes,” or to have made the friendship of some? Well, I cannot begin to express how deeply its touched my life and that these memories I will carry with me until the end of my own days. I am gobsmacked when I think about it actually. 

This will be a long night for me. But I’m channeling The King Energy so have to honor the muse and of course, you, my reader. There will be a Part Two & Three and will be worth holding out for so stay with me in this path. It will lead somewhere interesting and unexpected. 

I’ve stood next to and touched a real live lynching tree. Like a real one. Not the ones they talk about on cheesy ghost tours, but a true-to-life, hanging tree. I used to sit on the bench beneath its massive branches late at night taking breaks from art projects, or in the afternoons when I watched my dog Mina play nearby.  I loved its large presence and the way it stood behind me. It kept me company. I used to watch the sun go down behind it each night from my 5th Floor apartment 2 blocks away. All Live oaks seem to hold secrets but for a number of years, I had no idea that this one had such a dark past. A rather morbid irony was that it reposed smack dab in the middle of Colonial Park Cemetery. Like some great watchtower, it was the tallest Live oak in downtown Savannah and by some estimates around 120 ft in height. It was often compared to the height of the steeple of The Independent Presbyterian Church as it was visible from pretty much anywhere in the historic district. You can actually glimpse it in my documentary film, “America’s Most Haunted City” or peek it on YouTube in a CMT TV short I did with Coast To Coast Radio’s George Noory. The cemetery had been used for hangings during colonial times and the last mob-style lynching was in 1911. A black man falsely accused of raping a white woman was dragged from the neighboring Old City Jail, then hung from the mighty oak and his body was torched on the tree. The original photo, which had never been previously exhibited or publicly seen, was owned by a mentor who loaned it to the controversial exhibit “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” in 2002 at The King Center. My friend had spoken of it many times, so it was finally something to see it first hand. The image of the charred body forever burned in my mind. Like it was never a man from the start. I never blamed the tree obviously, but when the city cut the perfectly healthy tree down over a decade ago? I felt certain someone either still held a grudge or felt they were putting the tree out of its own historical misery. I wept over that one.
On a “lighter note,” there’s a neighbor who I’ve long respected, the family much admired, he owns a set of swivel stools from a drugstore counter where protestors sat in Savannah during a sit-in during the turbulent ’60s. They repose discreetly and unmarked in his storefront window. When I first asked him why they were there, this rather humble man and not famous for smiling, almost beamed back one when he exclaimed, “Dr. King sat in them and when they closed the department store, I told the man,Save those chairs for me!” You could tell they’ve been a proud possession ever since. 

Although I once lived closer, I’m still just mere blocks from The 2nd African Baptist Church where Dr. King flirted with an early rendition of his famous, I Have A Dream speech. Arguably the greatest speech given in the 20th century and in my opinion is the only rival to “The Gettysburg Address.” Every goose bump from here to eternity now has a built-in reaction, programmed by King’s magnificent oration. Can you imagine having been part of the test audience on that one? And in the same spot, where many years prior, General Sherman had presented his 40 Acres & A Mule edict? Talk about nation changing speeches and what a follow-up for the young Rev King!

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Through the years in Savannah, one of my favorite friendships belongs with notable writer and photographer, Murray Silver, Jr. His father, Murray Silver Sr, wrote the book, Daddy King & Me, about Martin’s father, or the other Martin, “Daddy King,” and the details of their long friendship. Murray Silver not only represented Martin Luther, Jr as an attorney, but he was also on the scene just minutes after Daddy King’s wife, Alberta was murdered in Atlanta in 1974 during the failed attempt on Coretta’s life. It’s odd, yet not surprising, that mainstream media “skips” mentioning this every year when they honor Dr. King. Or that Martin’s brother, Alfred, “A.D.” King drowned mysteriously after his brother Martin’s assassination. Clearly, someone wanted all of these beautiful people dead. To date, Murray Silver, Jr counts Coretta Scott-King offering him a role in helping to develop The King Center in Atlanta one of his life’s great honors. Both Silver men have countless stories and personal photos of the two families in casual gatherings and its that behind-the-scenes stuff of such people that is so priceless to other storytellers like myself.

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PART TWO COMING NEXT WEEK!

In The Land of God & Gullah (Shannon Scott Quoted)

In the Land of God and Gullah

God and Gospel meet African tradition in the South Carolina Lowcountry

“You sure you want to drive out there?” an 82-year-old farmer warns when I stop to ask for directions on a dusty, rutted road in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. “Ahead are the Gullah islands,” he says, shaking his head. “They’re a peculiar people with mighty mysterious ways.”

As I voyage over a gauntlet of bridges and down winding, sun-dappled back roads, past lazy pastures and homespun ma-and-pa stores, decades peel back as St. Helena Island, the center for Gullah culture, emerges through a gauze of saltwater marshes.

The descendants of African slaves, the Gullah today live mostly on the remote barrier islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Neglected during much of the 19th century by their slaveholders — who fled the islands frequently for the cooler inland climate — the Gullah often governed themselves. As a result, they’ve preserved significant elements of their West African culture, such as their African-based Creole language and their expertise in sweetgrass basket-weaving.

But perhaps the Gullahs’ most enduring African legacy is their commitment to a spiritual way of life. “Church is more important in St. Helena, South Carolina, than anywhere else in America,” says Robert Middleton, an 80-year-old island tour guide, driving past a row of single-room churches under a canopy of moss-draped oaks.

As gospel music crackles over car speakers, Middleton, a deacon of a local church, says 90 percent of the people on St. Helena go to church weekly. An impressive figure, considering Gallup recently found only 42 percent of Americans regularly attend church.

The descendants of African slaves, the Gullah often governed themselves. As a result, they’ve preserved significant elements of their West African culture, such as their African-based Creole language and their expertise in sweetgrass basket-weaving.

“Like in Africa, we [Gullah] have always centered our lives around faith,” says Middleton, mopping his glistening forehead with the back of his hand on a sultry afternoon. For example, Middleton says, until not too long ago, the religious and community leaders of the island resolved most quarrels among themselves.

Middleton remembers an incident in the 1950s when two men involved in a shooting on the island were brought to the local Praise House — a small building used for local religious meetings — to resolve the dispute. When the shooter agreed to pay for the wounded man’s injuries, all was forgiven and the men became friends again. “The Bible tells us don’t go to bed angry,” he says, fishing for a key to open the small white clapboard Praise House.

“The Praise House back then was our community center,” Middleton explains, “where we regularly met, danced, stomped our feet and shouted out to the Lord. But today we have our modern churches,” he adds, standing alone in the quiet, century-old, hand-hewn wooden room, where he once attended jubilant services as a boy.

Middleton says that with God’s help, the Gullah culture will endure. “Our roots run deep here,” he says, stepping outside the Praise House, amid live oaks that have stood sturdy with the Gullah since slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Gullah Grub

Setting down a bowl of crab soup and a plate of fried shrimp and shark with red rice, the ebullient Oshi Green, 28, says her family restaurant celebrates their Gullah heritage by serving traditional fare and offering a local hangout.

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From the sweet-creamy aroma of fish chowder wafting from the kitchen to walls lined with colorful Gullah paintings and shelves boasting wooden African figurines, Gullah pride radiates from the Gullah Grub Restaurant.

Gullahs embrace an African culture that honors God by fishing, hunting and gardening, Green says, standing under a large painting of her father hunting. “Living close to the land has long defined African and Gullah culture,” she says.

But as the threat of posh golf courses and tourist-laden resorts closes in on the prize island real estate, many St. Helena residents fear the worst. “This has been our home for over 300 years,” sighs Green. A picture at the cash register says the rest: An African-American woman labors in the fields with the caption, “Gullah Heritage. We won’t give up our land.”

Green says African and Gullah practices often exemplify Christian principles. For example, barter not only provided for the Gullahs’ daily needs on the island during slavery and Reconstruction, but also underscored the Christian value of sharing. “Barter taught us to work together and look out for one another, because if we didn’t help each other, we would have perished,” she explains.

And today, Green says that sharing thrives not only in the churches of St. Helena — which often pool resources to help needy members — but also in the day-to-day life of the island. For example, Green says, when her family restaurant recently had a surplus of collard greens, they traded the excess with a farmer who had extra lettuce. “No money exchanged. It was a real barter,” she says.

Outside the wood-planked Gullah Grub, a grandmotherly Jery Taylor sits and weaves sweetgrass baskets the way West Africans have done for centuries.

Weaving baskets for over 50 years, Taylor says she puts a little bit of God in everything she makes. And it shows. Her baskets adorn the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and galleries throughout the South.

Taylor says the care she puts into weaving baskets stems from reverence for God and her ancestors: “Gullah pride weaves deep.”

Spirit-catching bottles

Outside the gallery, a steel-limbed tree decorated with blue bottles greets customers. “That’s a Blue-Bottle tree,” Smalls says. At night, she explains, daylight-hating evil spirits roam and take refuge inside the bottles, but when the sun rises, the evil ghouls are trapped inside, where the morning sun kills them.

“You can’t get too far from superstition around here,” Smalls says.

Across the street, Victoria Smalls, manager of the Red Piano Too Art Gallery, leads the way through a labyrinth of jostling, color-grabbing paintings of Gullahs laboring in fields, fishing and attending church.

Smalls says Gullah art is practical. “You can paint on a wooden shingle or on an old wooden door. This is art for the masses, not the elite.”

She says the shout — popular in Gullah art and literature — celebrates a vital part of Gullah spirituality. Similar to the African ritual of spirit possession, the shout happens when someone falls under the influence of the Holy Spirit and sings or moves ecstatically. The line between Christianity and African spirituality blurs here, she says.

Outside the gallery, a steel-limbed tree decorated with blue bottles greets customers. “That’s a Blue-Bottle tree,” Smalls says. At night, she explains, daylight-hating evil spirits roam and take refuge inside the bottles, but when the sun rises, the evil ghouls are trapped inside, where the morning sun kills them.

“You can’t get too far from superstition around here,” Smalls says.

Gullah can preach

Down the road, on a Sunday afternoon, hands clap, bodies sway and voices rock the red brick walls of First African Baptist Church on Olde Church Road.

“If you give to the poor and have not love—you have nothing,” the Pastor declares to a packed church of well-dressed parishioners, his mellow cadence building in fervor.

With shout-outs of “Yes, sir” and “Amen,” the congregation engages in a dialogue with their pastor, a holy duet, a back-and-forth repartee.

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“Unlike white churches, preaching in Gullah churches is not a one-way lecture from pastor to parishioners,” says Shannon Scott, a local historian and tour guide. “Gullah churches — steeped in West African worship — are about getting a response from their worshippers, getting everyone involved, the community, the village.”

Working toward a crescendo, the pastor feeds off his flock’s nodding heads, swaying bodies and supportive yelps. “Salvation comes through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on Calvary,” he bellows. More hands clap, more shouts. “Jesus ain’t playing. No, he ain’t playing!”

Scott says the emotionalism of Gullah worship, rooted in traditional African religion, is about experiencing and feeling God — letting God touch you. “It’s not about being passive or overly intellectual like other churches,” he says. “The Gullah got spirit.”

Playing it safe

“That color is called haint blue,” says the old Gullah man pointing to the sky blue trim around a home outside St. Helena. “It scares evil away. My people still have plenty of folk tales, you know.”

The snow-white-bearded Baptist, who asked to be called Adam for this interview, says haint blue is a heavenly color, and evil haints [spirits] won’t have anything to do with heaven. “This comes straight from Africa.”

“It’s trendy now for everybody to paint something haint blue around their homes,” he says, sitting on a park bench behind a home with a bright haint-blue flowerpot in front.

Adam doesn’t put much stock in superstitions, though. “That’s just African folklore. Only Christ can scare away evil spirits,” he says as the glint of a bright haint-blue cross winks beneath his shirt collar.