Encounters With Ghosts on Georgia’s Golden Isles

In the fall of 1858, an elegant 114-foot yacht arrived on the reedy shores of Jekyll Island off the southern coast of Georgia. The Wanderer had traveled seven days from West Africa before mooring clandestinely on the island’s marshy coast. Owned by the South Carolina businessman and socialite William Corrie, the vessel was often used for entertaining wealthy friends. On this occasion, though, the Wanderer’s mission was less benign: Crammed beneath its deck were hundreds of kidnapped West Africans, destined to labor on the region’s plantations in defiance of the U.S. ban on the importation of slaves that had been instituted a half-century earlier. While historians debate various details of the crime, it’s generally agreed that some 400 Africans arrived on Jekyll Island, with scores dying en route from disease.

These days on the island, most talk of the Wanderer’s smuggling operations borders on the academic: Here, tourists learn, is where the last large-scale importation of slaves into the United States occurred, followed a couple of years later by an Alabama-bound vessel called Clotilda, which would infamously import the last known West Africans to be sold in Alabama.

Yet among the area’s dwindling population of African-American natives — many of them direct descendants of those kidnapped Africans who were scattered across Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island, Sapelo and Brunswick — the Wanderer’s story is, like so much of their history, an open wound, scarcely hidden behind luxury condos, upscale restaurants and boutiques.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard stories about the beauty of the Golden Isles, four barrier islands and the region that surrounds them in southeastern Georgia. I’ve listened politely to recollections of excursions there, about the aroma of salt air wafting off the Atlantic, sea birds wheeling in the cloudless skies, the fantastic seafood dinners.

Through all the gushing, I never considered visiting these parts. The reason was simple: I’m not a fan of the Deep South. Too much Black blood spilled here. As an African-American, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to outrun the ghosts of the South: their Confederacy, their Ku Klux Klan, their plantation overseers and all the other terrorists I’d read about in history books and viewed on TV and movie screens. For years, I wished I could unsee that scene in “Roots,” the miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s book about slavery in the Deep South, when Kunta Kinte, a proud, young, kidnapped African, was savagely whipped until he mouthed the word Toby, the name being forced on him by his New World captors.

It took something of a miracle — OK, her name is Stacey Abrams — to even put, as Ray Charles once crooned, Georgia on my mind. In the swirl of nasty 2020 election politics, the former Georgia state representative and minority leader won me over. Ms. Abrams, an African American, was fearless, transformative, relevant. And I liked how she put white supremacists, and the ghosts they spawned, on notice. “We must never celebrate those who defended slavery and tried to destroy the Union,” Ms. Abrams once tweeted. “Confederate monuments belong in museums where we can study and reflect on that terrible history, not in places of honor across our state.” She backed up her rhetoric with results, building an organization powerful enough to register enough Democrats to turn the state from red to blue — or at least, purple — in the recent elections.

Driving, reflecting, reclaiming

Ms. Abrams’s hard work is now under threat by the new state voter suppression law, but the progress she made inspired me to try to visit Georgia, an epicenter of African-American history and culture, with a new attitude; to hang out in some of its less-frequented coastal areas (and yes, away from a wave of newly, often reckless, unmasked crowds) and confront some of my own lingering ghosts in the state where my paternal grandparents were born.

The drive from my home in Columbia, Mo., where I am a journalism professor, to southern Georgia was just over 14 hours long, but I was excited to be on the road again after an epic pandemic lockdown. As I drove across the flat highways of Illinois, into the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, I reflected on some of the history I’d read about my destination — about how the Timucua, a Native American people, were the area’s first-known inhabitants; how the Spanish and English would eventually battle over ownership of this land before it was ultimately colonized by the English; about how the colonists began importing slave labor from West Africa to exploit domestic and overseas demand for cotton and rice from the South’s fertile soil.

I thought about how, following the Civil War, many of the landowners fled, while the area’s Black population, now emancipated, began building self-sustaining communities in coastal towns stretching from North Carolina to Florida — in some areas, they were able to preserve much of their African culture, known as Gullah Geechee. And I thought about the U-turn many northern African Americans are making these days: a reverse migration toward the warmer weather of the South, family heritage and less expensive, simpler lives.

Of course, many never left — or at least not for long. One morning on St. Simons Island, I found Amy Lotson Roberts, 73, sitting amid vintage photographs of students and teachers in what used to be the Harrington Graded School, a long-ago segregated school for Black children that’s been converted into a cultural center and gift shop.

Ms. Roberts, whose great-grandfather was among those smuggled on the Wanderer, has lived most of her life on St. Simons, and today runs the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition, which is fighting a battle against land speculators and wealthy property owners. All but vanished are the Gullah Geechee fish camps, soul food restaurants, farmers whose cattle and hogs once grazed in dense woods. The area was once dotted with shanties and old slave cabins where people still lived; the few remaining have been preserved for tourists. Even a so-called slave cemetery, part of the former Retreat Plantation, is tucked away in a private golf club. When Ms. Roberts visits deceased kin, she must be cleared by Retreat Golf Course security guards. “I don’t beat around the bush,” Ms. Roberts says, waving her hand dismissively. “I just drive on in. ‘How you doin’ today?’”

On Jekyll Island

After a restless sleep in an Airbnb in a St. Simons condo, with loud ducks outside my window sounding like the horn section of a middle school orchestra, I wanted to leave this posh enclave. So I set off on the 30-minute drive to tranquil Jekyll Island, driving across the marsh-flanked causeways until I reached the entrance to the 5,500-acre island, where I paid an $8 fee to proceed into the state park’s labyrinth of winding roads.

I stopped in a gift shop, a charmingly restored horse stable, and chatted up the store manager who shared the island’s interesting history. Colonized by General James Edward Oglethorpe in 1733, Jekyll Island became a major cotton plantation, thriving particularly in the late 1700s under the ownership of Christophe Poulain DuBignon, whose heirs owned it for nearly a century.

After the Civil War, the family turned the island into an exclusive hunting club that, by the turn of the century, would evolve into the Jekyll Island Club, which Munsey’s Magazine called “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible club in the world,” boasting such members as Marshall Field, J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer and William K. Vanderbilt. The club dissolved during World War II, and in 1947 the state of Georgia purchased the island and turned it into a public park. I inquired about Jekyll Island’s historic segregated beach, and the manager handed over a map of the island, pointing out the beach’s location.

My interest in St. Andrews Beach was less about swimming than about how it came to be. Its history is remarkable: Back in the late 1940s‚ a white Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist named Roy Sprigle colored himself black during his investigation of the color line in the Deep South. Among his observations, published in serialized articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: In this beautiful coastal community, African Americans were prohibited from swimming — or as he put it, there was nowhere “a Negro can stick a toe in salt water.” Those who dared to do so were, at best, fined $50.

“Georgia bought the fabulous Jekyll Island‚ playground of the Rockefellers‚ Whitneys and Bakers for $800‚000,” wrote Sprigle. “It will build a great seashore resort for the citizens of Georgia. But there will be no accommodations for Negroes‚ despite pleas by most of the Negro organizations in the state.”

The series, along with petitions by Black residents in nearby Brunswick, sparked a furor that led the state, in 1950, to grant African Americans access to a slice of Jekyll — the first public beach in Georgia open to Black people. The area soon blossomed; its Dolphin Club and Motor Hotel became a “Chitlin’ Circuit” hot spot in the 1950s, luring such performers as B.B. King, Otis Redding, Millie Jackson and Percy Sledge.

Relaxing in the solitude of a nearly empty St. Andrews Beach, with its eerily beautiful sun-bleached dead trees, and pelicans swirling and dipping along the white sandy shore, I couldn’t shake a sense of despair over what the moment must have been like for captive Africans arriving on these “Golden Isles.” I thought of the revolt in 1803 at Igbo Landing at Dunbar Creek on St. Simons Island, among the largest mass suicides of enslaved people. Historians don’t always agree on the facts — some naysayers have even called the occurrence a legend — but here’s what’s been recorded: The Savannah slave merchants John Couper and Thomas Spalding purchased 75 Igbo and other West African captive slaves for $100 apiece, planning to sell them to plantation owners on St. Simons. During the 1803 voyage from Savannah to St. Simons, the Black captives took control of the vessel, drowned the crew and then themselves. The tale of African resistance, the choice to die rather than submit, is kept alive in Gullah Geechee culture.

Into the swamp

Stories of slave revolts at once inspire and sadden me. Not long ago, I read that some enslaved Black people who managed to escape plantation life headed into the treacherous swamps of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida instead of fleeing north on the Underground Railroad. Some wound up in the Okefenokee Swamp, or “Land of the Trembling Earth.”

Browsing Google, I came across an excerpt of the historian Sylviane A. Diouf’s book, “Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of American Maroons”: “Seclusion, not distance,” she wrote, “was in most cases the determining factor in the settlement in the hinterland.”

I decided to go to the swamp the following morning. The 90-minute drive took me deeper into a stretch of rural America, a land of farmhouses, pickup trucks and quaint main streets.

I arrived at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge around noon, purchased a $28 ticket, and within minutes I was on a schooner with a few other tourists on a 90-minute guided tour. The swamp, according to our guide, is geologically about 10,000 years old. Floating through the still, shallow waters beneath a canopy of cypress trees and Spanish moss, I learned many things from our guide: that the swamp, one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world, spans some 438,000 acres; that it’s home to 13,000 alligators, all sorts of rare and endangered birds, turtles and other wildlife. I also learned that our guide didn’t know much about this swamp providing refuge for escaped slaves. I pressed a bit, but my inquiry drew only a polite smile, followed by trivia about the waxy yellow plants we were motoring past:“They’re called ‘neverwet’, and you can guess why.”

While historical records are sketchy, archaeologists say that hundreds, perhaps thousands, settled in the swamps of the Deep South, including the Okefenokee, from the late 1600s to the Civil War. Most were Native Americans seeking refuge from the colonial frontier, but over time came escaped slaves, white outlaws and Civil War defectors. They lived in elevated shacks; many subsisted off stolen livestock. Looking out over the quiet swamp, its waters dark and teeming with alligators, I could scarcely imagine the thirst for freedom that would lead those people to make this backwater their home. I left, mesmerized by their stealth and resistance.

Traffic back to St. Simons was light. Still, the drive seemed to take forever. I was tired and hungry, but reluctant to pull into any of the small towns along the way. I decided to hold off eating until dinner, when I headed over to Mr. Shuck’s Seafood in Brunswick, a laid-back, Black-owned eatery about 30 minutes inland. As I approached, I felt an instant familiarity: the urban vibe, the strip malls, the racial diversity. Dinner was delicious: dish after dish of blackened shrimp, fried shrimp, catfish, garlic corn. I dipped it all in the best butter sauce I’ve ever had. Sipping beer, I looked around and appreciated this lively pocket of Blackness surrounding me.

As I exchanged pleasantries with my waitress, she explained that many of the area’s Black residents live in or just outside of Brunswick, including, she said, Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old African-American man who was pursued and fatally gunned down by a white man and his son last February while jogging.

A radical turnabout

The following morning, I headed back to Brunswick, this time to its rural outskirts, to Gilliard Farms — a family-run organic farm, known for its organic rye, red clover, hibiscus, sugar cane rice and Sea Island red field peas. It is run by Matthew and Althea Raiford, sibling African-American farmers who are the family’s sixth generation to farm the land since it was established in 1874 by their great-great-great grandfather, Jupiter Gilliard.

I was vaguely familiar with Matthew, a 2018 James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef in the Southeast. I had seen articles about his homecoming eight years ago, and more recently about his new cookbook, “Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes From a Sixth-Generation Farmer,” which chronicles his culinary journey and his decision to return to his roots in order to save a fading family legacy. “As I touch these vestiges of the past, I am reminded of how those who came before me withstood the legal and social assaults of racism and discrimination by building self-sufficient communities,” he writes. “And I can’t help but think that restaking my claim on these lands might help us to heal, to reconcile, to create a healthier way forward.”

When I arrived, Matthew and his wife, Tia, who met as students at the elite Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N. Y., were busy in the rustic, wood-paneled kitchen, slicing, dicing and searing meats and vegetables as they prepared to cater the annual Taste of Gullah festival later that evening. Still, the couple treated me to an ice-cold hibiscus tea and sweet potato chips.

We talked for a while about how our past informs the present in beautiful and tragic ways. It took two tours of duty in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Matthew, 53, told me, to make him appreciate his Georgia roots and start thinking about keeping the farm alive. It was a radical turnabout: He remembers at 10 being denied use of a public bathroom in Brunswick. By the time he was 13, he was fed up with living second-class. He recalls standing out on the farm and looking at his grandmother, fuming that when he grew up he was going to hightail it away from Southern farm life for somewhere, anywhere better than Gilliard Farms. “I’m never coming back,” he said.

His grandmother’s response, till this day, haunts him: “Baby,” she said calmly, “you’ll never know when you need to come home.”

Ron Stodghill, the author of “Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture,” is a frequent contributor to the Times.

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