Odysseys for the Soul

 

Embarkation

by Tony Whedon

He was a very big kid, and black, blue black, and quite smart, but he struggled to make himself understood. He was from the Georgia sea islands, and spoke a Geechee/Gullah dialect; he said he was a Salt-water Geechee, whatever that was; and he was fond of a painting by Antoine Watteau, “The Embarkation to the Isle of Cythera.” Was there a connection between his fascination with eighteenth-century French art and his home place? How had he learned about art before college? After class one afternoon, he came to my dungeon of an office at Morehouse College where I’d been teaching only a couple of months.

“I won’t stay in Atlanta — the students, they don’t get me, and I don’t get them.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“We go other ways — we’re different, me and them.”

I recall the story he told of the island he’d come from. Until college he’d rarely gone to the mainland, but despite his isolation, the high school he attended had been a good one. Sapelo was a small farming and fishing community. Those living there were descendants of the island’s original slaves. They kept to themselves. They retained a dialect that had much in common with West African languages. I was intrigued by his background, and he was eager to show me his work. He wanted to do more than I expected of him. But — why Watteau and this painting? Nothing was more removed from the problems he’d confronted since he came from his island, and he had no answer except that he really loved the dramatic sweep of it, the suggestion of luminous vistas, of yet-to-be-explored horizons. Watteau was innocent the way my student was innocent, and dreamy like he was. He mooned over the painting, couldn’t get enough of it. My ignorance and my indifference concerning the young man’s background — the island he was from and who lived there — wouldn’t be clear to me ‘til years later.

That student played but a small part in my memory of my first teaching job. There was getting to know my colleagues and the nightly news of Vietnam; there was the burgeoning Black Power movement and its effect on my students. Many of the issues I addressed in the classroom were with me then: how responsible was I to the past? How difficult was it for a young man from an out-of-the-way island on the Georgia coast to adjust to this new life? To come to Atlanta and Morehouse was to assume a responsibility, to be thrust into a present he might not have been ready for. His peers would assume positions as doctors and lawyers, mayors and civic leaders — while others, like him, would go back home as teachers and preachers. In the recent past, the successful blacks, the up-and-coming (the “uppity” who “deserved to learn a lesson”) became lynching targets — they were the ones in whom a fear of violence was especially strong.


I hadn’t puzzled out these things ‘til I saw James Allen’s book Without Sanctuary, a collection of ancient postcards and news pictures assembled by Allen and recently published by Twin Palms Press — a book that spotlights the lurid fascination whites in the early twentieth century, both south and north, took in lynching photos.

My wife Suzanne and I ran into Allen at the antique shop he runs in Darien near Sapelo Island, where my student had come from and where we intended to spend a short vacation. Allen calls himself a “picker,” a word that denotes a collector of odd or antique things; and he’s dedicated much of his life to collecting lynching photographs.

The first photograph to catch my attention was of — the bludgeoned body of an African American male, propped in rocking chair, blood-splattered clothes, white and dark paint applied to face, circular disks glued to cheeks, cotton glued to face and head, shadow of man using rod to prop up the victim’s head. Circa 1900, location unknown. Gelatin silver print. Real photo postcard. 5-3/8 X 2-7/8.

There’s a grotesque formality to the man’s attire: In a long-sleeved white shirt, vest, and trousers, he’s in church-going clothes — his painted face looks minstrel-like. The wrenching part is that he’s been arranged, composed, turned into a work of art. The devastation evoked by this photo is brutally final. And it’s all done in obscene slapstick. That’s what this collection communicates — a reveling in shame, a brazen mocking of human life.


Sapelo Island, the third largest of Georgia’s barrier islands, is estuarial and mysterious: a world that looks to be half-water, half-land, an oozy admixture of sea green and dirt brown. The story goes that when the first slave ship arrived, the African cargo had a collective vision of what lay ahead — a hundred years of slavery, another hundred of Jim Crow — and waded into the Atlantic Ocean and drowned swimming back to Africa. Others arrived and stayed. Because they lived on an island, they weren’t apt to flee, and they were given small plots where they grew their own food. They fished the tidal marshes and hunted the island. And they remained as families and practiced their religion — Christian, Moslem, and a little of both — and kept their language which remained with them until yesterday. After the Civil War they were given a measure of prosperity and freedom; then came post-Reconstruction and draconian laws that enticed white plantation owners to reclaim their land and their former slaves they now called “tenant farmers.”

The burial grounds and graveyards of Sapelo would provide the islanders a vague tracery back to the first arrivals. Collective memory would do the rest.


Sapelo is ten miles long, three miles wide, and flanked by little Sapelo and Blackbeard Islands (named after the pirate whose treasure is said to be buried there). It is defined by salt marshes, upland maritime forests, beach and dune systems, and the Atlantic Ocean. Like other Georgia sea islands, it rides low in the water and is vulnerable to ocean storms. Save for the village of Hog Hammock, most of it is unpopulated. Until you come on it, all you see is a widening channel and waist-high spartina grass, a shrimp boat in the distance — a marginal world of 8-foot tides, land that’s slowly becoming water, and a wide horizon.

 We disembark at a splintery dock at Marsh Landing where a half-dozen pickups are off-loading beer and soda. We’re met by the brother-in-law of Cornelia Bailey, the lady renting us our cottage. On our way to Hog Hammock, the last remaining island settlement, he tells us his son Allen Bailey has just been drafted by the NFL (after graduating from the University of Miami). The island’s in a state of excitement over that news and the upcoming 150th anniversary celebration of the African Baptist Church.

We’ve made the trip once before — last fall for the yearly Island Homecoming for hundreds of former islanders and a few tourists. We were moved by the celebration and through the Vermont winter talked about a return. This late April day the village feels African; the houses are haphazardly arranged and are all painted blue: My impression is of plainness, neatness, and a spare dignity. There’s a spiffy looking Sapelo Community Center, a new and apparently well-funded library, two churches, a poorly stocked convenience store run by our landlady, and a B and B she runs, too. Cornelia’s been written about by historians and anthropologists and is the author of a beautiful Sapelo memoir: She has traveled to Sierra Leone to visit her ancestral village. The corn in her back garden is knee-high; there are collards and turnip greens for picking, and a screened chicken house, a grape arbor, already leafed-out, and a pecan tree, just past flowering. We sit for a while on lawn chairs beneath the pecan tree. A garter snake idles along in the short grass. You can hear surf a mile away to our east and a woodpecker banging himself senseless on a dead oak nearby.


Plate 78. Corpse of black male slumped to his knees, tied to trunk of pine tree by leather strap around neck. Bicycle with coat neatly folded leans against fence post. Covered hack with two well-dressed white men in the background. Pre-1915 southern United States. Gelatin silver print. Real photo-postcard. 5-½ x 3-½.

According to the text in Without Sanctuary, “The victim was shot in the eyes, ears, mouth and torso. He was shot in the groin, at very close range, as he attempted to protect his genitals with his bound hands. Palmetto scrub, a lack of mature trees and the growth of Spanish moss suggest a coastal region, possibly an abandoned plantation.”

No painting or photo terrifies and disgusts me as much as this. The trees are spindly-tall, ghostly and eviscerated, and straggly Spanish bayonets poke around the man like daggers. All the lynching photographs in Without Sanctuary come with a harrowing narrative; this one (plate 78) is thick with it: The waiting hack (or buckboard) at right suggests its passenger is eager to be on his way; the bicycle with neatly folded jacket on its handlebars is emblematic of an ordinary life interrupted. Unlike others in the Allen collection, the photo projects an air of desertion; and there’s the ghastly pornography of turning the man’s death into a postcard. Are photographer and executioner the same? Both understood the image would become a print (lynching photo-postcards were a tradition in the South), and clearly the photographer and onlookers experienced no shame. It wasn’t enough for the black man to be killed once. He had to be shot over and over.

And he had to know he was being photographed.


Cornelia Bailey drove us to our one-room “cottage.” It had a wide screened porch with an unspectacular view of an overgrown lawn and pine woods. Hummingbirds flitted around. Behind us in a ramshackle trailer beneath towering live oaks lived Stanley, Cornelia’s son, and Stanley’s wife and a terrified little mutt cowering on the porch when we came to visit. It was a quiet place, not particularly beautiful like other parts of the island. The African Baptist Church and a lovely campground were a half-mile down the road. North of us was the great mass of island owned by the University of Georgia, off limits without a permit to go there.

Cornelia said she worried about one of her foster kids who had disciplinary problems, and we talked about how kids grow up, the good and bad points of raising them on islands. Until a short time ago there weren’t many single mom families. “Mostly we are pretty tight knit,” she said. “Meaning, we take care of our own. Everyone knows everybody else’s business.” I said I had no kids. “You mean you have no one to follow you?” she asked. I said no — it was just as well — and she laughed. That’s how the afternoon passed. We sat there a long while, the sun setting behind us, everything still and quiet.


Over the next few days, I studied Allen’s compilation of lynching photographs. As far as I knew, no such violence had been visited on Sapelo. But how was I to know? My fascination with the place will always be linked by memory association with Without Sanctuary. Until three decades ago, there’d been several small communities on the island: Bel Marsh, Raccoon Bluff, Chocolat, and Hog Hammock, but they’re gone now save for the Hammock. Islanders tend think they’re sufficient unto themselves and they conceal things; their affairs are left for the “outside” to figure out. On Sapelo their insularity is enhanced by them being black, and mistrustful.

Every island frets over land issues: On Sapelo these go back three-quarters of a century to when tobacco king R.J. Reynolds bought the estate of Hudson Auto manufacturer Howard Coffin and took over a mansion built on the foundations of Thomas Spalding’s original 1803 plantation house. (The stock market crash of 1929 and The Great Depression resulted in the financial and emotional ruin of Coffin, who sold Sapelo to tobacco king R.J. Reynolds in 1934, in order to keep his Sea Island Company solvent. Coffin died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1937.) When Reynolds moved in, there were four black communities, and after he was done offering a pittance to buy out the islanders (and forcing others to move by closing roads he claimed to own) only Hog Hammock was left north of Reynolds’ estate on the south side of the island.

Today Reynolds’ Mediterranean-style villa is managed by the University of Georgia, sold to them by Reynolds’ widow. It is rented on weekends to tourist groups; the outbuildings are occupied by U. of Georgia marine biologists. Outside the mansion, placed around crumbling fountains and abutments, are a half dozen statues of pubescent girls, a bizarre pair of turkey statues — Reynolds’ last wife, his fourth, was fond of them — and mossy live oaks, their serpentine limbs over-arching winding gravel paths.

“Yes, Reynolds gave us jobs and now the Institute gives us jobs,” Cornelia said in a defeated tone. “One thing we can say about us, and that is we survived, we may not have prospered — some of us did — but we did all right for ourselves.”

She didn’t say that the islanders were paid just minimum wage, as I learned later, and that they were still treated like “hired help.” The folks I’d met at the October homecoming, many teachers, social workers, and business people, were success stories by anyone’s standards. We talked about church — the two in Hog Hammock, St. Luke’s and the African Baptist Church, were the island’s social hubs — but while she took part in their gatherings she wasn’t a staunch believer.

“No, never was,” Cornelia said. “You know I died once — was brought back to life, and everyone thought I should be able to see things. But I was just an ordinary kid.”

The story, as she tells it in her beautiful memoir God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man, is that when she was around five, after she and her older brother Asberry ate some green pears at their home in Bel Marsh, she got deathly ill: “Mama and Papa tried every remedy they could and nothing worked. There’s a plant here called the fever bush because you could make a tea out of it to lower your temperature, but that bush isn’t ready to pick until late summer, so they had to try something else.”

Cornelia’s mother bathed her in tepid water but that had no effect, so her father went out and picked some leaves from the beauty berry bush, another plant growing on the island. “In the fall of the year the beauty berry bush has clusters of bright purple berries and that’s why it’s called the beauty berry bush, but it’s the leaves that you use and they’re out in the spring. Mama crushed the leaves, mixed them with vinegar and slathered it all over my body to make the fever go down. But that didn’t work either.”

Too scared to sleep, her parents stayed up all night. Her mother watched and prayed, acknowledging Cornelia’s fate was in the Lord’s hands. Then, as she says, “A little before daybreak, I died.” Her story continues with her father measuring her for a casket and her mother plaiting her hair and placing her limp body into a Sunday dress. It was the only dress she had that wasn’t handmade. “It was a little frilly dress with ruffles and lace. Then Mama laid me out on the double bed in the living room that Papa and she slept in, a brown-colored iron bed.

“I was dead and Mama was crying.”

No one believed the little girl was dead, and they checked for a heartbeat, couldn’t find a pulse, and even did the “mirror test,” holding a mirror over her mouth to see if it fogged up, and there was no sign that she was breathing. No sign of breath. She was dead.

I was struck reading Cornelia’s book by the rich details throughout. I loved her digressions — she had an indelible memory, a brilliant imagination, and an artful way of weaving together her story. Rather than move to its anticipated climax, that she lived to tell the tale, she shows how just before she “died” her father went off to her uncle’s house to have a drink. When he and Uncle Nero returned, they were told she’d died. Both the uncle and her father were there and Uncle Nero kept saying, “Bury the chile, whatcha y’all waitin’ for? Bury the chile.”

“So it was time for the cemetery,” Cornelia tells us.

She was saved by a Cousin Dorothy who instructed her mother to insert garlic poultices in her nose and mouth, and that brought her back to life. From then on she was expected by the village to have visions. While she insists she was just an “ordinary” child, the expectation has stayed with her: Her vivid storytelling connects us not only to her childhood but to the island’s past.


As more and more folks leave the island, the past is reclaimed, memory is enhanced by desertion, a paradox that obtains in all abandoned places. We speak of spots reclaimed by nature, but less often of them being reinhabited by the past. There are spots on the island whose deep-forested isolation defies description. A walk down Dog Patch Road has a kind of haunting monotony: The deeper you go, the dreamier the landscape becomes. Live oaks bearded with Spanish moss, a mist rising from the drainage ditches, and a rhapsodic silence. On island walks I’ve seen the scat of wild Sapelo island boar, the shit of wild cows. Century-old accounts mention hosts of poisonous snakes — coral snakes, water moccasins — and flocks of pestering mosquitoes. Freshwater sloughs are scattered about the island containing bottomland hardwoods like maple and sweet gum. There are gators too, I’ve seen one behind our cottage, and armadillos; I literally bumped into one on a wooded path where it was shoveling its snoot into the earth for grubs. Birds are the main attraction. Shore birds and semitropical species in stands of slash, loblolly, longleaf, and pond pine and of course in the live oak climax forest. The legendary Ivory Billed Woodpecker is rumored to survive in the hardwood swamps of the barrier islands — I’ve seen its pileated cousin hammering away across from our cabin; and of course, there’s pelicans on dock pilings where the ferry puts in; and the occasional soaring eagle and hordes of wattle-necked buzzards and wild turkeys.

The second day on Sapelo I took a long walk up to Cabretta beach, an expanse of dunes and spartina grass with no one on it but me. A shallow lagoon with minnows lay in front of the beach, and more than a quarter mile off there were low breakers. I walked the beach, picking shells, and came on carcasses of jellyfish and horseshoe crabs. The gentle slope to the ocean meant that there was a long way for the tide to come in.


That evening a storm blew through, one of a violent line raking the southeast this spring. The sky went black, the power cut off, and lightning struck several times a bit too close. After the storm we walked down to the African Baptist Church where an anniversary service was underway. I was surprised how few people were attending, but there was a good-sized choir and a guest minister from the mainland. I learned that Reverend Ronnie Legget was a part-time actor and had appeared in a Hollywood movie. His sermon on Matthew III was admonitory.

“Would God be proud of you, his son?” Legget asked.

He was a robust-looking man not much over 40, but he had a grandson he hoped to be proud of one day.

“But it works both ways,” he said. “He needs to be proud of me, understand, to see in me something he might one day become!”

After the service we wandered into the church’s rectory, a small kitchen/dining area (we were invited by one of the women parishioners), surprised to find ourselves almost alone. Outside the churchgoers were climbing into a school bus; actually they were from off-island and were heading to the ferry back to the mainland. If church attendance is a symptom of a community’s health, Hog Hammock didn’t pass the exam.

A guy named Bill Grovener introduced himself and it was just him — a good-sized man in a well-pressed suit with a military style haircut and a pushed-in no-nonsense face — and us. He’d been away from the island several decades, had worked in security at Boston’s Mass General Hospital and then moved to DC where he’d been a cop for more than ten years. A descendant of the island’s slaves now back here and living alone, he said he felt lonely. Later I heard from Cornelia that Grovener hadn’t “fit in” — didn’t get together and drink Saturday nights with the men but was here to find something, maybe in himself, maybe in the island, who knows which?


59. The charred torso of an African American male hung in a coastal Georgia swamp, onlookers. 1902 Gelatin silver print 2-1/4 x 1-7/8.

60. Reverse of photograph (plate 59) depicting warning note on pine tree. Inscription: “Warning, The answer of the Anglo Saxon race to black brutes who would attack the womanhood of the south.”

Unlike other lynching photos where the photographer makes the victim an identifiable person by placing him front and center and memorializing his vulnerability, plates 59 and 60 show a corpse charred beyond recognition. Slung on a rope some 20 feet above the mob, nothing’s recognizable about him, he’s a ragged torso; his limbs are half burnt off, and wrenched from his humanity he becomes every victim of mob violence while the men below — their stupidity is breathtaking.

Allen tells us these snapshots bought “by a flea market trader” [Allen himself?] had been stored in the trunk of a prominent family during the dispersal of an estate.” As memorabilia of what whites in the south still call a simpler life and time, they expose The Mind of the South in complete debasement. Did a family member watch the burning and the lynching? What sort of emotion (shame, remorse?) was attached to the pictures? According to the Chicago Record Herald, "A bright bonfire was seen in the swamp in the direction the posse went Friday night and the members of the posse returned stating that they were satisfied with the night’s work. It now develops, however, that their victim may not have been Richard Young, for whom the officers of the law are still searching. The remains of the burned negro were brought before the mother of Richard Young who says that they resemble her son in no particular."

Jimmy Allen tells us lynching in the southeast wasn’t as frequent as elsewhere because blacks were relatively well off: They had their own property and political power; and with lots of middle-class blacks in a region, it would’ve been hard for whites to stir up trouble. But even in relatively benign black settlements the inhabitants were slow to return after the Civil War — they didn’t want to be reminded of slavery. It might be argued that in a black middle-class environment, where denial runs deep, folks don’t want to be reminded of lynching and their Jim Crow past either.


African–Americans have been on Sapelo since the eighteenth century. At one point, they exceeded 1,000: the ancestors of those now living in Hog Hammock and others scattered across the lowlands were brought by Georgia planter Thomas Spalding. Before him there was a Spanish mission, Mission San Joseph de Sapala (ca. 1605–1684), on the island. Afterward and before the Revolution two private owners from English families grew crops there. At the close of the 18th century, a French aristocrat and pirate, Christophe Poulain DuBignon, and four French countrymen settled on the island, bringing slaves and cattle and intending to sell slaves. The name of his boat — The Sapelo. But their involvement on Sapelo was ill-fated: In 1795, not long after they’d settled in, the six-man partnership ended with a duel between two of the Frenchmen in which one of them was killed; another died that same year from yellow fever.

Barrier islands are more open to change than others — history happens there because they hug the mainland and are open to the sea. Marginal places where land and water merge, because of the tides, they’re immersed in change — their populations are often spicy gumbos of history and culture. We see this on Sapelo with its French, English, and West African dialects and in its layered history. The first known practicing Muslim in America, a Bilali (or Ben Allah), was Thomas Spalding’s right-hand man acting as boss man and a sort of deputy-governor of slaves. He’s thought to have studied at a West African Islamic University before his capture in his teens when he was brought to America. After his death, a seven-page manuscript detailing rules of prayer, dress, and ablution were found among his belongings. Because of the condition of Bilali’s papers, it’s hard to know the extent of his literacy, but he’s honored by many American Muslims as Islam’s father in America. Most islanders consider themselves his descendants. At the Sapelo Homecoming, I saw a replica of the “Bilali papers,” tattered and brown, the Arabic script barely legible.

Thomas Spalding, like the island world he’d lived in his entire life (he was born the son of a cotton planter from Scotland on St. Simon Island), was full of political and philosophical contradictions. He was a slave owner and a freethinker, an innovator (he reintroduced adobe-like tabby construction to the island) and a banker in the town of Darien; a Georgia State Representative, he was enlightened by science and contributed to farm journals of his day. Oddly — he was a Union advocate and espoused “liberal and humane” ideas about slavery and utilized the task system of labor, giving slaves free time to do what they wished. (Actually, they had no choice but to stay put. They’d have starved in the malarial marshes bordering the island if they escaped.)

Spalding imported his slaves — rice and indigo cultivators — from today’s Sierra Leone. It’s thought that after a U.S. embargo was put on slave trading in the early 19th century, he continued importing slaves illegally from the Spanish in northern Florida. After his death, his son Randolph led a dissolute southern gentleman’s life, throwing wild parties in the mansion and letting his holdings go to seed. He was disgraced as a Confederate colonel in the Civil War by failing to lead his regiment in the defense of Port Royal in South Carolina — being too drunk to do so.

After Reconstruction, what remained of his family went into steep decline. (Randolph’s daughter ended up being the island’s postmistress.)


71. Badly beaten corpse of William Brooks, his clothes ripped and torn, a branch fastened to his left leg. July 22, 1901, Elkins, West Virginia. Card-mounted gelatin silver print. 4-1/4 x 5-3/4. Printed on mount: “William Brooks, Who was lynched at Elkins, July 22, 190, For the Murder of Chief-of-Police Robert Lily. While Attempting to Arrest him. PHOTO BY VON ALLMEN.”

According to a short news item in the Elkins Record Herald, Brooks was “lynched . . . by a maddened mob of 500” not long after he shot and killed the chief of police who tried to arrest him for making a disturbance. The Record Herald goes on to report: “Brooks then jumped from a window and was instantly pursued by the crowd which had been attracted by the fight. He was captured after a chase of half a mile and carried to a park, where his body was soon swinging from a tree.”

I’m struck by the upbeat — if not jubilant — tone of that last sentence. Contrast it to the formally bordered, sepia-toned photograph of Brooks “swinging from a tree.” His face is a mask of suffering, his clothes are partially torn from his body, and there’s the hangman’s rope, the leafy trees behind him . . . a white fence and woods in Elkins, West Virginia, where 500 townspeople gathered to hang someone they probably knew.

The postcard follows the tradition of a well-recognized genre, but unless one was from that era and from the south, it’s hard to understand the pleasure gained from it.


In 1861 the Spaldings had moved most slaves north to near Macon where they stayed until the war was over. The South vanquished and the land and crops burned through Georgia to the coast, black islanders made the harrowing trek back to Sapelo. Their 300-mile walk is a Biblical narrative of suffering and deliverance: With no one to guide them and the land and crops decimated by Sherman’s “march to the sea,” they wandered for months through a post-apocalyptic landscape. Some died, others made their home in towns along the way. As Sherman’s army gave them little assistance, they fended for themselves. On their return, they abandoned their former slave quarters and established new homesteads.

No longer owned, they were owners themselves.

Historian William S. McFeely in Sapelo’s People writes:

In a cruel reworking of [Robert] Frost’s sense of his own forbears’ first hold on the land, the Sapelo people first came to their island as possessions themselves — they were the Spaldings’ before they were the island’s, but they shifted the possessive. Places have a way of defying being property; ownership, in fact, is not as secure a concept as owners’ think. The Spaldings may have thought they owned those thousand human beings whom they called their people — they had legal title to them — but they were wrong. By working the island’s land, by laughing, weeping, praying on it, the former slaves traded possessors and became the island, and it became theirs.

As McFeely shows, the years after 1871 were ones of betrayal for the ex-slaves. During Reconstruction, schools had been built, blacks were enfranchised, 40-acre land parcels were apportioned, but the lot of it would be stolen back when Andrew Johnson rescinded the reforms established by Congress after the Civil War.


Behavior Cemetery

When Suzanne and I visited the place the gate was padlocked and spooky; even as cemeteries go, it was spooky. The graves weren’t lined up in rows, but looked disorganized, scattered. But you could see a pattern. As in the helter-skelter of houses in Hog Hammock, the graves of Behavior communed silently with each other beneath the live oaks.

Cornelia’s own great grandmother is buried there:

REBECCA BAILEY: 8/13/1874 — 12/29/1938
NO ONE KNOWS HOW MUCH
WE MISS YOU NO ONE KNOWS THE
BITTER PAIN WE HAVE SUFFERED
SINCE WE LOST YOU LIFE HAS NEVER BEEN THE SAME.

brushed cement, hard to read, dark colored, writing tilted up slightly, handwritten; blank footstone.


It’s not a stretch to compare the organization of the Behavior graveyard with that of black church services — the call-and-response in the African Baptist Church is non-hierarchical; preacher and congregation, God and man, engage in a rapturous conversation and are on equal footing. In Behavior Cemetery no obelisk towers over a tombstone; I was struck by the democracy of the place. Burial records don’t go back before the Civil War, but interviews and careful digging indicate slave burials went on before Behavior became an official cemetery. Those without the money to buy gravestones placed the beloved’s belongings at the gravesite — a toy, a small farm implement, a tea kettle.

You can tell a lot about a town by the order or disorder of its cemetery.

No one’s a stauncher unbeliever than Cornelia Bailey.

But she did see The Dog — she mentioned it to me and has written about the black dog “big as a cow” that haunts Behavior Cemetery: She says she saw it more than once — it chased her down the path from the graveyard.

“And when I looked back a second time, he was gone.”

There were other places, she said, haunted woods and beaches, but Behavior Cemetery, that’s where the giant dog could be found.

“But it has to be twilight, near dark, to see him.”

Hellhounds are the ghosts of giant black dogs who guard the entrances to the world of the dead. In Old English myths, seeing one or hearing one howl was an omen of death. In Dante’s Inferno, Canto VI, the hound Cerberus is found in the Third Circle of Hell where he rends to pieces those who’ve succumbed to gluttony. In Latin America a big black dog with burning coal-like eye is a satanic shapeshifter. Sometimes the dog is a well-meaning spirit which accompanies a woman home acting as her protector. But in African–American culture, the Hellhound is plainly evil.

Mississippi drifter-blues singer of the 1930’s Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads for musical immortality, sings:

I got to keep movinnnn’, I got to keep movinnnn’,
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail,
Mmmmm-mm-mm-mm, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail,
And the day keeps on worrin’ me, there’s a hell-hound on my trail,
Hell-hound on my trail, hell-hound on my trail.


86. The lynching of Bunk Richardson, his body suspended over the Coosa River, stripped to long johns. February 11, 1906. Gadsen Alabama. Card-mounted gelatin silver print. 2-½ x 3-7/8. Pencil Inscription on border: “Bunk Richardson 1/06.”

87. The corpse of Bunk Richardson, propped up for photographer on plank walk of bridge spanning the Coosa River, severely beaten, stripped to long johns. Onlookers hold handkerchiefs to cover nose and mouths. February 11, Gadsen, Alabama. Card-mountain gelatin silver print, 2-1/2 X 3-7/8.

I can’t help but connect Johnson’s blues with the twin postcards of Bunk Richardson who’s portrayed like a piece of bad meat. (Two river pictures, no less, the Coosa River flowing on.) He’s not just hunted, but hunted to his grave. One photo depicts a lynching, the other the lynched man’s rotting corpse. Each picture affects us through the stink of the lynchers themselves — in plate 87, it’s their own stink that they turn away from. As Prof. Leon F. Litwack says in his introduction to the Allen collection, these are both depictions of unimaginable brutality and portraits of abject cowardice.

The Shadow of Lynching — The Everett Collection

Are these suffering black folk saints? There’s no such thing as a saint without a sinner. Likewise there’s no hagiography without a hagiographer — in this case it’s the photographer.

Here’s Jimmy Allen again:

"I believe the photographer was more than a spectator at lynchings. Too often they compulsively composed silvery tableaux (natures mortes) positioning and lighting corpses as if they were game birds shot on the wing. Indeed, the photographic art played as significant a role in the ritual as torturer or souvenir-grabbing — creating a sort of two-dimensional biblical swine, a receptacle for the collective sinful self. Lust propelled the commercial reproduction and distribution of the images, facilitating the endless replay of anguish. Even dead, the victims were without sanctuary."


The island after a rain: the trees ring with birds, an air of freshness infuses everything.


Down at the Hog Hammock Library, Michelle Johnson is working on a new computerized catalog system: no more cards. Before we’d come to the island, I’d read her book Sapelo Island’s Hog Hammock, a narrative about the island presented through Sapelo Island photographs dating back to the 19th century. The book gave me a sense of life on Sapelo and complemented Cornelia’s memoir, highlighting leisure and work on the island. Michelle came here five years ago after marrying the island’s ferryboat captain. Before Sapelo, she’d worked as a journalist and artist in South Carolina. Now she lives in Johnson Hammock south of Hog Hammock. She’s not just a librarian. As an archivist, she helps keep the past alive. I caught a sadness in her as there is in anyone salvaging the past. A large, lovely woman in her early forties with an infectious smile, she’s deeply connected with her husband’s family and to the families — the Halls, Groveners, Baileys, and Johnsons — and to the old ways she brings to life in her book.

A few hours later on Nanny Goat Beach we again ran into Michelle Johnson with her 12-year-old visiting nephew. We sat on a dune, looking down at the ocean. I asked if there were conflicts on the island (any island secrets?) and she said no — but there were problems with zoning laws, she remarked drily. The integrity of the Hammock’s modest homes will be compromised if rich white folks have their way and build houses larger than those allotted by law. Presently a suit by Reginal Hogg/Hall is threatened involving Georgia Governor Perdue and the Hog Hammock community. (The name Hog was given to an island slave family who cared for hogs — an appellation changed to Hall by Reginal’s great-grandfather.) The lavish new houses have identical designs: Built on stilts several feet off the ground with oversized wrap-around screened porches, they aspire to being modest plantation villas.

According to a letter to the Georgia governor — paraphrased by Craig Considine of wordpress.com — Perdue has been responsible for the illegal transfer of land, all of it pricey, to off-island developers. The standoff with the State of Georgia arises from decades-long resentments against University of Georgia Marine Institute (UGMI), which has been operating on the island since 1959. All this despite a campaign of relentless self-promotion by the State of Georgia and the UGMI. (To UGMI’s credit, it’s the first eco-study project of its kind, dating back to when R.J. Reynolds bequeathed much of his holdings to the university.)

“In its 52 years of activities,” says Considine,

The UGMI has unfortunately never once hosted an educational open house for the community in which it thrives . . . Not only are the Saltwater Geechee people not invited into the academic realm of the institution, but they are hired as menial labour work force at minimum wage rates. Furthermore, as Hall adds, the UGMI has not supplied any economic development of the Saltwater Geechee community or the people. The University of Georgia has exhausted over $600 million dollars in gifts and donations in 2009." Hall asks: “ . . . is the effort of bridging the gap with the community of the Saltwater Geechee people on Sapelo not important to UGMI or the University of Georgia?”

According to Hall, the community of Hog Hammock lacks decent roads, potable drinking water, and workable irrigation systems. It has no medical facility. By far, the biggest threat to island life is a rise in land values leveraged by investors who are skirting zoning regulations. To date, the islanders have lost nearly 2,700 acres which translates into nearly $810,000,000. The way they and the UGMI interact (or don’t) is not untypical — but you’d expect the latter to acknowledge people they share the island with.

Marine biologists catalog meadows of wax myrtle, Spanish bayonet, morning glory, and butterfly peas, to “manage” them, while locals see a system that has sustained them for centuries: These two approaches should complement each. But both the islanders and UGMI are threatened by land investors who feed off a beauty that’s cursed by a history of displacement.


Conversation between two middle-aged black women overheard on the ferry from Sapelo to the mainland:

“Well, now that Obama’s shown us his birth certificate, they’ll find something else.”

“Always do.”

Then laughter.

“They’ll look up his grades.”

“But he was a good student!”

“Never mind, they’ll find something.”

More laughter.

Photograph of a woman using a wooden pestle to pound rice as a child stays close by. The woman, Rachel Dunham, was the wife of Reverend John Dunham (c. 1858–1946) who performed many of the island weddings during this time as a preacher. Reverend Dunham, also known as “Sawney,” was also an accomplished chef and was known for his beautiful wedding cakes. Women often sang as they did their chores. There were work songs for practically every task. When the rice was being threshed on the floor, the women might sing, “Peas an’ rice, peas a’ rice, peas an’ the rice done done done. “ (Sapelo Island’s Hog Hammock)


I look back on my own Morehouse experience and my student’s take on Watteau’s painting (and he was just two or three years younger than I ) as a cautionary lesson. But what’s the lesson? That we ought to moderate our expectations — or that in the end we are islands unto ourselves? After the Civil War and until Jim Crow, there were no limits to the islanders’ dream. What strikes me about their struggle is the five-year sliver of time between the war’s end and their rising hopes and despair. No art — neither Robert Johnson’s dark blues chords or Antoine Watteau’s sweeping vistas — can capture this.

On the ferry to the mainland, seabirds follow our wake. At eleven a.m. it’s already hot. I assume from their dusty rucksacks and wind-burnt faces that the white passengers heading with us to the mainland are marine biologists. The black folks are islanders. Though they live and work on the same marsh and swampland, there seems to be no relationship between the two. Flanked by the brown waters of Dolboy Sound and the murky green of Sapelo, it’s too easy to say they’re separated by race and history. I try to link the postcards in Allen’s Without Sanctuary with the photos in Michelle Johnson’s book, with little but the memory of a student I taught many decades ago connecting them: He must have heard many lynching stories from parents and grandparents. Stories that crossed the Sound to their island.

We stop off at Jimmy Allen’s antique shop in a Darien shopping mall on our way back to Jacksonville. He’s just come back from a “picking” trip to Texas and is worn out. He’s bearded, a little paunchy, hard-bitten and aristocratic; something of a talker, he’s angry with the South but can’t imagine leaving the area for any reason, can’t imagine living anywhere there aren’t black people.


Tony Whedon’s essays and poetry have appeared in Agni, American Poetry Review, Harper’s, Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and over one hundred other literary magazines. He is the author of A Language Dark Enough: Essays on Exile and the recently published poetry collection Things to Pray to in Vermont, both from Mid-List Press. Tony is co-founder of Green Mountains Review out of Vermont’s Johnson State College.