By RON STODGHILLOCT. 3, 2014
Johnnie Brown, stylish in a straw fedora and French cuffed shirt, strolled through one of Savannah’s oldest black cemeteries, pausing in front of a towering oak tree. Pointing at the clusters of gashes in the tree trunk, Mr. Brown shook his head bitterly. “Right here is the whipping tree,” he said. “You look at this and you don’t have to wonder why so many black folks left the South.”
Mr. Brown is among Savannah’s precious few black tour guides, and if you board his popular bus in downtown Savannah, you’ll get a few dollops of indignation, along with a hearty serving of Savannah’s powerful, if woefully undercelebrated, black narrative. In one breath, Mr. Brown is ruminating on how Georgia’s first slaves arrived as day laborers from South Carolina in 1733, or musing about the tombstone of a black Confederate soldier, or describing how from Emancipation through the 1960s more than six million black Southerners left the region. Then, in the next breath, he is lamenting how his family is still fighting for their land, which was seized by the government in the early 1940s to make way for an airfield.
Laurel Grove South Cemetery in Savannah, a significant burial ground for local African-Americans. Credit Adam Kuehl for The New York Times
Mr. Brown’s race-based riffs are a refreshing detour in a city that, one might argue, lolled through the 1990s amusing visitors with the eccentricities of locals in John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and fattened them the next decade on Paula Deen’s fried chicken and peach cobbler. If the Deep South is, in fact, a-changin’ (Savannah’s last three mayors have been black), the public persona of this city has often seemed — perhaps intentionally — stuck in its own kind of gauzy antebellum bubble.
A visitor could easily spend a week sauntering along the city’s haunting boulevards and leave without a clue about the essential role Georgia’s oldest African-American community has played here. I’m not talking about the Lady Chablis, the foxy black drag queen made famous in “Midnight” (O.K., if you must, she gigs at Club One, a downtown joint), but rather figures like W. W. Law, the postal worker turned civil rights leader; or Ralph Mark Gilbert, pastor of First African Baptist Church, among the nation’s oldest black Baptist churches and a stop on the Underground Railroad. And then there’s head-scratching local trivia, such as an old waterway that is still called Runaway Negro Creek.
Blame the Low Country blackout, at least partly, on the fact that in the pageant of cities primping with New South sheen and aura, Savannah has perhaps made a less than eager contestant. The city is so proud of its Southern charms and traditions — Gothic Revival homes, high-on-the-hog soul food, Spanish moss canopies shading picturesque squares — that the mere suggestion of cultural evolution is enough to make an old-timer drop his mint julep. Perhaps Savannah’s legendary singer/songwriter Johnny Mercer said it best when he crooned: “I know I’m old fashioned/But I don’t mind it/That’s how I want to be/As long as you agree/To stay old fashioned with me.”
There are signs, though, that old-school Savannah is gradually becoming, well, a thing of the past. The new vibe can be traced, at least in part, to the Savannah College of Art and Design (known as SCAD) whose broad reach – it has campuses in Atlanta, Hong Kong and France – has attracted scores of artsy intellectuals to the city. Along with its contribution to Savannah’s swelling creative class, SCAD’s refashioning of old factories and warehouses into avant-garde learning centers in the historic district suggests that a cultural renaissance is underway in this otherwise sleepy town.
Nobody personifies this creative leap forward more than Walter O. Evans, a wealthy, Savannah-born African-American art collector who returned to his hometown more than a decade ago, bringing with him some of the most important works by black artists in the world. A retired surgeon who spent his career in Detroit, Mr. Evans amassed a collection that includes more than 200 works by artists dating from the 19th century to the present, among them works by Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. “His collection is on par with Bill Cosby’s,” said Kimberly Shreve, a managing director with the Savannah College of Art and Design. “He got in before anyone knew how important the art was.”
Today, a new wing at the college bears his name; it not only houses Mr. Evans’s own art, but also an ever-changing collection of works by other black artists.
On a recent spring afternoon, the Walter O. Evans Center for African-American Studies was abuzz as workers scrambled to prepare for a fashion-crammed weekend honoring the pioneering black designer Stephen Burrows with a lifetime achievement award. André Leon Talley, the well-known fashion expert for whom a gallery at the center is named, curated the exhibition of Burrows’s designs. “This kind of thing happens almost daily around here now, and these are the kinds of things I’m interested in,” said Mr. Evans, who began collecting art in the early 1980s. “But the Savannah I left is nothing like the Savannah I returned to. When I left there were so many black entrepreneurs; now there’s just a few.”
It’s tough to imagine now, but for decades during segregation – and before the urban renewal projects of the 1960s — the pride of Savannah’s black movers and shakers was West Broad Street, now a gritty stretch of vacant lots, public housing and highway overpasses known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Located in the shadow of Savannah’s revitalized riverfront, West Broad was, in the 1940s, a thriving commercial and social hub with restaurants, the Union Station train depot and nearly 200 businesses, including Wage Earners Savings and Loan Bank, Savannah Pharmacy and the Star and Dunbar theaters.
In the Garden of Eden, a soul food restaurant on Martin Luther King Boulevard, the Savannah native Wanda Lloyd, age 65, recalled her father’s mortuary, Williams & Williams Funeral Home, and her grandmother’s Boyce’s School of Beauty Culture. Also among her memories are 1960s anti-segregation sit-ins and a 16-month boycott of several local retailers, including the white-owned Levy’s department store. Despite having grown up middle-class, Ms. Lloyd concedes to being part of the exodus of blacks who saw limited opportunities at home. “I left Savannah the day I graduated high school,” said Ms. Lloyd, who moved to cities like Washington, Atlanta, Miami and Nashville before returning to Savannah last July where she is now chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Savannah State University, a historically black college. “I went in and got my diploma and I told my father, ‘keep the motor running.’ I wanted to be a newspaper person and there weren’t any African-Americans doing what I wanted to do. ”
Adam Kuehl for The New York Times
A few miles away from Savannah’s black main street is Laurel Grove South Cemetery, the most significant burial ground for local African-Americans who died in the 19th and 20th centuries. A rolling landscape of live oaks, cypress and crumbling tombs and markers for free blacks and slaves, the land was once a rice field for the Springfield Plantation; in the mid-1800s it was developed as a graveyard after Savannah’s mainstay burial site, Colonial Park Cemetery, was filled.
The plots were racially segregated — some 50 acres in what’s called Laurel Grove North, were allotted to whites, while 30 acres in Laurel Grove South were devoted to blacks. “Not even in death did we get our 40 acres,” Mr. Brown sniffed. (Incidentally, long before the filmmaker Spike Lee named his company 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks, the “40 acres” phrase was inspired by Special Field Order No. 15 — issued in 1865 by Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman in which newly freed slave families were given the rights to some 40 acres of land along the southeastern coast.)
Gentrification is occurring all around Savannah, including in the west side community of Cuyler-Brownsville. The area’s streets lined with tidy wooden homes – styles range from Craftsman to Italianate – once housed Savannah’s black movers and shakers. Among its residents was Ralph Mark Gilbert, known as the father of Savannah’s modern civil rights movement, who lived at 611 West 36th Street and hosted such leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Anderson and Thurgood Marshall during his years as head of the local N.A.A.C.P. and pastor of First African Baptist Church.
Evidence of Gilbert’s influence can be found at the museum that bears his name — the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, housed in the former black-owned Wage Earners Savings and Loan Bank on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Here, the local civil rights struggle is captured in powerful photographs and interactive exhibits.
A photo of Gilbert himself hangs in the basement archives of the First African Baptist Church on Montgomery Street, which offers a tactile connection to history. Most of its trappings are original to the church, from its light fixtures, baptismal pool and balcony pews, which were built by slaves. The pipe organ came later, in 1832 and installed in 1888. Here, too, are powerful reminders of the pivotal role First African Baptist played as a stop on the Underground Railroad. On the sanctuary ceiling, for example, is the “Nine Patch Quilt” design – a visual code that the church was a safe house for slaves, and a map for helping runaway slaves navigate their way to freedom. A four-foot subfloor beneath the lower auditorium hid slaves as they made their escape.
Nobody knew or could tell Savannah’s history better than the late Westley Wallace Law, a career postman whose leadership of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter from 1950 to the mid-1970s made him a folk hero. He wasn’t a man known to write much down. But any serious discussion of black historical Savannah, from business and education to preservation, somehow includes the name W. W., as he was known. Law was a colorful personality whose deep political connections belied a common touch (for years, he operated his own tourism company, the Negro Heritage Trail Tour shuttle, yet he himself preferred traveling around town on foot). In 1961, the Postal Service fired Law for his civil rights activism, but President Kennedy stepped in and he was given his job back.
Walter O. Evans, a Savannah-born African-American art collector. A wing at the Savannah College of Art and Design bears his name and houses his art. Credit Adam Kuehl for The New York Times
In recent years, the Georgia Historical Society, the City of Savannah and Savannah State University have battled over the rights to Law’s collection of personal papers, books and other memorabilia (the W. W. Law Foundation awarded the documents to the Georgia Historical Society last year). Law himself would have frowned upon such friction: As inscribed on his Laurel South Cemetery headstone: “I was the result of a composite contribution. I tried not to have a big ending, but rather, to live my life doing the best I could each day, because a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.”
As a tour guide, Johnnie Brown carries the torch for Law. Mr. Brown, 46, became a kind of understudy to him during his years of driving the tour bus for Law’s Negro Heritage Trail Tour. Mr. Brown regularly chaperoned Law around town, including to one of Law’s favorite restaurants, Paula Deen’s Lady & Sons, which opened as a full-service restaurant in 1991 (it actually began in 1989 in Ms. Deen’s home, serving bagged lunches to area businesses). To this day it remains one of Savannah’s most popular restaurants. During a recent weekday lunch, the place was packed with tourists and locals partaking in a soul food buffet that included fried chicken and fish, macaroni and cheese, candied yams and collard greens. (If you’re wondering, yes, there were several blacks at the restaurant, although mostly in the kitchen.)
To be sure, the past few years have been tough on Paula Deen, whose courtroom admission in 2013 of twanging the N-word years ago ignited hot debates over the extent to which racist thinking still thrives in the so-called New South.
But if Ms. Deen could understand why non-Southerners were rallying against her, she probably never imagined getting the hit she has taken on her home turf. This spring, Uncle Bubba’s Seafood & Oyster House — Ms. Deen and her older brother Earl W. “Bubba” Heirs’ once-popular Savannah restaurant — was shuttered. It’s the same restaurant that triggered the sexual and racial harassment suit by an employee against Ms. Deen and her brother. (In June, Ms. Deen started her first post-scandal enterprise, a namesake retail store and a restaurant in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.)
Of course, these days, it’s hard not to wonder whether Paula Deen’s fall from grace, especially in Savannah, suggests that this stubborn old city is stepping into the modern age, or whether Ms. Deen is just a sacrificial lamb in a city happily stuck in its ways. Such questions extend all the way out to Tybee Island, where Ms. Deen owns and rents her vacation home named the Y’All Come Inn, a sunny, 2,000-square-foot beach house appointed with her home furnishing line and a kitchen that conjures “Steel Magnolias.”
During segregation, blacks were prohibited from Tybee Island and vacationed instead some 20 miles northeast in South Carolina at Hilton Head Island, today an upscale resort. These days, though, the hottest restaurant on Tybee Island has a black co-owner: the North Beach Bar and Grill, a hip ocean side hangout tucked between the lighthouse and beach that specializes in Caribbean-fusion cuisine and was co-founded by George Spriggs, an African-American chef and restaurateur.
Far more than on Tybee Island, black influence is evident a few miles northwest on Daufuskie Island, a so-called “sea island” tucked between Savannah and Hilton Head. The area’s roots date back to the Civil War when white plantation owners fled Union forces and abandoned their property, slaves included. On Daufuskie, you’ll still find a thriving Gullah culture, a distinct blend of West African and slave owners’ English and Scottish tradition and dialect.
Daufuskie is also home to the First Union African Baptist Church, constructed in 1885 and the area’s oldest building (the original church, built in 1881, was destroyed in a fire) and still a popular place of worship. The other ideal fount of knowledge about Gullah-Geechee culture and its lifeblood of seafood harvesting is the Heritage Museum, a former oyster and crab processing factory, in nearby Pin Point, Ga., which is also the birthplace of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
But the soul of Georgia’s black narrative is Savannah itself where, during the slavery era, auction day was once a month, and slaves, held in the yards of Ellis Square or Johnson Square, were sold off in Wright Square.
Unfortunately, much of Savannah’s black history – whether heart-wrenching or triumphant — has been poorly documented, a situation that has inspired the art collector Walter O. Evans’s crusade to keep the past alive. Among his biggest initiatives: pressing the Georgia Historical Society to create historical markers for certain influential African-Americans. On the list are the Louisiana-born jazz cornetist Joe (King) Oliver, a mentor to Louis Armstrong and other great artists, who died penniless in Savannah in 1938; William and Ellen Craft, famously clever runaway slaves (Ellen, mixed race, dressed as a man to escape) who hid in Savannah after fleeing Macon; and the former slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano.
Mr. Evans’s campaign for these markers has included lots of bureaucratic prodding, including some rather terse emails to the Georgia Historical Society. “I don’t mind a ‘no’ answer but would like an answer,” Mr. Evans wrote in one, and in another: “I’m beginning to think that you have no interest …” Frustrated by the society’s lack of timely response, Mr. Evans offered to use his own funds for three new markers.
Some stories simply must be told. As the escaped slave William Craft wrote in his 1860s narrative, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom”: “I have often seen slaves tortured in every conceivable manner. I have seen them hunted down and torn by bloodhounds. I have seen them shamefully beaten, and branded with hot irons. I have seen them hunted and even burned alive at the stake, frequently for offenses that would be applauded if committed by white persons for similar purposes.”
Sharing these stories – whether through one of Mr. Evans’s historical markers or paintings, or through Johnnie Brown’s tour – gives voice to old spirits that still haunt Savannah’s storied streets and squares.