This is the prologue to the book “Down Home: My Return to the Georgia Backwoods” written by my father early 1970’s. The book is an exploration of the area in rural Georgia that he grew up in and how it changed in the 50 years since he was born there, especially focusing on the history of local Blacks in the community. He wasn’t able to get the book published at the time, but his work on the book led to his career as a history professor. I self-published the book in 2004 about 9 months before he passed away and recently published the second edition. The full book is available here.
I’m a stranger here; jes blowed in yo’ town
I’m a stranger here; jes blowed in yo’ town
An’ because I’m a stranger, everybody dogs me ’round.
I wonder why people treat a po’ stranger so?……
‘Cause you know everybody got to reap what they sow.
I’m goin’ back South – if I wear out ninety-nine pair ‘o’ shoes……
Where I know I’ll be welcome; an’ I won’ have these stranger blues.
– STRANGER BLUES
by Hudson “Tampa Red” Whitaker,
Georgia Blues Singer and Guitarist
“A’ ant is a small thing, but if you mash it you fin’ de gut!”
This phrase I heard often from my grandmother, Harriett Weston, years ago when I was a small boy. She owned a farm in Camden County near the southeast end of coastal Georgia. The meaning of the expression varied according to the circumstance in which it was used. Sometimes it signaled her intent to get at the root of some problem; she also used it as an explanation of how she had solved a problem; again, it might constitute a cryptic denial of some request that she had no intention of granting. In other words, it was one of her favorite expressions.
The two of us lived alone on that farm for many years, during which I had countless opportunities to witness firsthand many other examples of her unusual wit and intelligence. The amazing thing to me about all of this was the fact that grandma was totally illiterate! She was born in 1857 on a plantation only five miles away and spent the first eight years of her life in slavery. Her entire life was spent within a radius of 100 miles of the place where she was born. Nevertheless, she possessed all the mental and physical skills necessary for survival within the confines of her limited world. At no time since have I met anyone possessed of a more analytical mind than this backwoods peasant woman.
I had occasion to recall that phrase many times when I returned to this backwoods area for the sole purpose of a brief visit but, as a result, found myself searching for the “guts” of its history. I had been in self-exile and had maintained little contact, personal or otherwise, with anyone in the area. Except for the occasional news of someone’s death conveyed in passing by some relative or acquaintance from the vicinity, I had been completely isolated from the land of my origin. This isolation had not been accidental: for, like many other Southern Blacks of my generation, I had pulled “up stakes” and left for the “promised land” vowing never to look in a southerly direction if I could avoid it — let alone return.
For nearly 30 years I kept that vow, at least insofar as it pertained to my native soil. The credit for my decision to break this vow and consider returning home after all those years must go to my young son, Patrice. Although increasingly as I grew older, thoughts of home crossed my mind, I had not considered going back. However, as my son approached his sixth birthday, the questions — as they inevitably must — began to come: “Hey Dad! Where were you born?” “What did you do when you were growing up?” “What was it like living on a farm?” “What was your grandmother like?” “Why did you leave and how come you never went back — not even once?” And on and on — ad infinitum.
The more questions he asked, the more my mind began to dwell on home. Why not go back? Wonder how many of the old folks are still alive? Is the old homestead still there and, if so, is anyone living on it? What’s the matter, are you afraid to go back, afraid of what you might find? After all, its home, that’s where your roots are. The clincher came when one day my son said to me, “Hey Dad, I’ve got an idea: Why don’t you and me take the car and drive down to Georgia? I’d like to see the place where you grew up and meet our family who still live there.” That did it! I resolved that at the first opportunity I would pay a visit “down home” and renew acquaintance with my past.
In May of 1969, having first supplied myself with enough film and tape to photograph and record most of the inhabitants of the southeastern United States, I headed my car south and set out on my journey of rediscovery. I timed the beginning of my trip so that the daylight hours would be spent driving through the South. This would afford me the opportunity of photographing people, places and things of interest I encountered along the way. After leaving New York around midnight and driving the rest of the night, I arrived in upper Virginia just before daybreak the next morning.
After stopping at a motel to wash up and have breakfast, I hit the road again. Before midmorning I was driving through the lush countryside of North Carolina, the land of my father’s ancestors. The planting season was in full swing, and as I went by, people working in the fields or walking along the road would wave to me and smile in greeting. Once I passed an old black man driving a team of oxen pulling an ox cart. He seemed to be in his mid-eighties and was sitting with both legs hanging down on one side of the harness shaft with all the aplomb of a monarch on his throne.
The contrasts between the old and new were sometimes stark. In a field on one side of the highway men were plowing with the latest mechanical implements, while in another on the opposite side, other men could be seen following mules pulling old-fashioned hand plows in the same manner as their grandfathers had tilled the soil. On some fields mechanical seeders using tractor power were in use; in others, groups of black women, stooping so low that their faces seemed but a few inches from the ground, sowed seed by hand! There they were — two antithetical systems of agriculture — co-existing side by side and, seemingly, in complete harmony! The examples serve as effectively as any I know to illustrate the extreme diversity of attitudes and philosophies that somehow manage to exist alongside each other in the South.
As I barreled along Interstate Route I-95 at a seventy-mile-per-hour clip, I gradually became aware of a growing sense of anticipation and excitement welling up within me. I had originally planned to take about two and a half days to complete this trip. Since I was traveling alone and had no one to assist with the driving, I didn’t want to push too hard and tire myself out in the process. The distance from New York City to my destination, Woodbine, Georgia, is approximately a thousand miles.
As the sense of anticipation grew, however, I began to feel the urge to get “home” as quickly as possible. Accordingly, I decided to cut my traveling time to a day and a half. By this time, I had been on the road for about twelve hours straight and was as yet feeling no signs of fatigue — my sense of excitement was too high.
Upon entering Virginia earlier that morning I had felt that sense of apprehension which all black Southerners must develop if they hope to survive in their homeland. It is a sense that must be acquired early in life and sharpened to the point where it reacts like an extra reflex muscle. Its presence can often spell the difference between life and death. One’s education in acquiring this “extra sense” is speeded up considerably by the actions and admonitions of one’s family and community. Furthermore, each “lesson” must be absorbed instantly; there just isn’t time for repeats or refresher courses. One either learns immediately, or suffers the consequences!
Since no human being can be expected to live in a state of constant anxiety, it is necessary to acquire the ability to switch one’s “apprehension light” as required. To trigger this control most Southern Blacks develop sets of invisible “feelers” which not only activate the “circuit” but also give advance information concerning the type and degree of apprehension to be felt, along with an indication of the kind of emotional reaction called for. When not in use, these antennae retract themselves somewhere in the psyche and lie passively until they are required to spring forth again to pick up danger signals.
It is not sufficient just to acquire a general sense of apprehension; it is essential to subdivide it into various categories so that one’s response may be exercised only to the extent necessary — no more, no less! Hence, a Southern black usually carries with him at all times, as part of his emotional luggage, a whole series of apprehensions, labeled according to type and ready to be brought into play as the occasion demands.
Sorting these apprehensions is no easy task; some types are so closely related as to almost overlap. Still, the distinctions must be recognized and responded to accordingly. Two of the common types may be labeled as: “local apprehensions” and “traveling apprehensions”. An example of how the first category is applied is the different ways in which Southern Blacks may react to being addressed as “boy” by a white person. The reaction may range all the way from annoyance to anger or fear, depending upon the degree and type of hostility that the antennae may “sense” in the addressor. This “sensing” may have absolutely nothing to do with whether obvious hostility is indicated by action or tone of voice; the “sensing” is done on a deeper, almost instinctive level. If the black misinterprets or chooses to ignore the apprehensive intelligence relayed by his antennae, he does so at his peril!
The second category comes into play whenever a black person (Northern or Southern) travels in the South. The antennae first alert him to the fact that he is not only in strange, but also hostile territory. Then the secondary “apprehension activators” take over; they remind him to be on guard against sheriffs and state troopers saddling him with speeding tickets unjustly (keep speed at least ten miles below the legal limit if possible). They warn him to bend every effort to avoid getting involved in accidents — regardless of who is at fault — with Whites, especially women (maintain as much distance as possible between you and any other vehicle). They help him anticipate possible trouble spots when stopping for food, gas, repairs or lodging (this restaurant doesn’t appear too inviting — too many rednecks hanging around — drive on to the next one). The traveler rarely relaxes until he is back on familiar ground.
It was my “traveling apprehension” that had come into focus when I crossed into Virginia that morning. In fact, my antennae were far more sensitive than normal. Having been away for so long, my “Southern apprehensions” were quite rusty and needed a strong dose of extra stimulation to oil them up again. That is not to say that New York Blacks don’t have apprehensions, they do; but “Northern apprehensions” are a different breed from their Southern counterparts; therefore, different emotional techniques must be used in order to perfect them. Having spent over thirty years trying to cope with the New York variety, I was unable to shift gears smoothly and ease back into the Southern version without some strain. Thus, in the beginning, I overreacted.
Once or twice while driving through Virginia I considered turning back. “What the hell am I doing?” I’d ask myself. “Why in hell am I out here on a strange highway that probably leads to nowhere, trying to find my way back in time to a place which, for all I know, may no longer exist? Hadn’t Thomas Wolfe, and others who tried it, said, ‘You can’t go home again.’? Thirty years is a long time. The old people are probably all dead; the young ones won’t know me. I’ll probably wind up standing in the middle of some crossroads, surrounded by strangers, feeling like a damned idiot!”
I even considered going back to Baltimore, where I had friends, spending the night with them and then taking off for Brooklyn the next morning. (I had not told anyone in Georgia that I was coming. I’d told my wife that the reason was that I wanted to surprise them. This was only partly true; I also wanted to be in a position to turn around and come back in case I chickened out, without anyone down there being aware of it!) However, by the time I reached North Carolina my spirits were all charged up and I gave little thought to the idea of turning back. Besides, by this time, I had cut the distance almost in half and it would take about as much time to get back to Brooklyn as to continue on to my destination. It would certainly be stupid of me to turn back at this point and announce to my wife that I had gone half way and then gotten a bad case of cold feet.
It was a balmy spring day and the soft fragrance of honeysuckle was mixed with the pleasing odor of freshly turned earth. As I drove along, my imagination began to peel away the layers of years and soon I became deeply engrossed in remembrance of things past. Once again, I was a carefree boy tramping barefoot through the woods. In my mind’s eye I took in the entire expanse of grandma’s farm. I saw all the buildings: barn, henhouse, smokehouse, dairy and syrup house. I saw the road that led up to the broad expanse in front of our house which, for some reason, we called “the lane”.
I could see all our utility buildings arranged on both sides of “the lane” and the huge woodpile (which one of my chores had been to keep supplied from the forest) placed almost in the center. As nostalgia took full possession of me, I began to flesh out the rest of that farm: the grape arbor, the rice field down in the bottomland that grandma had cleared of trees and undergrowth all by herself while grandpa cleared the other farmland. She was determined to grow rice without delay, so she had prepared all ten acres single-handedly. I remembered how in later years when I’d asked her how she’d done it, she answered, “If you git up an’ try to he’p yo’se’f, then God he fin’ a way to he’p you. If you sit on yo’ behin’ an’ wait fo’ somethin’ to fall in yo’ lap, you starve to death! Lazy folks don’ never git nothin’, even de bird in de fiel’ got to work fo’ his food. You do nothin’, you git nothin’, tha’s all dey is to it!”
Now, riding along thinking of the past, I had an overwhelming urge to get home as quickly as possible. I told myself that the first order of business when I arrived would be to pay a visit to the old homestead. Looking at my watch, I noted that it was only eleven thirty. I decided that I would cover as much ground as possible before calling it a day so as to arrive early the next morning. My apprehensions were all gone now, all I though about was getting home.
Then, as I was nearing the town of Wilson, North Carolina, I came around a curve, and there it was! Just off the highway on my right stood a huge sign painted red and blue with white letters. In the left hand corner was the figure of a knight clad in white armor and mounted on a rearing horse. At first glance I thought it was some kind of ad for “Ajax Cleanser”, but upon looking closer, I saw that nothing could be further from the truth. When the full impact of what that sign said hit me, I almost ran off the road! This “white knight” was clad in the regalia of the Ku Klux Klan, complete with symbolic “K” emblazoned on the horse’s blanket. His head was covered with the traditional pillowcase, which had a cross painted on it in the places his eyes and nose would normally occupy. In his upraised left hand he carried a burning torch that projected about eighteen inches above the top of the sign proper. The horse was entirely black (which fact I suppose can be construed as representing a kind of ironic symbol in itself if one wishes to stretch the point.) In his right hand the “knight” was carrying what appeared to be a bible. The legend on the sign, in heavy type, about twelve inches high, read:
YOU ARE NOW IN KLAN COUNTRY
WELCOME TO NORTH CAROLINA
JOIN THE UNITED KLANS OF AMERICA, INC.
Below the bottom of the main sign, as if tacked on as an afterthought, a piece of board, about eight inches high, was attached. The message was:
HELP FIGHT INTEGRATION AND COMMUNISM
In case some sympathizer was compelled, for any reason, to limit himself to resisting only one of the two evils, it was obvious from this sign, which one the Klan gave top priority.
Having pulled over on the shoulder of the highway and stopped, I sat there for about five minutes gazing at that sign in wonder. There it stood — hard by a Federal highway! Suddenly I had a nagging feeling that maybe somebody was trying to get a message over to me! I became aware that my old friend, “apprehension”, was beginning to tug at my guts once again. With some effort, I managed to push my anxiety way down into the inner recesses of my mind. I pulled back onto the highway and continued on my way. “Hell”, I muttered, “it’s too damned late to turn back now”.
Just the same, the image of that sign remained imprinted on my consciousness for quite some time afterwards. I tried consoling myself with the rational that this was the South and one could expect to see almost anything along the highway. After all, “Southern Hospitality” was one of the major assets the South was constantly boasting about. Quite possibly, one aspect of this “hospitality” was the granting of permission to anyone so inclined to install signs in conspicuous places near major highways for the purpose of promoting any message or philosophy they saw fit. It occurred to me that maybe further on I might encounter a sign espousing the cause of the Black Panther Party.
Such an eventuality would serve as proof positive that the concept of “equal time” had been extended from the narrow confines of the broadcast studios to cover the lengths and breadths of our major highways! But, alas, it was not to be. Not only were there no billboards extolling the virtues of the Panthers, I didn’t even see one that took up the cudgel for a middle-of-the-road group such as the Americans for Democratic Action.
During the rest of my journey I saw many signs advising the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren. And there were two that went for broke and recommended sacking the entire United States Supreme Court!
The number of this type of political sign increased as I penetrated deeper into the bowels of the Southland. In addition, their language grew more and more strident. The second most numerous category of sign was those with a religious bent. They usually confined themselves to warning the traveler to repent and ask forgiveness for his sins immediately, as Armageddon was imminent! After a while, I almost expected to see a miniature chapel standing next to them, complete with Bible and resident minister to administer personal absolution to any traveler who had been properly primed by reading all the signs of similar nature that he had encountered before. With all the billboards that frequently cautioned him against political devils on one hand, and the ones that cautioned him against supernatural ones on the other, the unwary voyager found himself trapped between two extremes — a Scylla and Charybdis of the open road.
By early afternoon, I found myself in lower North Carolina. Now I was in more familiar territory. This was a section I had known well from having worked there when, as a youth, I had been employed by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad Company on one of its “extra gang” crews. I was traveling much nearer the coast than before and the terrain reflected this change. The land was much flatter than before and, as a result, there were miles and miles of monotonous sameness. This is the heart of the North Carolina “black belt” plantation country.
The people in this part of the state appeared much poorer than those I had seen in the upper, more industrial part. The number of inhabited shacks per mile increased the farther south I drove. Even the continuity of the superhighway was broken. I was forced to make constant detours getting on and off the bits and pieces of I-95 that seemed to have been scattered about at random in chunks varying from about ten to seventy miles in length.
The main reason for all these detours (I was told by various people whom I questioned on the subject) was that the poorer counties in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia had been unable to come up with their assigned quota of these states’ contributions to the Federal Highway Program. (I discovered later that only ten miles of Interstate 95 had been completed in the entire state of Georgia). For about three hours, I spent so much time getting on and off this maze of truncated highway that I began to feel like an updated Minotaur, part man — part car, trying to fathom an al fresco version of the Cretan labyrinth!
One of the side effects of all these detours was a slowing down of my rate of travel. Many times I was forced to take directions that were at right angles to the one in which I wished to go — south. Sometimes I went as much as twelve miles east or west before making a southerly connection again. In addition, the alternate routes invariably went right through the center of towns and villages along their paths instead of bypassing them as the superhighway does. In many cases, this necessitated slowing down to speeds of as little as five miles per hour. Although there was some compensation in the fact that these routes gave me an opportunity to see considerably more of the people and their environment than was possible on I-95, this was offset by my impatience to get home.
In the end, the “alternate” routes had the last word. For somewhere in the lower half of South Carolina, after the last, long, dying gasp of about sixty miles, I-95 gave up the ghost and just quit altogether. That was the last I saw of it until just before turning off Route U.S. 17 at the end of my journey. There a sign informed me that only seventeen miles distant (just across the border in Florida) I-95 would pick up again and continue on uninterrupted for two hundred and fifty miles, all the way to the Florida “gold coast”. This bit of helpful information left me, to say the least, somewhat less than ecstatic. It would have been of considerably more help to me had that two hundred and fifty mile segment been stretched out over the last part of the distance I had just completed. It lacked only about sixty miles of being as long as the ground covered since I had last seen it (about three hundred and ten miles).
After leaving I-95 for good near Marion, South Carolina, I continued south via U.S. 301 as far as Summerton, South Carolina where it merged with U.S. 15. Since U.S. 15 split itself into two directions at this point and the indications as to which one goes south were not entirely clear, I decided to stop at a restaurant which occupied the apex of the split for directions and a short rest.
While eating a sandwich and getting directions from the counterman, a white man of about 35 years of age, dressed in the uniform of a Master Sergeant of the U.S. Army, sitting on the stool next to me, turned and asked how far south I was going. His speech had that drawl so characteristic of Whites of the deep South. I answered that I was going almost all the way across the state of Georgia to within fifteen miles of the Florida border. He said he was headed for Midway, Georgia and asked if he might ride that far with me if I had room.
For a moment, listening to that drawl, I hesitated. Then I thought: “What the hell, what harm could it do?” Besides, I had been alone for so long that a little company might be good for a change. It would also help to keep me alert. I told him I wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to for a change and that he was welcome to a ride. He thanked me, then offered to share gas expenses with me as he had money and fully expected to pay his way. He even offered to pay for my meal but I refused. After having the car checked and the tank filled, we hit the road.
For about the first ten minutes after we started, neither of us said anything. We were too busy feeling each other out. Finally, he broke the ice by asking where exactly in Georgia I was going. When I told him, he said he’d never heard of it. I said that it was a hundred and ten miles south of Savannah, and that the fact that he had never heard of Woodbine was not surprising, since it was so small that it would take no more than two minutes to drive through it at two miles per hour. “At least that was its size when I left”, I added. “As a matter of fact”, I said, “come to think of it, I’ve never heard of Midway before either”. We had a good laugh at this.
I asked how long had he been in the Army and why had he chosen this method of travel to come home. He said that he’d joined up when he was twenty and bored with life in Midway where he was born and raised. He thought joining the Army would be the quickest and easiest way to see some of the rest of the world, so, he’d enlisted. In the beginning, he intended making a career of it but, now, after fifteen years, he’d become disillusioned and quit. He had suffered a severe stomach wound about a year and a half ago in Viet Nam and had been hospitalized for over a year. (As he was talking he pulled the bottoms of his shirt and undershirt out of his pants and revealed a wicked looking, jagged scar about five inches long running horizontally across the center of his navel!)
While lying there in that hospital, he went on, he had plenty of time to think and be scared. The war had long since ceased to make any sense to him, and he began to wonder if there had ever been any logical reason for our being there. He said it had been obvious to him for a long time that all the Vietnamese, north and south, hated our guts. It was his opinion that the only Vietnamese who liked Americans were the ones who profited from our being there. And even they only tolerated us.
About six months ago he’d been brought stateside and placed in a convalescent hospital near Boston and had been there until three weeks ago when he was released as being completely recovered. Upon being given his choice of reenlisting for limited duty or resigning, he took the latter course. After spending the last three weeks visiting various cities in the northeast and trying to make up his mind about his future, he had come to the conclusion that the best place for him was back home in Midway, Georgia. At the last minute he’d decided, just for the hell of it, to hitchhike back and see some of the country along the way. He had been on the road for five days now and was lad that the end of his journey was in sight.
He asked me how long I had been away and when I told him, his eyebrows went up. “Man, that’s a long time”, he said. “Y’all left just about the time that I was being born!” He asked why I hadn’t come back to visit before now. I just looked at him and laughed. He looked down at his lap for a moment, as is in deep thought, then said quietly, “Oh yeah, I forgot”.
We rode in silence for a long while, each involved in his private thoughts. Finally, looking at his watch, he said, “Damn if we ain’t making good time considerin’ these li’l ol’ one-lane roads we been on most of the time”. I nodded in agreement, keeping my eyes on the road ahead. I was determined not to get involved in any kind of discussion on the relative merits of the ‘good life’ Southern style. I had heard them all many times, years ago, and had no desire to have them enumerated for my edification once again. Neither was I interested in hearing him extol the virtues of any ‘ol’ black mammies’ he many have had, or about the good times he may have enjoyed playing with the sons of his family’s darkie washerwomen’ in his youth. In other words, my ‘Southern apprehensions’ were on the alert again! Therefore, I resolved not to leave any opening that he might slip through and sneak up on me in a flank attack.
I was so busy thinking about how to ward off any assault on my inscrutability, that I was totally unprepared for what came next. “You know”, he said, “things have changed a lot for the better for y’all down heah in the last few years. They ain’t changed enough — but it sho’ is a lot better’n before. An’ more change is comin’ all the time. Even in the Army, things is changin’ fast. ‘Course, I realize that for folks who is sufferin’ from the loss of their dignity, things don’ ever change fast enough! But they is changin’ all right, yessir. Now, you take the Army — it don’ even look like the same Army I joined fifteen years ago. All different now. See more o’ y’all gittin’ promoted all the time; more non-coms, more officers — more everythin’; To tell the truth, I cain’t hardly keep up with some o’ them changes. Gits kinda confusin’ to me sometime, too. Man, it took me the longest time to learn how to say ‘Negro’ instead of ‘Nigger’. I never meant no harm in sayin’ ‘Nigger’ — it just growed up in me — that’s all I ever heard ‘roun’ home! Man, I used to git in some fights over that word! But I learned!”
“It seemed like almost as soon as I got ‘Negro’ down pat — y’all wanted to be called somethin’ else — ‘Afro-American’. Now the word is ‘Black’. Yessir, it sho’ is confusin’ sometime. Still, I guess everybody ought to have the right to say what they want to be called — don’ matter how many times they change it. It’s their right! Now, take me. Anybody who call me a Georgia Cracker better be ready to fight! Man, I wish I had a dollar for every fight I had ’bout that word; I’d be a rich man now. An’ sometime I was called ‘Cracker’ by black soldiers who was ready to kill me if I called them ‘Nigger’. Kinda crazy, ain’t it?” I nodded my head and kept silent.
One thing was quite clear, he was not trying to con me, he was obviously sincere about the things he had just said. Occasionally, while he was talking, I glanced at him surreptitiously out of the corner of my eye. At no time was he looking in my direction, but seemed to be concentrating on some fixed point, way off somewhere in space. In fact, it could easily have been assumed, from his general attitude and manner of speaking, that he was not talking to me at all. He sounded as though he was in the process of trying to grasp the discrete elements of some strange, but fascinating, theory he’d discovered and was using me as a convenient sounding board to bounce them off in an attempt to make them coherent.
It was obvious that his Army experiences had had a profound effect on him. And I couldn’t help wondering how these experiences would affect his efforts to readjust to the mores and attitudes of a small Deep-South town. It would be interesting, I thought, to come back and talk with him five years from now to find out what had happened to him in the interim.
We had picked up U.S. 17 at Walterboro, South Carolina, and were traveling closer to the marshlands of the coast. Most of this highway is of the one-land variety and, therefore, demanded an extremely high degree of alertness on the part of the motorist. There are long stretches of winding curves that meander in and out of the swampland in the road’s desperate efforts to cling to the relatively few patches of high ground that exist. The line of vision is severely restricted by the lush foliage of trees that skirt the road on both sides and the thick Spanish moss that dangles down over the highway from overhanging branches of the live oaks that abound in this part of the country.
My companion had fallen asleep shortly after our last bit of conversation and was now slumbering peacefully. His head was tilted slightly backward and his cap had fallen off, revealing a shock of the reddest hair I had ever seen. He was a rather good-looking chap of about six feet in height and weighed about a hundred and ninety pounds. He had a rather long face with a Roman nose and high cheekbones. His mouth (which was now open) was of medium width, and his lips were quite thin. His teeth (what I could see of them) were almost perfectly even. The only things that prevented him from falling into that category known as ‘handsome’ (Caucasian style) were his ears. They were about a half size too large in proportion to the rest of his facial features. They were of that type that used to be known in the backwoods as ‘flop ears’. His eyes were deep grey with many fine laugh crinkles in their corners. A ‘widow’s peak’ at the center of his forehead capped off the portrait.
He slept for about two hours during which we covered most of the distance from Walterboro to Hardeeville, South Carolina. Finally, as I pulled into a filling station for gas and a car-check, he woke up. “Where are we?” he asked. “About twenty miles north of Hardeeville”, I replied. “Damn good time”, he muttered, half to himself, “Yessir, damn good time”. I agreed that we had covered quite a bit of territory since he fell asleep. “Well, it wont be long now”, he continued, “before I’ll be back home. Lessee now, it’s almos’ four o’clock. What y’all say we git something to eat in Hardeeville, I’m payin.” I said that was just fine with me. After washing up, we hit the road again.
“There’s a Holiday Inn jus’ the other side o’ Hardeeville. Man, they got some o’ the bes’ fried chicken anywhere in the South. An’ that’s sayin’ somethin’!” His eyes widened at the pleasure of anticipation as he extolled the culinary delights fo this particular inn. “An’ the corn fritters they serve are out o’ this worl’! Man, they melt in yo’ mouth–an’ that’s a fac’!” He went on, “Y’all wanta try it?”, he asked. “why not?” I replied, “I’m game.”
In a short while, we had passed through the town of Hardeeville and soon reached the inn he’d spoken about. It was located at the Southern end of the town and had a large swimming pool that occupied a good deal of the space behind it. There was a large group of bathers sunning themselves around its borders and I noted that all of them were white. Some of them watched us with idle curiosity as we entered the restaurant. My companion, noting their looks, remarked: “Damn, you’d think they would a been used to it by now”. He stopped, then stood there about a full minute watching the watchers and laughing. Then, turning to me, he said, “Hell, come on, lets eat, I’m hungry.”
The food was just as good as he’d predicted. The chicken was superb and the corn fritters were in a class by themselves! I had eaten about six of them before I was even aware of my gluttony. Almost before I had finished them the waitress came over with a fresh supply. “I see y’all like our fritters”, she beamed. “They’re fit for a king”, I said. “Eat all y’all want”, she urged. “We got plenty more, ain’t no extra charge for ’em”. I needed no added inducement and before I quit, I had consumed an even dozen!
After having stuffed myself with chicken and corn fritters, I had very little room left for dessert and decided to pass it up. Our entire bill (including the tip) for this feast, came to only five dollars and seventy-five cents! I made a mental note to time any future trips in such a way as to have at least one meal in this inn.
As he was paying the bill, it suddenly dawned on me that we had been traveling together for over four hours and did not know each other’s names. When I pointed this fact out to him, he laughed and exclaimed: “Well, I’ll be damned if that ain’t the truth!” He stuck out his hand across the table toward me. “My name is Roy Willis, but everybody calls me ‘Buzz’, I don’t know why, but far back as I remember, that’s the name I been answerin’ to”. We shook hands and I told him my name.
While all this was going on, the waitress just stood there looking down at us in amazement with her mouth open. Finally, I looked up and asked her if anything was wrong. She hesitated a second, then said, “Y’all mean to tell me that the two of you jus’ walk in heah an’ sit down an’ eat together — with conversation an’ all — an’ y’all don’ even know each other? That’s the funniest thing I ever heard of!” All three of us laughed at the absurdity of the situation; then Buzz told her how we happened to be together. “Well, anyway”, she said after he had finished the story, “y’all have a nice trip, an’ stop in an’ see us when y’all come back this way again, heah?” She walked away, shaking her head in disbelief.
As we pulled out onto the highway again, I said, “Well Buzz, if all goes well, our next stop will be your home, Midway. In a few minutes we’ll cross the Savannah River, and once past Savannah, it should be smooth sailing from then on”. He nodded in agreement, then looked at his watch. “It’s only a quarter after five now”, he said. “With a little luck I’ll be home before sundown”.
Now the highway was cutting a path as straight as an arrow through the marshland. The only vegetation to be seen was the tall wiry marshgrass on both sides of the road. It extended on either side as far as the eye could see. Looming up in the distance was the bridge over the Savannah River — the boundary between South Carolina and Georgia. The bridge is pitched so high above the river (and the surrounding terrain is so flat) that from a distance it seems to be taking off into infinity. When approaching it on a clear day, from the Carolina side, it can be seen from a distance of about seven miles!
As we got closer to the river, I became aware of a mixture of highly unpleasant odors. To my nose, they seemed to be concocted of potions of every foul-smelling chemical I had ever had the misfortune of being exposed to. The nearer we approached the river, the stronger the stench. Until, at the border of the river, it leveled off on a plateau just below the threshold of the limit of human endurance. A few hundred feet before the entrance to the bridge was a sign (obviously placed there at the behest of someone in the Georgia Tourist Bureau, endowed with a macabre sense of humor). It consisted of the face of a smiling sun with a legend encircling it, enticing us to: ‘STAY AND SEE GEORGIA!’ Just below this, some wag had tacked on a piece of white cardboard on which was written, in black paint, this message of caution: ‘AND DON’T FORGET TO BRING YOUR GAS MASK!’ Considering the assault my sense of smell was now suffering, I thought this addendum excellent advice.
Glancing at Buzz, I saw that he had his nose screwed up and his face wore a look of general discomfort. “Man, that’s some odor”, I said. “You damn right it is”, he shot back. “It smells like some of first one thing and then another”, he went on (using an expression that Southerners employ to describe highly unpleasant smells). “You know, every time I pass heah, it seems to git worse! Where’s it all goin’ to end?” “Well, anyway, welcome to Georgia”, I said.
Looking down from the center of the bridge, it was impossible to see the river’s surface. A thick haze of soot, smoke, chemical waste and miscellaneous discharges hung over it like a soggy blanket. I could barely see the outlines of tugboats on the river below and the industrial plants that lined the bank of the waterfront on the Georgia side. The full force of the stench rose up, slammed itself against my nostrils, reached down into my lungs and turned them inside out. Buzz started coughing, he took a handkerchief from his pocket and held it over his nose. I speeded up the car in order to get out of this poison as quickly as possible.
At the other end of the bridge, there were a series of toll booths. I wondered how in hell their occupants could stand this torture day after day without either jumping off the bridge or going mad. The attendant who took my money was extremely surly — I didn’t blame him, considering his working conditions!
Just off the bridge, there was a sign advising us to take ‘alternate route 17A’ in order to avoid going through Savannah. I decided to follow its advice. It took only a short time to discover that this route, like parts of its Cousin, I-95, had carved itself out of bits and pieces of streets that skirted the City of Savannah. It conducts a grand tour through parts of the worst slum south of Newark, New Jersey. The only other that can compare with it, in my view, is one on the west side of Jacksonville, Florida. By a strange coincidence, the inhabitants of both are black!
There were a great many people sitting on their front porches and, as we drove past, many of them waved. The surfaces of most of the streets were in such terrible condition, that any speed above five miles per hour would have been hazardous. In some cases, the streets ran so close to the buildings that it would be possible for someone sitting in a chair on a front porch to shake hands with someone sitting in a car on the street without getting up. Some buildings looked as if a strong gust of wind could dislodge them from their pillars. They were all frame buildings and most were one story high. I saw several whose walls were actually being supported by long poles propped up against them. Occasionally, there were inhabited dwellings that were constructed of tin sheets. To top it all off, every once in a while, we passed one of these derelicts that stood there empty — in all its grandeur — sporting a ‘for rent’ sign on its front wall!
Frequently, we passed a run-down shop or restaurant with little clusters of men gathered on its front porch. The older men looked just as the older men who gathered around these places had looked when I was a boy. For the most part, they were dressed in denim shirts and overalls with a smattering of khaki work pants thrown in. They were generally shod in that variety of work shoes that used to be known as ‘Brogans’ (the function of which is not to be confused with the current fashion trend among hippies, college students and city teenagers in general (theirs are for working). A sweat-stained felt hat usually capped off the uniform. The few who were bareheaded wore closely cropped hair. There were no signs of processed hair anywhere.
The teenagers and younger men were of a different breed entirely! Their dress styles ranged all the way from flamboyant purple shirts, tucked inside multi-colored pants (which in turn were hung over alligator skin shoes; through denim jackets with tight-fitting Levi’s, on to dashikis combined with chinos and sandals. Their hair styles, with few exceptions, was of the style known as ‘Afro’.
To the casual eye, these little knots of men might seem, at first glance, to be made up of widely disparate elements; yet they were bound together by two of the strongest links in the chain that unites all black Americans — sometimes involuntarily — color and economic condition.
There were many restaurants that catered to the palates of those whose tastes favored highly seasoned foods. In one block alone, I counted four such establishments, each of which displayed signs proclaiming its absolute supremacy in the culinary art of preparing barbeque! Once in a while, I saw one that advertised ‘soul food’, but not often. There was one which (in a display of supreme confidence) omitted any reference as to category of food served. It referred to itself, via a large neon sign, simply as the ‘Down Home’! Thus, assuming, I suppose, that the genre of its cuisine was common knowledge and therefore needed no additional publicity.
The hardy aromas of various types of barbeque sauces wafting out from these restaurants were in welcome contrast to the ‘essence de river’ that had just recently overwhelmed us.
Near the end of this section we stopped for a traffic light. While waiting for the ‘go’ signal, a black youth of about nineteen sauntered up to the curb and started to cross the street. As he came abreast of the car on my side, he suddenly darted out of the crosswalk and, poking his head inside the window to within two inches of Buzz’s face, he yelled in a voice dripping with venom: “Hiya, honky”. Almost in the same motion, he withdrew his head, went back to the crosswalk and continued walking toward the other side of the street as if nothing had happened.
Buzz sat there stunned! His face was as red as the heart of an overripe watermelon. It had happened so quickly that he had had no time to react. “Well I’ll be damned!” We both blurted almost simultaneously. Just then the light turned green and we drove on. For a time we rode in silence, each of us digesting in his own way the impact of that incident. I turned to him finally and said, half jokingly, “Well Buzz, there’s another on of those ‘new terms’ for you to mull over!” He laughed and the tension was broken.
By this time, we had left the slums and odors of Savannah some distance behind us. It was almost certain now that Buzz would get his wish to be home before dark. The sun was still about four o’clock high and Midway was only fifty miles away. When I commented on this fact to Buzz, he nodded absentmindedly. It was as though home was no longer of any concern to him. His mind was obviously somewhere else — back in Savannah.
“Why the hell y’all think he did that?” he asked. “The guy must be crazy! Did y’all ever see anythin’ like that in yo’ life?” I answered that once before, during World War II, I had witnessed a somewhat similar incident. “Yeah, what happened?” He wanted to know. “Well, we were on this troop train traveling through Mississippi when it happened…Our train had stopped to take on fuel and some of the fellows decided to take advantage of this and sent someone to a nearby store to buy some fruit. Just as the guy came out of the store, the train started to take off. Another soldier stuck his head out of a window and started yelling and waving to his buddy to hurry up before he was left behind! As the train was picking up speed, it passed a loading platform next to the tracks. A small white boy about ten years old who was standing on the platform near its edge, slapped the face of the soldier with his head outside as hard as he could and yelled: “Hey Nigger, git your goddamned head back inside!” Since the train was going in one direction, and the blow came from the opposite one, its effect was increased about five times! The soldier’s head slammed into the side of the train with such force that he lost two teeth as a result. I looked out of another window and saw the kid still standing there on the platform, laughing and shaking his fist in our direction. By the way, the other guy managed to get back on the train”.
Buzz looked at me in amazement. “Did anybody catch the kid?” he asked. “Are you kidding? In Mississippi? Not a chance! If anybody saw him, they probably gave him a medal for courage beyond the call of duty”. “Goddamn!” was all Buzz could say. “So you see”, I concluded, “You were lucky –you were only assaulted verbally!”
Buzz let that sink in for a moment, then said emphatically,
“Man, growin’ up down heah in yo’ time musta been hell!”
“Then why the hell you comin’ back?”
“I’ve asked myself that question at least a hundred times since I left New York. I suppose one reason is to see if things have changed much for the better. Another is to find out if it is possible to come to terms with my past. I guess that’s something most of us must try to do sooner or later, if we live long enough to create a past. Also, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the old homestead and the family I left back here and I have a strong desire to see them both again”.
“Apart from these things, during the last five years, I’ve belatedly come to realize that, insofar as Blacks are concerned, the North is basically no better thatn the South — only different. So if I find things changed enough to make a readjustment possible, I might consider coming back home for good.”
Gettin’ a little tired of the rat race, eh? Buzz asked. “You bet!” I replied. I asked him what his plans were after he got home. He said he would go to work as a salesman in his father’s used-car agency. His family had been in business in Midway since shortly after the Civil War. His great grandfather had founded a farm-implement, seed and livestock business with only two mules and three headplows at the start. From this shaky beginning, the business prospered to such an extent that by the end of the first World War it was one of the largest of its kind in southeast Georgia. The Depression came and it all went down the drain!
Buzz’ father had started all over again. Going into the used car business during the second World War. Since new cars were hard to come by during this period, his timing could not have been better. By the end of the war, he had three thriving used-car dealerships in the area. One of the main reasons for Buzz’ leaving home was his father’s desire that he learn the business in preparation for one day taking over completely. Since he found the idea of becoming a used-car tycoon unappealing, and as there were no other local alternatives that suited his fancy, he’d just packed up and enlisted.
Now he was happy to be back. I asked if he thought it would be difficult for him to readjust to the pace of a small town after all the excitement of the past fifteen years. He answered my question with one of his own: “If y’all had the choice of facin’ some guy and tryin’ to talk him into buyin’ a used car, or facin’ some “Cong” in the jungle of “Nam”, what would you do?” I didn’t answer, the choice was obvious.
The highway suddenly expanded itself into two lanes. A large, ornate sign over it welcomed us to the town of Midway, Georgia first; then, threatened us with dire consequences should we be so rash as to violate any of its traffic laws. “Well Buzz”, I said, “You’re home. Where do you want me to drop you off?”
“When you come to the third traffic light, you’ll see a Gulf fillin’ station on yo’ right. It belongs to my Cousin. Pull in there and stop.”
“Okay,” I answered. As we pulled into the filling station, I looked at my watch. It was five minutes to seven.
As we got out of the car, a black attendant came over. When he saw Buzz, his face broke into a big smile of welcome. “Well, I’ll be damned, if it ain’t ol’ Buzz! What y’all doin’ back heah? I thought y’all been still up dere in the hospital!” Buzz told him that he had quit the army and was home for good. He introduced me, then asked if his Cousin was around. He was told that his Cousin had just gone home for supper. Buzz then explained how we happened to be traveling together. He asked the attendant to check my car, make any adjustments necessary, fill the gas tank, and charge it to him.
Then he suggested that I come home with him and meet his family. He said I could have dinner with them, spend the night at his house and finish my journey the next day. He said that he’d like his folks to meet me and assured me there would be no problem about my staying. I thanked him for the offer, but said that since I had only about seventy miles still to go, I wanted to get home that night.
After wishing me luck and warning me to be very careful while driving through the towns of McIntosh County because they extracted a large share of their revenue from the pockets of unwary out-of-state motorists, he asked if I had something to write on. I took a piece of paper out of the glove compartment and handed it to him. He wrote his address and phone number on it and handed it back. Then he said that anytime I was passing through, to feel free to stop by for a visit. I said that I might just do that. He told me that anyone at this filling station would give me directions to his home. I gave him my address in return, then said that I had better be on my way.
There was a moment of awkward silence as we stood there just looking at each other. Finally, Buzz stuck out his hand and said, “Y’all know somethin’, Bill? I sho’ enjoyed travelin’ an’ talkin’ with you. An’ I’m gon’ tell y’all somethin’ else — I like you, I like you a lot! An’ I sho’ hope y’all fin’ everythin’ alright when y’all get home. Now, y’all be careful on that road out there, you heah? Well, so long an’ may God bless an’ keep you!” I said goodby, got back in the car and started off on what I hoped was the last leg of my journey.
I had now been on the road for about twenty-four hours straight, and gradually I became aware of the beginning signs of fatigue creeping over me. It was now night and the greatly reduced visibility — coupled with the necessity for increased alertness introduced by this fact — added an extra strain, which heightened my sense of weariness. The thought crossed my mind that I might have been too hasty in rejecting Buzz’ offer to spend the night at his home.
For a moment I considered turning around and going back to Midway. But a quick glance at the odometer disabused me of that notion. I had already covered twenty-two miles since leaving there. The distance back was about the same as that to the next town ahead. I decided to continue on as far as Brunswick, Georgia which was only about thirty miles distant, and stop there for the night if I felt too tired at that point to proceed. This would leave only twenty-eight miles to cover the next day before reaching home.
Before picking up Buzz I had made occasional stops in roadside rest areas to wash up and take short rests. I usually spent about fifteen minutes walking around and doing about five minutes of calisthenics to increase the circulation and loosen up a bit before continuing on my way. In addition, I made infrequent stops to photograph people or things I found interesting. This routine, plus my desire to see everything of interest along my route that could be observed without jeopardizing my own safety, or that of others, had helped to keep me alert. After taking on my passenger, except for food and fuel, I had made only four brief stops to take photographs, and none for exercise. Our conversations and my interest in the surrounding terrain had been sufficient to keep me pepped up.
None of these options were available to me now. Even reading the neon signs that were strewn on either side of the highway like multi-colored electric hookers enticing me to try everything from Bibles to boathouses (at a price, of course), put an added strain on my eyes. Therefore, I kept my eyes off them as much as possible. This was no easy task, for they stood out in bold relief against the surrounding darkness and it was almost as difficult not to look at them as it is for a moth to ignore the fatal attraction of a lighted lamp.
I decided to hold my speed down to thirty-five miles per hour, even though the limit posted advised me that I had the choice of living dangerously and doing fifty, if it suited my fancy (and stupidity). I was now traveling on home ground. Even in the darkness I could occasionally recognize the outlines of some landmark that I remembered from years ago. There were more built-up areas along the borders of the highway, but there were still long stretches of countryside in between. Except, of course, for those ubiquitous neon hookers. They seemed to have been spaced with extremely diabolical cunning. Sometimes they would fake me out by giving me up to a twenty minute respite — no signs at all! And then, upon rounding a curve or coming out of a thick grove of trees — Wham; they let me have it, literally, in the eyes!
Judging from many of these neon (and other types) signs, it would seem that the major competition for the highway traveler’s dollar (at least insofar as food, fuel, lodging and certain regional products are concerned) in the southeastern coastal states, is among three firms: “Stuckey’s”, “Horne”, and “Rawls’”. With Mr. Rawls occupying, I believe, a tertiary position. The first two usually supply food and lodging, in addition to their other services; the third may or may not.
From the time I passed Washington, D.C., signs bearing the imprint of the establishments listed above repeatedly urged me to purchase samples of almost every variety of agricultural product grown in the southeast. In Virginia, they touted ham and tobacco; in the Carolinas, the pitch was cigarettes, ham and pecans; and in Georgia, they were hustling peanuts, pecans, peaches, ham and (in the southeastern section) citrus by-products. There were, of course, other firms competing for these markets; but the names of “Stuckey”, “Horne”, and “Rawls” led those of the other entrepreneurs of the open road by a wide margin!
In several instances, I saw two of the three facing each other from opposite sides of the highway, like two gunslingers preparing for a showdown – winner take all! In Virginia and North Carolina, Stuckey and Horne had the market pretty much to themselves, but, somewhere in upper South Carolina, Mr. Rawls put in his appearance, and by the time I reached the Georgia border, he was engaged in a ferocious war for outlet location and highway advertising space with the other two.
Of all the products I saw touted along the way, there was only one that seemed to enjoy equal popularity (judging by the amount of advertising) in every southeastern state. It seems that the residents of these states are under the impression that they suffer from a dearth of ear-shattering noises. In a heroic effort to cope with this deficiency, many roadside entrepreneurs, from Virginia to Florida, give a product known as “fireworks” prominent display, both among the wares in their emporiums and on their advertising signs. There are also many firms that specialize in the sale of fireworks alone. Relatively few of the establishments I saw on the trip, or the garish signs that touted them (as well as those touting various other items) were in existence when I went away.
Coping with the distractions of this surfeit of signs had presented no problem for me during the day when I had been much fresher, and the current for the majority of them was turned off. Now, however, it was a different story! I was tired and tense and the sight of all those colorful lights beckoning me made my eyeballs want to burst. The small amount of extra illumination they cast on the highway was more than offset by their negative effect upon my psyche. I finally resorted to the tactic of blinking my eyes rapidly for a few seconds periodically in an effort to erase their images from my brains. This solved the problem and for the rest of my journey I was not too conscious of them.
All at once, as if it came out of nowhere, I saw a sign announcing the city limits of Brunswick. For a moment, I thought my eyes, in their fatigue, had played a trick on me. Then I saw another larger, neon-lit sign that removed all doubt. Written on it was the legend: “Welcome to Brunswick, Gateway To The Golden Isles”. That confirmed it. I was now only twenty-eight miles from home!
I had assumed that I was still somewhere north of Darien, some thirty-five miles north of Brunswick. But I had been so absorbed in trying to cope with those damn neon signs, that I had gone right through Darien without being aware of it. Glancing at my watch, I saw that it was only nine-thirty. As I was feeling only a little more fatigued than when I left Midway, I decided to put caution to the winds and try for home.
Within a short while, I was cutting through the marshes of Glynn, the subject of Sidney Lanier’s epic poem of the same name. My fatigue had miraculously disappeared, and I felt almost as fresh as when I started out. Shortly, I saw a sign announcing the Little Satilla River, and right next to it, another that marked the beginning of Camden County. Soon I was whizzing through little villages and hamlets, the names of which had not crossed my mind in years: Spring Bluff, Waverly, White Oak. So far as I could tell in the darkness, they seemed not to have changed one iota in all the years of my absence.
Five minutes after leaving the hamlet of White Oak. I could see the well-lit bridge over the Big Satilla River. As I got closer, I could see that at least one thing in Camden had changed in my absence: the old bridge I had known had been replaced by a more modern one of reinforced concrete. Once on it, I saw that it arched over the river at a much higher distance above the water than the old one had. At its opposite end was a sign announcing that the city of Woodbine, Georgia began there. Another dramatic change was immediately apparent. In place of the one lane thoroughfare of my youth, there were now two lanes in each direction that ran almost up to the foot of the bridge. A short distance from the bridge was a traffic light. Beyond that, I could see three more lights in the distance!
“Well I’ll be damned if Woodbine hasn’t gone modern!” I said out loud in stunned surprise. It was now three minutes past ten. The trip from New York had taken me exactly twenty-two hours. The odometer showed that I had covered a distance of one thousand twenty-three miles!
I knew that just a hundred feet or so from the bridge, there should be a dirt road on the side of the highway that would take me the three and a half miles out to my old community – Scarlet. It wasn’t there! I pulled off the road, stopped, and got out of the car to get my bearings. That road must be around here somewhere, I thought to myself. I haven’t been away long enough to forget where that road was. I stood there a few moments trying to recreate the town as I remembered it in my mind’s eye. As the path slowly came into focus, I looked at the buildings around me trying to match them with those I saw in my mind. No luck; they wouldn’t fit! Finally, I walked the short distance back to the bridge, then retraced my steps back to the car, carefully examining each building as I went along. I saw only one building I recognized – Gowen’s Appliance Store. It had been erected just before I left home and was the most modern building in the town at the time. None of the other buildings were familiar.
I got back into the car and just sat there for awhile trying to decide what to do next. The town had rolled up the sidewalks for the night and there was not a single person to be seen anywhere. The few residences adjacent to the highway had their shades drawn and (so far as I could determine) their lights out. I finally decided to continue a bit further along the highway in the hope of finding a filling station or an all-night truck-stop open. Besides, the prospect of being spotted by some trigger-happy small-town Southern cop, who might consider the coincidence of a strange black man sitting alone in a car with New York plates parked in the commercial part of town at this hour, reason enough to shoot first and ask questions later, was certainly unappealing.
After traveling about a mile further, I came upon an ice plant with a store and filling station adjoining it. A sign over it said it was open twenty-four hours. With a sigh of relief, I pulled off the highway and stopped in front of the store. I went in and asked the woman behind the counter if she could direct me to Scarlet. She replied that she was new in town and had never heard of it. As I turned to leave, she said that I might try the colored night man working in the ice plant next door, as she believed he was a native of these parts and lived about three miles from town, “somewhere out on route 110.” I thanked her and headed for the ice plant.
As I walked up the steps to the loading platform, a black man of about fifty-three years of age came walking out of one of the freezing stalls pulling a large block of ice behind him. After apologizing for the intrusion, I asked if he could direct me home, and also if he knew my Uncle, Aaron Weston. His reply was, “Yeah, not only do I know your Uncle Aaron, but I know you too!” He turned out to be one of my distant Cousins, James Forcine, who I had grown up with. He had recognized me on sight; but my memory was not as acute. It was only after talking with him for a few minutes and studying his facial features, was I able to reconstruct his image as I had known it.
After exchanging the customary amenities, I told him about my embarrassment at not being able to find the road home. He laughed at this, then told me there was no need for embarrassment on my part, for not only had the road been moved since I went away, its surface had also been paved. It was now rated as a “Class A” highway and was known as “State Route 110”. He added that at the same time the road was paved, parts of it were straightened out and that its junction with U.S.17 was about a block further south than previously.
Next, he informed me that Uncle Aaron had just recently passed by on his way back home after taking his wife to the hospital and leaving her there. I asked what was wrong with my Aunt. He replied that she was a diabetic and had to be placed in the hospital periodically for observations and check-ups. I asked if there was any place in town where I might get some food, as I was hungry. He replied that he didn’t think so.
He looked at me for a moment in silence, then asked: “Junior, when last you ate anythin?”
“About five o’clock this afternoon, in Hardeeville, South Carolina” I answered.
He looked surprised. “You mean to say you drove all the way heah from there since five o’clock?”
“Yeah. I’ve been on the road since last midnight.”
“Without stopping to sleep or anythin’? Man, you musta been outa your mind!”
“Well, you see, when I started out, my intention was to make the trip in about three days, but once on the road, I got a strong desire to get home so I just kept on going and here I am.”
“Well, I’ll be damned! Boy, you done come over a thousand’ miles!” “You come by yourself?”
“Most of the way. I picked up a white soldier in Summerton, South Carolina, and he rode with me as far as Midway.”
“How long since you been home?”
“About thirty years or so.”
“Thirty years! Damn! How old are you now?”
I told him I was “Forty-nine.”
“I’m fifty-two and a grandfather! Well, Junior, I guess we gettin’ kinda old, ain’t we?”
“Yeah, I guess we are.”
“You got any children?”
“Yeah, two – a daughter of twenty-five and a six year old son. No grandchildren yet; my daughter is not married, and my son is too young.” We laughed.
Then, I asked about some of the older people I had known in my youth. His answer: “Junior, a whole lot of them old people done gone from heah! Mama and Papa, they both dead. There’s still some of the old folks around, though. Your GrandUncle Sonny, he still heah, he about ninety-four years old now. An my Uncle Cleveland, he still heah — doin’ fine at eighty-five, an’ still chasin’ women! Then, there’s Mrs. Katy Jones — she must be eighty-some; old man Derry Toney — he pushin’ ninety; old lady Sarah Jenkins over in St. Mary’s — she about ninety-three or ninety four; anyway, she aroun’ Uncle Sonny’s age. An’ there’s a few more knocking about out in these woods somewhere, whose names I can’t remember just now. Come to think of it there’s quite a few old folks aroun’ heah — still hangin’ on somehow.”
He paused a minute, then said: “Boy, I never expected to ever see you down this way again — after we didn’t hear from you in so long. Mos’ o’ them that left from aroun’ heah come back to visit from time to time; but now you, you ain’t come back to visit even once ’til now. What made you decide to come home after all these years?” “There’s really no simple answer to that question”, I replied. “Let’s just say, as the old folk used to, that there’s a time for all things, and this was the time for me to come back home.”
“By the way”, I asked, “have you been living here all these years?”
“Yeah, ever since I come home from the C.C.C. camp. You know, I met my wife, Pearl, when I was in the corps up there in Jasper, Georgia. Brought her back home and we been heah ever since. I been workin’ heah at the ice plant twenty years — ever since they built it. Yessir, seven nights a week for twenty years — except for two weeks vacation each year! I got me a driller’s rig an’ run a well-boring business on the side. I also do the meter readin’s for the town of Woodbine.”
“When the hell do you sleep?” I asked.
“Oh, I manage to get in a few licks here and there”, he answered. “I’m the only one here at night and I set my own pace”, he went on. There ain’t nobody aroun’ to bother me — I’m my own boss! It ain’t too bad at all”, he concluded.
“Well, James”, I said, “it’s a little after eleven o’clock, so if you will be kind enough to tell me how to find the road home, I’ll be on my way. I expect to be here for at least ten days, so I’ll stop by your place before I leave. “You know”, I added laughing, “if anyone had told me that I would ever need instructions on how to find Scarlet, I’d have called him crazy!”
He gave me explicit instructions on how to find the road and we shook hands. As I turned to leave, he said, “Wait a minute! I forgot all about you bein’ hungry. I’ll phone Pearl and tell her you comin’, an’ to fix you somethin’ to eat. You can’t miss our house; it’s at the crossroad, where the artesian well used to be.”
“You’ll what?”, I stood with my mouth open.
“I said I’ll phone her.”
“You mean to say you have phones out there in the woods now?” “Yessir, an’ gas an’ electricity too. We got just about everythin’ out there you got in New York! It ain’t like in the old days when you was heah; that’s all changed now.”
James said goodnight and went back inside to call his wife. I drove slowly back down the highway until I saw the sign pointing to State Route 110. I turned onto it with a sigh of relief and headed for home, three and a half miles away. As I reached the city limits of Woodbine, I saw a sign carrying the legend: ‘POSTED SPEED – 60 MPH DURING DAYLIGHT HOURS; 50 MPH AT NIGHT, SPEED CHECKED BY RADAR’. Well, I thought, it seems that modern technology has finally caught up with the backwoods!
I drove slowly, looking on both sides for some familiar landmarks. I didn’t see any. That didn’t upset me unduly, as I knew that the road passed through a swamp that had hickory groves on both sides and seven small wooden bridges within its confines. About a quarter of a mile beyond this, was the crossroad, and home! I kept a sharp eye on the lookout for those hickory groves and that swamp; but to no avail. Presently, I came upon a crossroad. This can’t be the one; I got here too quickly, I mused. But just to be sure, I turned into it and pointed the headlights toward the place where I remembered the community’s mail boxes used to be located — about twenty in all, lined up in a row, on one long shelf. Nothing! Having thus satisfied myself that this must be a new dirt road, built during my absence, I backed the car out on the main road and continued on my way. The few houses that I could make out were all dark and quiet, with only the occasional barking of a dog as I passed, to break the stillness. I was still looking for that swamp and crossroad without success. Then, I suddenly remembered another landmark — and this one I was sure would still be there — the community cemetery! It should be on my left, about half a mile before I reached the swamp; but I didn’t see it either.
Just as I was considering turning back, I saw a sign with the “T” symbol for ‘dead end’, and the stem was facing me. Beneath this, another sign said that Junction 40 was just ahead. A few minutes later, route 110 came to an end as an entity, and merged with the new road. At their intersection, a group of directions were posted. One of them stated that the town of Folkston, Georgia was only eight miles distant. Involuntarily, I slammed on the brakes and sat there in frustrated embarrassment. Unless the town of Folkston had been picked up and moved closer to Scarlet, I had gone twelve miles beyond my destination! In other words, I was lost, again!
I began inwardly cussing myself for my stupidity. Now I realized that I could have avoided this predicament simply by having checked the mileage registered on the odometer when I entered route 110, and then, stopping when it had clocked approximately three and a half additional miles. But I had been so sure of myself at that point, that the idea never entered my mind. As a result of this oversight, I was now sitting in the middle of an area I had known as well as my name, completely disoriented for the second time within three hours!
I turned the car around and started back. By this time, every bone in my body ached; and my head felt as though it wanted to separate itself from my neck. I decided to stop at the first house I saw and bang on the door until someone opened it — even at the risk of being fired upon by some frightened householder. I was that tired. I kept the car moving by sheer force of will and silently thanked heaven that there were no other vehicles on the road at this hour besides mine. I maintained just enough speed to keep the car from stalling. A ten-year-old could have walked faster, without breathing too hard!
After about five minutes at this snail’s pace, I saw a light in the distance. As I came nearer, I saw that it was coming from what I took to be the back part of a house on the right side of the road. I pulled into the driveway, stopped and got out of the car, leaving the motor running and the headlights on. As I walked toward what I could now see was a screened-in front porch, I heard the sound of voices that seemed to be coming from the back part of the house. I knocked on the screen door as hard as I could. Almost immediately, a woman’s voice came from somewhere inside. It was unmistakably black!
“Who that out there this time o’ night?”, the voice queried. “Excuse me ma’am, but I’m lost and I wonder if you might help me”, I answered.
“Who you lookin’ for?”, the voice sounded closer.
“I’m looking for my Uncle, Aaron Weston; I used to live here myself, many years ago.”
“Who you?”, the voice asked.
Now I could see her silhouette behind the glass in the front door. “My name is William Mackey; but they used to call me Junior around here.”
“Not Junior Mackey?” she cried, opening the front door at the same time.
“I’m afraid so — and a tired and hungry one at that!”
In one bound she was at the screen door unfastening it. “Boy, come on in heah, I’m Lonnie Mae, you remember me. What you doin’ sneakin’ up on us in the middle o’ the night like this for? You like to scared me to death with the loud knockin’ out there. Come on in heah an’ let me look at you! My, my, ain’t you something! That’s jus’ like you, Junior — sneakin’ up on folks without tellin’ ’em nothin’! You always did have the devil in you. You ain’t changed a bit; come on in heah an’ sit down.”
At last I was home – finally! It had taken me twenty-two hours to drive the thousand miles from New York to Woodbine; then taken me three hours to cover the last three and a half miles from Woodbine to Scarlet!
I followed Lonnie Mae back to the kitchen and sat down at the table. For the first time since entering the house, I had the opportunity to get a good look at her as she stood there staring down at me and shaking her head in disbelief. I saw before me a pretty woman of medium-brown skin, rather short and on the plump side (but not unattractively so). Her hair, which was pinned up in the back, was greying ever so slightly. She had the face of a woman of thirty, but I knew that she had to be much older than that. I tried to picture her in my mind as she had been when I last saw her, but the image didn’t come immediately into focus. However, as we talked, gradually, the curtain of time lifted and I began to remember what she looked like as a girl. The last time I’d seen her, she was about fourteen. As if divining my thoughts, she said, “Junior, its been a long time, ain’t it?” “Yes, it sure has”, I answered.
There was a boy of about three playing with a toy train on the floor in the dining room. I asked if he was her son. She laughed, then said that he was one of their grandchildren, of whom there were several. She said they seemed to spend almost as much time with her as with their parents. She was a seamstress and was just now in the process of finishing a dress for a customer who needed it the next day; that was why she was up so late. She had been trying to get her grandson to go back to bed when I came up, and having no luck (as he had a different idea in mind). It was this conversation that I had head on arriving.
She asked when had I left New York and when I told her, she said that I must be out of my mind to do what I had done. I agreed, but added that was behind me now and, at the moment, all I felt was tired and hungry. She suggested that I take a bath while she prepared me some food. Adding that there was no need to open my luggage for clean underwear, as her husband was about my size and I could use a pair of his. I thanked her, then suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to turn off the motor and headlights of the car and I went outside to attend to it.
When I returned, the water was drawn for my bath and clean underwear was laid out on a chair by the bathtub. When I came out, some twenty minutes later, I discovered that she had awakened her husband and had him go out to the hen house and kill a chicken that she was in the process of cleaning in preparation for cooking. The table was already set and there was a glass of milk and a platter of cookies nearby for me to munch on while waiting for the chicken.
Her husband introduced himself as Laurie Drummond, Jr. I remembered the name as belonging to a local family, but did not recognize him. He also had been quite young when last I saw him.
After I finished eating, Lonnie Mae suggested that I call my Uncle to let him know I was home. She gave the number from memory, then, instructed me on how to dial it.
In a few seconds I heard my Uncle’s voice. It sounded just as it did when I last heard it. When I told him who I was he was flabbergasted. Briefly, I outlined the circumstances of my coming home, then told him I would be there in a short while. He said he would leave the light burning on the front porch so that I would recognize his house, which was only a short distance away.
After hanging up, I sat back down, shaking my head. “What’s the matter?”, asked Laurie. “Man”, I said, “I’m having one hell of a time adjusting to the changes around here! When I left this place, finding a lantern to light your way on a dark night could be a problem; now I come back to wall-to-wall television. It never occurred to me when I was at that service station in Woodbine that I could have looked in a directory, found Uncle Aaron’s number, and then dialed! Even after James Forcine told me that he had a phone, I didn’t make the obvious connection! Hell, sitting here in your kitchen is no different from sitting in mine back in Brooklyn. You’ve got a washing machine, refrigerator, freezer — the works! I guess you might say I’m suffering from a mild case of culture shock!”
“Oh, we’ve had lights an’ things like that more’n fefteen years now”, Laurie said. “Things ’round heah change mighty fast nowadays”, his wife chimed in. “Now you take this house”, she went on, “it wasn’t heah when you left. Your Uncle Aaron built it. It was the first house he built on his own after he took up carpenterin’ — did a good job too”. I cast my eyes about each room that was visible from my vantage point in the kitchen. I could see that the house was solidly built. The rooms were large and well laid out, with high ceilings and wood paneling all around. The floors were of oak planks that seemed sturdy enough to last three or four hundred years.
“How many rooms do you have?” I asked. “Seven, not counting the bathroom, an’ the front and back porches”, Laurie answered. “It sure is a nice place; my Uncle must be some carpenter”. “Oh yeah, cun’ (Cousin) Aaron, he do alright; he can build anythin'”. Lonnie Mae said. I asked Laurie what he did for a living. “I work in St. Mary’s at the Kraft paper mill — been there over twenty years”, he replied.
He went on to say that they had a strong union, made up of both black and white workers. Everybody now got the same pay scale for doing similar work. Not like in the old days, when they were paid according to color — with the Whites getting the top rates and, in addition, having a monopoly on all skilled jobs — with Blacks being relegated exclusively to the roles of helpers and laborers, especially the latter.
“All that was past history”, Laurie said. All production jobs were now open to everyone, regardless of color. Periodic tests were now given to allow any worker the chance to move up in job classification and salary. In addition, the company operated classes that any worker could attend in his spare time, in order to learn skills that qualified him for promotion to jobs demanding greater technical ability and, consequently offering better wages.
The union was now integrated, with members of both races occupying positions of both elective and administrative responsibility. In the event of strikes, everybody walked the picket lines together — without distinction. Besides all this, there were now certain fringe benefits such as pension plans and other retirement benefits that workers in this area didn’t even know existed thirty years ago.
When Laurie had finished bringing me up to date, I sat in silence for a few minutes, letting my mind go back to the remembrance of things as they were in the past. “You know”, I said finally, “mow I know why I got lost; this can’t possibly be the same place I left; they must have swapped it for some other county. The real Camden must be hiding out there some place where I can’t find it!” The three of us had a good laugh at this. Then Lonnie Mae looked me in the eyes and said, “No, Junior, it’s the same place — the times jus’ change. After all, you been gone over thirty years. When you left, I was just a li’l girl; now I’m a grandmother! You see, that’s what happen to folks who stay away from home too long — like you done”. “Where in hell did all those years go?” I exclaimed. “They went one at a time, that’s all; one at a time!” said Lonnie Mae.
Seeing that it was now past three in the morning, I said I’d better be getting over to my Uncle’s as he was probably waiting up for me. As we walked to the door, they asked how long I planned to stay. When I said ten days, they said be sure and stop by again before I left. I assured them that I would, and then stepped outside into the darkness.
As I headed for my car, I became aware of the fact that the sky was literally saturated with stars. I stopped and, for a moment, just stood there staring up at the sky in wonderment. “What you lookin’ up in the sky like somebody crazy for?” Lonnie Mae wanted to know. “I was just admiring all those stars up there”, I answered. “What’s so unusual about that?” They be up there almos’ every night”, she shot back. “Not where I just came from they’re not. Too much grit and grime in the atmosphere back there. I’d forgotten what a starlit night looked like. Jesus, that sure is a beautiful sight up there”, I said. “You like it, eh?” Lonne Mae asked. “You bet I do”, I answered. “Well, then, next time don’ stay away so long!” she quipped.
I continued to stand there taking in the night’s sounds. All around me crickets were singing their mournful litany. Competing with them, in a nocturnal battle of decibels, was a chorus of bullfrogs in some nearby pond who kept up an incessant plea for an immediate increase in the water supply. About a mile away in the distance, an owl hooted and was immediately answered by another, still farther away. “Well”, I said as I got into the car, “at least the owls and the crickets and the frogs are still here”. “They ain’t never went nowhere; goodnight”, Lonnie Mae said.
I backed the car onto the highway and said goodnight again. A few minutes later I saw the light from my Uncle’s front porch. As I turned into the driveway, the front door opened and he came out and stood there waiting for me. Almost before the car came to a halt, I was running up the steps to greet him. For a moment we stood there, embracing each other, saying nothing — with tears streaming from eyes. When words finally came, both of us started talking simultaneously! We stopped, then began laughing and crying at the same time. We kept this up for about five minutes — alternately laughing and crying, then embracing — neither of us saying a word! Anyone passing and seeing us — two grown men, one barefooted and clad only in undershirt and shorts, standing there repeating these actions time and again — would have been perfectly justified in assuming that we were a little crazy.
Finally Uncle Aaron, still crying, took my arm and said gently, “Boy, come on in the house before both of us catch our death of cold from this night air!” Once inside and seated in the living room, I got my first chance to get a good look at him. It was hard to believe that his seventieth birthday was only a year away! He could easily have passed as a man of forty-five. His arms had that muscular look common to men accustomed to hard physical labor; the kind that involves considerable lifting of heavy loads. His close-cropped hair showed relatively few grey hairs, and his body was completely void of fat.
We talked for about an hour. Our conversation consisted, for the most part, of the one I’d just finished with the Drummonds. Uncle Aaron’s obvious pleasure at my being home again was tempered with some adverse comments about my long absence and failure to maintain contact with the people back home. Around four-thirty, seeing that I could hardly keep my eyes open any longer, he suggested that we get some sleep and continue our conversation and next day. He showed me the guest room, where he had already prepared the bed for me. He said I should sleep as late as I wanted and that I would find breakfast on the stove, waiting for me, whenever I awakened. I said goodnight, went into the room, took off my clothes, and literally fell across the bed. I then closed my eyes for the first time in almost thirty hours! I was asleep before my head touched the pillow.
Next morning, I awoke to the sound of two male voices outside my window. I recognized one as belonging to Uncle Aaron; the other sounded like that of an older man, and seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t connect it to anyone that I remembered. (I discovered later that it belonged to an elderly Cousin whose land adjoined Uncle Aaron’s. On noticing my car with its New York plates, he had come over to ask who had come home.)
The passing aroma of country-smoked ham that tantalized my nostrils told me that Uncle Aaron had already cooked breakfast. Looking at my watch, I was surprised to find that it was only nine a.m.! I had slept for only four and a half hours; yet I felt great, with no sense of fatigue whatever. I decided that the thing to do was to get dressed and have at that ham as soon as possible.
After dressing, I raised the blinds to see who was talking with Uncle Aaron, but there was no sign of anyone about. By the time I finished eating, Uncle Aaron had returned. He had only gone next door to borrow a tool. He helped me unload the car, and afterwards we sat on the porch for a long time talking.
It was a beautiful late spring day and the air smelled so fresh that I wished there was some way to bottle some of it and take it back to New York later for breathing purposes. Only the singing of birds in the surrounding forest and the sound of our voices broke the quiet country stillness. Every now and then I looked at that highway standing out there, just a few hundred feet from where we sat, and wondered how in hell it had managed to baffle me so completely the night before. That was a mystery I intended to solve before doing anything else.
I asked Uncle Aaron for the names and whereabouts of all the old people who were still alive. I had not been away so long as to forget that community etiquette demands that a visit of respect be paid to all the old folk, related or not, as soon as feasible, after one returns home. These visits usually begin with the oldest resident, then move downward on a descending scale according to age. After giving me this information, he asked what my plans were for the day.
I told him I intended retracing my journey over that highway first. Then, I would pay my respects to Uncle Sonny (my great Uncle); after that, I was going to visit the old homestead if there was enough time left. He raised his eyebrows at the last bit of information. “Boy, I doubt if you can find your way back up in there!
It’s all grown up over there now – nothin’ but trees. You might get lost if you try to go in there alone.”
“You mean to say that there are no buildings left standing at all?” I asked in surprise.
“No, nothin’ at all! You can’t even tell where some of them was!” “Well, I’ll take a chance and go anyway. If I can’t find my way back to that place, then I might as well pack up again and head back to Brooklyn.”
“That place was home to me for over sixteen years! I know it like I know the palms of my hands! I’ll find my way.”
“Yeah, well you knew that road out there like the palms of your hands too, but you got lost just the same!” Uncle Aaron reminded me. Since I could not get around the truth of that statement, I decided to pursue the matter no further. For the simple truth was that my insistence on my ability to locate the old homestead was based primarily upon my embarrassment at getting lost in my own backyard the night before.
Saying that I would be back in time for supper, I got in the car and took off down the road towards Woodbine. I had not gone far before it became clear why I got lost the night before. The first thing I noticed was that the road had been relocated in some places when it was paved. (As an engineer, I should have anticipated this but did not.) Instead of the seven wooden bridges in the swamp, there were now only three modern concrete ones. In addition, the road-bed had been raised considerably in that area. The hickory groves had long since been converted into grocery bags, or wrapping paper, or into somebody’s rustic outdoor furniture. In their places, there now stood two examples of south Georgia’s modern progress — tree farms, complete with the appropriate warnings against trespassing of any kind. Also detailed were listings of the maximum penalties that could be imposed for each type of violation. Having seen enough to convince myself that this was a strange road to me even at high noon, I turned the car around and headed for Uncle Sonny’s.
As I turned off the highway into the road that led to Uncle Sonny’s, I was pleased to see that at least one thing here had not changed during my absence. There, sitting at the end of the road about a half mile distant, I could see Uncle Sonny’s house. Even the awning projecting from the front porch looked just the same as I remembered it; a bit tattered, but the same one, nevertheless.
I stopped in front of the gate, got out of the car, and hailed just as I had done countless times in my youth (except that then I had been walking rather than riding). Getting no answer, I walked around the house to the back door – another old custom. As I made my way to the rear, I examined each section of the house as I walked past. Although it was somewhat weathered, it looked as solid as the day it was built.
When I reached the back door, I hailed again. This time, a voice coming from what I thought was the bathroom answered: “All right, I’ll be out in a minute, jus’ hol’ on!” There was no mistaking that voice, it could belong to no one else but Uncle Sonny. In a few minutes he came out and opened the back door. “Now, tell me who dis is?” he asked. “Uncle Sonny, it’s me, Junior?”
“Junior? Junior who?”
“You know me, Uncle Sonny, Junior Mackey!”
“Not sis’ Harriett’s boy – dat Junior, is dat who you is?”
“Yes sir, that’s me allright, that’s who I am.”
He pushed the door wide open. There he stood, all ninety-four years of him, the rich texture of his dark skin exuding a soft glow like black satin, with thick-lensed glasses covering his eyes. Even allowing for the slight stoop brought on by old age, he didn’t look as tall as I remembered him. When I was a boy, he had looked like a giant to me, especially at those times when he was astride his big rust-colored horse. Looking at him standing there now, I realized that he had seemed much taller in my small boy’s imagination than he actually was. Another reason for my former impression of him was based on the fact that he had been, by far, the dominant personality in our little world. He had owned the most land; had the biggest farm; employed the most people on his farm, in season; and acted as honest broker for the entire community whenever they sold livestock or farm products.
He had also been a kind of ombudsman for us in dealing with the outside world of white society. He had often acted as arbitrator in disputes between families or neighbors. He was one black man who was respected by the Whites in the area, even if they did not like him. It was often said in the County that “The word of Jim (Sonny) Sibley is as good as any bond.” Whenever my grandmother was in need of advice on any matter of importance, her instructions to me would invariably be: “Go an’ tell Sonny I wanta see him.” He always stopped whatever he was doing and came at once. Grandma was his oldest sister; therefore a word from her was tantamount to a command! He had served the community for many years as patriarch in function; now he was also its patriarch in age. For here, standing before me, was the oldest individual in the community! He had outlived most of his contemporaries and was still going strong.
“Boy!” he said, his face breaking out in a big grin, “Come on in heah an’ lemme cut (whip) yo’ behin’.” As I stepped inside he began to alternate between embracing me and pummeling me about the body. These actions immediately recalled to my mind one of the old customs which I had forgotten. The old greeting at the homecoming of sons, daughters or favorite relatives after long absences was for the father or mother to obtain a small branch (switch) from a nearby peach or pomegranate tree, and proceed to administer a moderate thrashing (interspersed with hugging, kissing and weeping) to the returning offspring. Sometimes both parents would participate in these proceedings simultaneously! The recipient of this type of greeting rarely tried to ward off the blows and usually participated in this sado-masochistic ritual with enthusiasm.
The most dramatic example of this type of greeting that I ever witnessed involved my grandmother and my Uncle Bill, her son. He returned home after an absence of some six years in New Jersey. She did not know he was coming, and was on her way to the clothesline with a washboard piled high with wet clothes when he came around the corner of the house and called out, “Hi Mama!” She took one look and dropped the washboard. The clothes scattered all over the ground, ruining over two hours of hard work. She ran to him, letting out squeals of delight as she went. In a few seconds they were all over each other. After a time she held him at arm’s length and, after admonishing him to stand right where he was, went over to a peach tree and cut a switch. When she returned, she started to thrash him. He just stood there, laughing and crying at the same time. Occasionally, she would stop for a moment and run up to him and they would embrace.
Throughout all of this, grandma kept a steady stream-of-consciousness monologue going. One minute she was berating Uncle Bill for his long absence; the next she was repeating all over again how glad she was to see him; and the next she was looking up at the sky and thanking the deity for bringing her son home again safe.
Finally she fell to the ground exhausted. Uncle Bill picked her up and carried her to the back porch and put her in a chair. Then he sat down on the edge of the porch and they began a quiet conversation. As soon as she got her wind back, she jumped up and they repeated the entire process all over again!
While all this was taking place, I was perched on a limb up in a china-berry (soapberry) tree, at a spot that afforded me both an excellent view of the ritual below and safety from any stray blows which might have been my lot had I been too close. I thought to myself that maybe Uncle Bill had suddenly taken leave of his sanity to absorb all that punishment without protest, and with laughter besides! For to me and my peer group, thrashings were no laughing matter! We would go to any lengths to avoid getting one. Yet, here was Uncle Bill getting the thrashing of his life, and laughing as if he enjoyed it! I said to myself that if this was what coming back home was like, once one left, it was wiser never to return!
I had seen this ritual many times before, but never anything like this. It was one of the most emotional experiences of my youth. To this day I have been unable to discover just when this custom began; but it ended with Grandma’s generation. Uncle Sonny was one of the last of that generation.
So here I was, participating in a ritual that was all but dead! My generation was the last for whom it had any meaning. No one living there who was twenty-five or younger would have had the slightest inkling of what was happening between us had any of them witnessed that scene.
Our greeting over, we went out on the front porch to talk. He said that he enjoyed pretty good health except for a touch of arthritis which caused him some discomfort on occasion. He was still able to drive his car around the community; but he never ventured on major highways because modern motorists were insane, and he preferred dying at home in bed peacefully, rather than having his body scattered piecemeal all over some highway.
He said that his wife, Lucy, had died some twenty years before and since that time, he lived alone. He cooked for himself when he felt like it; at other times, Lonnie Mae either cooked for him at his house or he would go over to her house for meals if it suited his fancy. Sometimes she would send one of her grandchildren over with food. In addition, frequently some female relative would come unannounced from as far away as Miami, Florida, to cook and keep house for him for a week or two before returning home. Whenever he didn’t feel up to going out, he didn’t get lonesome because someone was always stopping in to visit or just to check to see if he was alright. He said he was “doin’ all right” except for one thing — he missed Aunt Lucy! (The truth of this last statement was brought home to me in a rather forceful manner when I paid a visit to the cemetery a few days later. There, next to his wife’s vault and headstone, was his own marker. Imprinted on it was this legend: ‘JIM SIBLEY. 1875 – ‘. As I stood there, staring at that headstone, there was no doubt in my mind that Uncle Sonny had, in today’s vernacular: “got it all together.” (He had left nothing to chance!)
We spent most of the afternoon talking, with Uncle Sonny doing most of the talking and I asking questions and listening. Almost before I realized it, the sun was sinking fast behind the tall pines that grew almost up to the yard. It was now too late in the day to start looking for the old homestead. I decided, instead, to pay a visit to the two-room schoolhouse where I was first introduced to the wonders of formal education — Southern style.
I said Goodbye to Uncle Sonny and left for the school which was located about a mile away on a dirt road. When I reached the site where it was supposed to be, I got another surprise — it was no longer there! In its stead there was another of those ubiquitous tree farms. The only thing I recognized in the vicinity was our old wooden Baptist church, which was located about a hundred yards farther on. But, of course, standing next to it was a new church of brick and stone that seemed to be all but completed.
Even the dirt road had been modernized. It now had deep drainage ditches on both sides and its surface had been raised considerably to prevent periodic flooding during extended periodic flooding during the rainy season. In the old days, this road (along with others of its type) became so flooded during extended periods of wet weather that many parts of it were impassable to vehicles, except for oxcarts, buggies and wagons. And even they had to be extremely cautious lest they became bogged down in the mire below the water’s surface.
Every branch, pond or swamp these roads crossed were supplied with footings or footplanks constructed about three feet above the roads’ surfaces to permit pedestrian passage. Even these were occasionally submerged beneath the water. In the latter case, the luckless pedestrian was forced into one of three choices — he could swim across, provided he had the necessary skill and didn’t mind getting his clothing wet, or was traveling naked (which was hardly likely): he might try skirting around the periphery of the flooded area in the hope of finding some high ground dry enough to get across: or, he might just throw up his hands in disgust, call it a bad day, then turn around and go back and wait for the water to dry up. All of this was now past history. I found out later that one of the main reasons for the vastly improved quality and serviceability of these roads was the increasing political leverage of the County’s black citizens.
After stopping briefly to inspect the new church, I decided to call it a day and went back to Uncle Aaron’s to have supper and get a head start on a good night’s rest. By seven p.m. I was fast asleep. This time I did not wake up until eight the next morning — thirteen hours later!
As soon as I finished breakfast, I took off for the old farm. I said nothing about my destination to Uncle Aaron. I had decided to say nothing to anyone if I were unsuccessful in locating it. That way, I would save myself considerable embarrassment as no one would be aware of my failure.
When I reached the place where the road to our farm should have intersected with the dirt road, I saw that Uncle Aaron had been right. There was no sign that there had ever been a road at that point. Looking in the direction of the farm, I could see none of the landmarks that I remembered. On one tract of land that adjoined the highway, I could see a tractor plowing in preparation for the planting of another tree farm. There was a sign announcing this fact facing the highway. I parked the car on the side of the road, got out, and started walking through the woods in the direction of the farm.
I kept a sharp lookout for any familiar trees or other objects as I went along, but without success. As I remembered it, the distance from the main road to the homestead was about three quarters of a mile. So, I decided to walk until I had covered approximately that distance and stop. I was sure I would find something familiar near that point if I looked closely enough. I silently congratulated myself for having used my brains to solve a problem of disorientation for the first time since my homecoming. Meanwhile, I kept looking for signs of the old road, but saw nothing, not even one remnant of an old rut. There had been several ponds bordering it on both sides along its route. They were gone too. The trees that once grew in them had probably long since been converted into paper! There were trees in the area, but they were all of more recent growth.
After walking about half-way the limit I had set, I saw off in the distance, a landmark which I recognized. It was a tall, gnarled, slash of pine that must have been over a hundred years old when I was a boy. It stuck out from the surrounding trees like a giant at a convention of midgets. How the agents of those wood-hungry pulp mills had missed it I’ll never know. I recalled that it was located near one corner of the fence around the barn, and the house was only a hundred or so yards beyond that point. A feeling of triumph came over me; I had done it! I had finally found one old place on my own, the most important one to me, without first getting lost.
With an overwhelming sense of anticipation I started running toward that tree. Once there, I looked for some sign of the fence. Next, I looked toward the spot where the house once stood, but could see no more than ten feet ahead. A thick mass of scrub pines, dwarf oaks and brambles confronted me. I was standing in the middle of a forest! There was no visible evidence that human habitation had ever existed there. Not even a rusted fragment of the wire fence.
Slowly I weaved my way through the jungle maze that had once been a broad, grassy meadow toward the place where the front porch used to be. The brambles; vicious thorns reached out and grabbed my clothes; the jagged edges of dead branches on the dwarf oaks stabbed me in my ribs; and, to top it all off, an uncommonly large variety of mosquito (referred to in this section as ‘gallinippers’), being presented with the opportunity for an unexpected feast, descended on me by the thousands. Two of these three torments presented me with mutually distasteful choices. I could either slap at the mosquitoes, thereby running the risk of tearing my hands into shreds on the brambles; or, I could ignore the mosquitoes, and risk the possibility of having every ounce of blood siphoned from my body. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I broke out of the maze into a small clearing. There I spent the next five minutes becoming the biggest mass murderer of mosquitoes in history!
After satiating my lust for revenge, I took stock of my immediate surroundings. The clearing itself was not in keeping with the pattern of the surrounding terrain. It consisted of an almost perfect circle about eight feet in diameter. At its center, a dense growth of ivy enveloped what appeared to be the large trunk of some long-dead tree of about twenty feet in height. Except for this, the rest of the clearing was completely void of any vegetation, and the ground had the washed-out appearance of barren soil. The surrounding greenery grew right up to the edge of the circle and then stopped — as if held back by some invisible shield. The visual effect of this was like seeing an oasis in a desert, only in reverse!
Since I didn’t recall any tree of this size being so near to the house, I decided to have a closer look at it. I parted some of the vines in order to examine the trunk for some clue to the tree’s species, and then suddenly I knew exactly where I was; I was standing in our living room! The ‘tree’ turned out to be the chimney of the living room fireplace. Thus, the reason, for the absence of vegetation (with the exception of ivy, of course, which will take root even in concrete) within its immediate vicinity, became clear. The many years of being subjected to the heat of the fireplace above had rendered the soil directly below and around it sterile.
Now that I had my bearings, I was able to spot other objects of familiarity. Peering through the foliage toward what was once the rear of the house, I could barely see the outlines of another clearing, about thirty feet away, with a clump of vines rising out of its center. That clump was the chimney of the double fireplace that once provided heat for both the kitchen and dining room. Sticking out near the base of a clump of brambles, just beyond the edge of the clearing in which I stood, was a small pock-marked fragment of a rotted floor sill. It lay there pitifully spilling out the tiny remainder of its guts: having been long since abandoned by the voracious termites that had laid it low. I knew that the well should be about twenty-five feet to the right of where I stood, so I decided to search for it. It took more than ten minutes of torturous twisting, turning and flailing about before I found it. All that was left of what had once been a thirty-foot-deep well were two posts projecting up about three feet out of a slight depression in the ground! I pushed lightly against one of the posts and it disintegrated into splintery fragments. Once again the termites had carried the day.
I spent about three hours thrashing about in that labyrinthine maze in a futile effort to make the past come alive again. Almost nothing was the same as I remembered it! The fruit trees — pear, peach, plum, and pomegranate — were all gone. The grape arbor, along with the wooden rails that supported it, was now history. All these plants belonged to species that, after a millennium of being nurtured by man so that he might reap the benefits of their yields, had come to depend on him for their survival. When man’s care had been withdrawn, they had been victimized by their hardier, if less desirable, brothers and were slowly choked to death because they were unable to compete in the constant struggle for sunlight and the nourishment of the soil. Man, their protector, had abandoned them; therefore, they withered and died.
I saw only one domestic tree — a pecan — still standing after all these years. And that one hardly counted because it had been a fake from the beginning. It was already about twenty years old when I first went to live with grandma; but it had never borne any fruit. At least, none that were edible. It had resisted all the arcane backwoods cunning grandma and our neighbors used in order to entice it to bear. Grandma tried everything from chains (with cowbell and plowshares attached) wrapped around its trunk, to old rags tied to its lower branches: still, it refused to yield. One year, in a gesture that would have won the admiration of the Marquis de Sade, it blossomed in the spring with the opening signs of fertility. But, alas, by the time fall came, most of the nuts had dried up on the tree; and the few that remained to be harvested exhibited empty shells upon being opened! Its perpetual state of barrenness was all the more mystifying because it was the offspring of a tree that had been most generous with its fruits, and, in addition, our tree had many brothers scattered throughout the county that were blessing their owners with more pecans than they could consume without considerable assistance.
As I stood there gazing up at that venerable relic of the past, surrounded by its Cousins of amore primitive nature, I could not help feeling a sense of gratification about the justice of its survival. For it had never been tamed! Once, almost, but not quite. I remembered with a tinge of regret how I had sometimes maltreated it in the days of my youth. Occasionally I had kicked it, slapped it, thrown rocks at it, or subjected it to whatever other types of abuse my imagination could dream up, in my frustration at its refusal to yield to our demands and do what we expected of it — supply us with nuts. Now I wished there was some way I could express my gratitude to that tree for its still being there. There was only one problem: how does one go about telling a tree that he is sorry?
My encounter with that pecan tree left me with a strong feeling of self-pity. I fought my way back to the living room chimney and sat down, leaning my back against it. I had never felt so forlorn in my entire life. Slowly, at first, the tears began to come. Soon my entire body was shaking from my sobs. I must have kept this up for at least twenty minutes! At first, I tried to hold myself in check, but finally gave up and lifted the floodgates. I didn’t have to worry about my dignity as there was no one around to see me crying like this. Besides, I would not have given a damn anyway.
Finally, I recovered my composure and took out my handkerchief and dried my eyes. Then I started mentally looking for culprits to blame for the condition that the homestead was now in. I faulted my Uncle Aaron, all of my Cousins, and even Uncle Sonny! What had they been doing? Why didn’t someone here keep an eye on the place? Didn’t it have any meaning to them? After all, it belonged to all of us! It was that ‘us’ that finally triggered the idea that I also bore a share of the responsibility for this sad state of affairs. And, sitting there propped up against that chimney, I swore a solemn oath to restore that farm to its former state, even if it took me the rest of my life to do so. Having resolved to do something myself, I felt much better.
I began thinking about the best ways to get my new-found crusade going — land costs, clearing expenses, livestock prices, farming implements, irrigation problems; all these things started coursing through my mind. While engrossed in these complexities, I became painfully aware of a stinging sensation on the back of one hand. Looking down, I saw that my hands and arms were covered with gallinippers. Some of them were so bloated with my blood that they were too heavy to fly away! I had been so busy, first with crying and then with thinking, that I had been totally unaware of their presence. After flailing them away, I decided that it was time to get back to the road while I still had enough blood left to make it back under my own power.
It was after three in the afternoon when I got back to my car. I was hungry, having eaten nothing since breakfast. I turned the car around and went back to Uncle Aaron’s to have lunch before deciding what to do next. He was busy building a screen around the front porch when I arrived.
“Where you been? You look kinda beat”, he said as I walked up to the porch.
“Over to the old place”, I answered, feeling pleased with myself.
“You foun’ it?” he asked, looking surprised.
“Yes sir, it hasn’t gone anywhere — it’s still there — right where it was all the time.”
“Well. I’ll be doggone! I woulda almost bet money you wouldn’t find it. You been over there all this time?”
“Yes sir, all this time. It took a lot of searching to find anything familiar; the woods have just about taken over everything.”
“Yeah, I reckon so; its been quite a few years since I was over there. Must be at least ten years. Is any of the house still standin’?”
“No sir, everything’s gone but the chimneys — they’re still there — but you can’t see them because they’re all covered over with vines.”
I see, but it didn’t take you all this time jus’ to find that out. You been gone about six hours; what else did you do over there?”
“Nothing much, I just sat around thinking most of the time.”
“Thinkin’? Thinkin’ about what?”
“Oh, about many things, but mostly about the old days — things like that.”
“Oh, I see, home kinda gettin’ to you, eh?”
“Yes sir, it sure is; say, how many acres are there to that old place anyway?”
“Oh, between nineteen and twenty-five, can’t say exactly. It’s all in the deed, though. Why you askin’? You thinkin’ about buying it?”
“Well, the thought did occur to me; I haven’t sorted everything out in my mind yet, but I’m thinking about it.”
There we let the subject drop. Had I told him all that I was thinking, he would probably have thought I was crazy. It now occurred to me that there was no point in expending the time, effort and expense necessary to restore the old place unless I was prepared to come back home and live there! It was the lack of human habitation that had caused its demise in the first place. Since all of my local relatives were well established on their own land, it would be up to me to see after the place. This task would be impossible to accomplish from a distance of over a thousand miles. And since I was in no position, financially, to hire a caretaker, moving back home would be the only solution.
Making such a move would not be a simple matter. First, it would necessitate the uprooting of my family and transplanting them to a totally alien (to them) environment. Secondly, it would require a complete reorientation from the life-style I had followed for the past thirty years. It would also entail economic readjustments that might cause some initial discomfort. In view of all these considerations, I felt that it would be much wiser to wait until I had learned as much as I possibly could of present conditions in the area before making any decision which might, in the long run, be personally disastrous. My experiences up to this point had already demonstrated that it would be foolhardy for me to take anything about this new Camden for granted!
Therefore, I decided against making any rash commitment to my Uncle that was based entirely on the flimsy foundation of my emotional reactions to seeing the old homestead and that might have cause to regret later. So I held my peace and decided to say nothing further about my plans – at least for the time being. But one thing was now clear to me — the scope of my original intent in coming home had broadened. I had started out with the sole aim of touching base with home. Now my plans had expanded to include an investigation of the possible impact of my past upon my immediate personal future. Such are the twists of fate!
Uncle Aaron went back to his task of screening-in the porch. I stood there a few minutes watching the muscles rippling in his arm as he hammered in nails with swift, accurate blows. Presently, I asked if I could be of any help. He answered no, as he would soon be leaving for a community meeting in Kingsland (a town in the Southern part of the county, fifteen miles away). After that he was going on to St Mary’s (ten miles east of Kingsland) to visit his wife, Leatha, in the hospital. I asked what the meeting was about. He replied that it was a regional meeting that took place once a month and that it was held in a different community each month so as not to favor one town at the expense of the others. He was Scarlet’s representative; therefore, it was important that he attend so as to be able to report back to the community on the proceedings.
I remarked that he must be a very important man in the area. He laughed, then said that some people might think so, but that he didn’t take himself too seriously., Just how important he really is, in spite of his self-deprecation, was demonstrated to me — both as a result of my own personal observations and the words and deeds of others — many times during this visit and the others that I have made since. If there is one man who stays on top of things in Camden County, Georgia and its vicinity, that man is Aaron Weston!
He is a man of tremendous dignity and intelligence and is known throughout Camden and the surrounding area. He now fills the role that Uncle Sonny once occupied. He enjoys the respect of the vast majority of the people in the County, both black and white. He is also a walking encyclopedia on the area and its people.
Uncle Aaron was born and reared in Camden and has lived there continuously since 1928. He is one of that breed of rural Southern Blacks who, by dint of long (and largely unpublicized) service to the communities in which they live, come into positions of leadership in those communities. Not by means of any deliberate campaign for the title on their part, but simply by the gradual recognition by the people themselves that such persons as he had the integrity, intelligence, and dedication necessary for the leadership in their never-ending struggle for survival with dignity. In other words, such leadership is bestowed by the community; not sought by the recipient. It is a kind of leadership noted more for its hard work, personal sacrifices and inconveniences, than for any of the lucrative types of rewards that are usually associated with pre-eminence in any given field.
Five nights a week Uncle Aaron is on the go. He travels on some nights as far north as Darien, in McIntosh County (fifty miles away), to participate in a meeting on some project vital to all the residents of southeast coastal Georgia. Again, it might be Folkston, in Charlton County (twenty miles west), for a meeting on the area’s schools. On other nights, he may take a trip to St. Mary’s, a town at the southeastern tip of Camden, to attend a hearing relating to some aspect of County schools. The only monetary compensation he receives from all this activity is a reimbursement of twenty-cents per mile to cover the cost of gasoline and wear-and-tear on his car.
In addition to this, Uncle Aaron also takes an active role in various religious associations and societies (he is a Baptist). He attends an adult education class in one of the local schools at least two evenings per week during the regular school term; he is an active Deacon in his church; and he did most of the carpentry on the new church recently built by the community.
Uncle Aaron also plays an active role in county Democratic politics and is the head of S.C.L.C. in Camden. He learned carpentry (taught him by a local white man) when in his early forties, and within two years, he was doing independent carpentry contracting throughout the area. In many instances, he worked in partnership with the man who taught him! He has built structures of all types (for both Blacks and Whites) in Camden. He rebuilt his present home with his own hands and practically alone. He and his wife, Leatha, have reared nine children, four of whom still live in the community with their families. In passing his farm on any Sunday afternoon during summer, the place resembles the gathering of a small convention! It is only the Weston clan come together for a visit with their parents.
In a county embracing over sixteen thousand inhabitants, it is a safe bet that Aaron Weston knows over two thirds of them. If not individually, then he at least knows the key members of the families. Even newcomers get to know him rather quickly. They can hardly avoid him since he seems to be all over the county at once! And this a man now approaching his seventy-second birthday!
Whenever his wife cautions him that he had better slow down and take it a little easier, he replies that there is too much yet to be done and he must keep at it until younger people can be prepared to take over. My Aunt responds that nobody is indispensable and that if he should die, the community would find someone else soon enough to take his place. To this logic Uncle Aaron just shrugs his shoulders and continues on with whatever he happens to be doing at the time. Considering the fact that he “retired” almost six years ago, Aaron Weston is about as inactive as Coney Island during midsummer!
Uncle Aaron is of average height, solidly built, with dark-brown skin and an easy smile. He is the only person I have ever met who possesses a photographic memory. He can remember minor details about events that occurred when he was a boy of three or four. All questions concerning family relationships, birthdates, marriages, number of children, years and dates of deaths, even to the day and exact hour, are remembered by him. He is also a great raconteur and wherever he happens to be, there is usually a crowd around him, either listening to, or asking for, one of his stories or anecdotes.
It was and is such people as he, who formed and still make up the backbone of groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These people burst on the scene with the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-fifties and amazed the world with their courage and indomitable will to gain their dignity and respect or perish in the attempt. Some of the more inquisitive journalist and commentators of the period put the question: “Where did these people suddenly come from?” The answer is: they didn’t suddenly come from anywhere, they had always been there! The Rosa Parks’, the Aaron Westons, the black Joe and Jane Doaks’ of the southern backwater towns and farms; they were always there struggling against the tremendous obstacles placed before them by both man and nature — struggling to survive with some measure of human dignity and trying to pass on to their children some leverage for a chance at a better life than they had known.
Yes, these people had always been there; the trouble was, very few other people had taken the trouble to notice them. That is, not until Mrs. Parks’ tired feet refused to move!
My Uncle quite school in the fifth grade to go to work. That was all the formal education he ever had; but I had yet to meet anyone who has more intelligence or a keener mind. He has a sharp sense of humor and possesses an ironic wit that permits him to see and understand the absurdity of many of the sacred tenets of the more sophisticated apologists for the Southern status quo, and to analyze them for what they are. Though he has never been known to go out of his way to seek a fight, no one in Camden questions his courage.
This, then (as accurately as I can portray him), is the man who stood before me some three years ago, hammer in hand, with sweat streaming down his bronze face, and modestly denied any claim to self-importance!
The day after my encounter with the old homestead, I decided to pay a visit to the ‘ancestral home” of my maternal forbears, the Woodbine Plantation. The white man who now owned it, Condre Higginbotham, did not know me, but when I mentioned the fact that Aaron Weston was my Uncle, he smiled and asked what he could do for me. When I told him that I would like to take a look around the plantation, he volunteered to conduct me on a tour of the place in his truck. I readily accepted, for it is a large place consisting, at present, of over sixteen hundred acres.
As we drove around the farm, I could see that the winds of change had been there also. The locks which used to control the flooding of the rice fields with the waters of the Big Satilla River (which borders the plantation) were all rotted away. The deep canals (built by imported Irish labor) that were used to direct water to various sections of the fields, were now clogged with trees, weeds and water reeds. The only crops grown there now were perishable farm produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, and a variety of beans. There was not a speck of rice to be seen anywhere!
My host told me that the place had become something of a tourist attraction for those travelers who wanted to see what a “real” ante-bellum plantation looked like. We spent over an hour exploring every nook and cranny of that huge place, with Higginbotham pointing out various things that he thought might interest me. He belongs to one of the old families in the county. His father served as its Sheriff for many years. When we arrived back to our starting point, we shook hands and I thanked him for his kindness and departed.
The next day Aunt Leatha came home from the hospital. Now it was her turn to berate me for my long neglect of home. But it was worth her good-natured abuse to have her back. For although Uncle Aaron’s cooking was adequate, hers was superb! By the time I left to go back to New York, I had gained ten pounds — an average of a pound per day!
Having spent my first three days back home rediscovering the backwoods area centered around Scarlet, I decided to spend the next few days doing the same thing with the towns in the surrounding area. This presented no problem within Camden itself, for there are only three towns of any size within its borders: Kingsland, St. Mary’s and Woodbine. Woodbine (the County Seat) is the smallest of the three. Kingsland and Woodbine have a parallel histories; they are “modern” towns in the sense that they were founded since the Civil War and, therefore, have no ante-bellum histories as geographical entities. Both owe their existence to the advent of the Seaboard Railway (1893), and both were incorporated during the same year (1908). They, along with the smaller communities of Waverly, White Oak, Colesburg, Seals and Crooked River (Kinlaw), straddle this railroad and Route U.S. 17 which parallels it.
Beginning with Waverly, near the Little Satilla River, at the northern end of the county, and ending with Kingsland, near the St. Mary’s River, at the Southern end, these seven towns and communities are spread out in a straight line at intervals of no more than ten miles. Every one of them owes its existence to the railroad!
St. Mary’s is either the oldest or second oldest (depending on how one counts) town in the United States. Competition for this title has existed between it and St. Augustine, Florida (eighty miles down the coast) for over a hundred years without a clear-cut victory for either town. It sits at the southeastern tip of the county where the St. Mary’s River flows into the Atlantic Ocean. It is the largest of the county’s three towns with a population of approximately five thousand, as compared with Kingsland’s twenty-five hundred and Woodbine’s twelve hundred. The remainder of the county’s population (which totals twenty thousand) is scattered throughout the nineteen other smaller communities and the backwoods.
All of the county’s communities (with the exception of St. Mary’s) share one thing in common; they are all situated either on, or near, the sites of ante-bellum plantations. Even appropriating their names in some instances. As to St. Mary’s, the “Indians” got there first. They had already established a thriving town there when the French explorer and freebooter, Jean Ribault, visited the area in 1562. This simplified things for the Spaniards when they arrived a few years afterwards. All they had to do was slaughter the Indians (Creeks) and then superimpose their image of European culture on the site already laid out by the Creeks! Of course, the Spaniards were not without a sense of humor and fair play; after all, they were knights in the service of Christianity. Therefore, they gave the Indians a choice — either give up their land and convert to Christianity, or perish!
Although there is no record of the Indian’s reply, suffice it to say that today there are no Indians in Camden County. Nor does anyone there remember ever having seen any. Just a few miles outside of St. Mary’s stands the ancient ruins of a Spanish mission house. It is the only visible symbol of Spanish culture left in the entire county. Across the St. Mary’s River, in plain view of St. Mary’s, lies the Florida coastal island of Amelia. On it is situated the town of Fernandina Beach. There, it is the same story. In spite of its Spanish name and origin, the site of the original settlement is now condescendingly referred to as “Old Town”. The relatively few people who still live there — though some bear Spanish names — are a far cry from being Spaniards. That is, unless Spain has been transplanted to Africa, for, as is the case with the Indians, no one remembers having seen any Spaniards in this area during the last seventy years either.
The French also made an abortive attempt to establish a foothold in the area, but after a series of murderous encounters with the Spaniards, the French finally ended up with the short end of the stick. As a result, with the exception of those who agreed to remain and submit to Spanish rule, the Gallic warriors who survived decided to try their empire building somewhere else. Today, a few French Huguenot surnames still exist in Camden; Forcine, Richard, etc. Once again, their owners are black!
Today, the confrontation in this part of the southeast is between the descendants of the last of the conquerors to come here — the Anglo-Saxons — and the last of the conquered to be brought here — the Africans. Whether or not the two groups can finally reach some degree of accommodation is a mute question. One thing, however, is crystal clear, they have the entire field to themselves. The other contestants have long since disappeared! As a result, Blacks in this area (as in most other parts of the South) have one “advantage” over their brothers in the northeastern U.S. — they share a common culture with their adversaries! Although in recent years there has be a tendency on the part of many younger Blacks to deny this fact, one trip through this area by any open-minded individual would confirm its validity.
In my youth, it was still possible to find occasionally relics of Indian culture such as arrowheads, hatchet fragments, etc. in the vicinity. Today, these items are to be found only in the many curio shops that abound in the area — most of them marked: “Made in Hong Kong”!
St. Mary’s has a character that can only be described as “quaint”. The core of the town gives one the impression of having been there forever! Its streets look as though they just happened rather than having been laid out according to any overall plan. Many of them have huge ancient live oaks, some four feet in diameter, growing out of their centers. Many of the older houses predate the Civil War. These are constructed of wood, for the most part, with porches that sometimes wrap around the entire house. Porches are usually supported by wooden replicas of Doric Columns. Even though there has been considerable recent construction, including a new hospital, the town looked much the same as when it I had last seen it. The waterfront had the same fishing and shrimp boats; the same seafood packing houses lining the docks; and a spectacular view of the St. Mary’s River, Cumberland Sound plus the Island of the same name; the Florida border across the river and the town of Fernandina Beach across the sound on the Florida coast.
Woodbine (and Kingsland), on the other hand, has none of the flavor of St. Mary’s. But it had grown at a much faster rate during my absence. When I left, it consisted of less than three hundred people; now there were at least four times as many! My first daylight visit to Woodbine since the night of my dramatic arrival was equally as eye-opening as my trip of rediscovery along route 110. The town had spread out in all directions and now covered about five times as much area as before. Not all of it was built up but the town fathers had shrewdly provided room for future expansion. Ironically, the only thing that had shrunk by about the same amount as the town’s growth, was the railroad station. It was now about one-quarter of its former size. It was manned by a freight agent who also doubled as telegrapher for Western Union. There was no longer any passenger service to be had. The railroad has conceded this business to the bus companies and airlines, by default.
The only legal way to board a train there now was to convert oneself into an item of freight, preferably a stick of pulpwood! The freight-handling facilities, of course, had increased tremendously. More and longer side-tracks, more sophisticated switching mechanisms, etc. were in evidence.
But the most dramatic example of Woodbine’s bid for urban status was the existence of two new public housing enclaves; one for Blacks, the other, in another part of town, for Whites. Each enclave consisted of about eight neat, brick bungalow-type units with four families per unit. Their style was such as to blend inconspicuously with the surrounding dwellings and they were beautifully landscaped all around. They were well-kept by their tenants and showed none of the signs of vandalism so prevalent in their counterparts in large urban communities.
The physical separation of these enclaves represents a departure from the traditional pattern of residential housing in the lower coastal southeast insofar as small and medium-sized towns are concerned. There has never been any strict separation of residential neighborhoods along racial lines in this area. There are sections in cities and towns from Charleston to St. Augustine where Blacks and Whites have lived side by side in harmony for generations! Woodbine is no exception.
As the town spread out, it has embraced land owned and occupied by Blacks that was once part of the surrounding countryside. For example, the present City Hall and the adjacent fire house are situated in a largely black section and occupies land purchased from Blacks. On several occasions, I saw the white Mayor interrupt his walks to his office to sit on the front porch of a black neighbor and chat a few moments before continuing on his way. The chance of this happening thirty years ago was rather remote; but, then, thirty years ago Blacks in Woodbine didn’t have the franchise!
Woodbine now boasted a small, but modern, shopping center spread out along U.S.17. There was now a Laundromat, a dry cleaning store and a branch office of a natural gas company. None of the three had existed when I left. Woodbine is the third town to serve as the seat of the county’s government, St. Mary’s and Jefferson being the other two. St. Mary’s has had the honor twice. Woodbine now has the designation because of its central location rather than by virtue of population or commercial importance. On the latter, two, it ranks third.
Kingsland, the second largest town, was already beginning to show signs of decay even as it continued to grow. It was the only one of the three major towns to show any signs of developing a slum. Naturally, this slum is located in one of the black neighborhoods. However, there is one major difference between this slum and the ones of large cities; its residents own, rather than rent, the houses they occupy.
Jefferson was the only town that had taken a similar direction as the railroad station during the past thirty years — downwards. From its former status of being one of the only two towns in the county in the ante-bellum period, it had almost descended to the category of a ‘dead town’. Located about five miles up the Satilla River from Woodbine on a high bluff, it had once been the hub of the plantations strung out along both sides of the river. Even in my youth it had a viable community consisting of about thirty black families within its boundaries and in the immediate vicinity. Now I found only five families (two white and three black) still living there: and the Whites only lived there during the summer months. The small Methodist church was abandoned and dilapidated. Its few remaining members had long since transferred their allegiance to a larger church in Woodbine, over seven miles away by land. Its heydays had long since passed.
In spite of all the physical changes that were in evidence throughout Camden and its vicinity, my first impressions of the people were that their personal habits and moral code had changed but little. They still went about their business in the same leisurely manner as when I was a boy. People still greeted each other in passing and no local motorist (black or white) would think of passing a house with people in evidence or a pedestrian on the road without waving or acknowledging, in some manner, the presence of another human being.
Children and young adults still deferred to their elders; some Victorian euphemisms were still very much in evidence. For example, young children still substituted the word ‘story’ for lie, just as in my childhood. The taboos against whistling indoors or playing card games on Sundays were still very much in effect. The terms ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ were still the standard forms of address when speaking to one’s elders — black or white.
All these things had a subtle effect on my own attitude and within a few days I discovered that I had unconsciously slipped back into speech patterns and other forms of cultural behavior that I had discarded many years ago. The impact was such that upon returning to New York, it took about a month for me to completely reclaim the rude, surly, ‘cool’ personality that I had spent many years in developing.
I spent the rest of my visit combing the coastal southeast from Darien, Georgia to Fernandina Beach, Florida, interviewing people and photographing everything from alligators in Okefinokee swamp, to turtles on Jekyll Island. I saw and learned enough to convince me that my plan to spend just ten days (!) in rediscovering the land and people of my past was based on the sheerest arrogance. I started out seeking the ‘gut of an ant’ and now found myself hacking away at the carcass of an elephant! However, I had learned two things — the southeast Georgia of today is in a great many ways a vastly different place from the one I left; yet, in other ways, it has hardly changed at all. Having established (at least to my own satisfaction) the validity of the last two statements, I still faced the problem of finding out and explaining why this was so.
I had further complicated matters by telling all the people who consented to being interviewed (not to mention those who helped me in countless other ways) what my intentions were. Therefore, I had a moral obligation to finish what I had started. In other words, I had ‘mounted the tiger’ and now had no choice but to stay on for the ride. I had no idea where I would find the time or money for the task, but somehow it had to be done. I finally decided that the best way was to do it in stages; that is, earn a little — save a little — then come back and work on the project until my money ran out; then repeat the process all over again.
Exactly ten days from the day it had first bewildered me, I turned my car off route 110 (this time without any instructions) onto U.S. 17 and headed back ‘up the country’, thus ending the first of seven visits back home since that time. My later visits have not been without their share of excitement, but I doubt that I shall ever again experience anything more dramatic than the events of the night of the first homecoming!
Text and photographs by William Henry Mackey, Jr
©2004-2016 Patrice Eivind Mackey