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A road trip to Georgia’s Golden Isles reveals both the weight of the past and hope for the future

  • NEW YORK TIMES PHOTOS
                                St. Andrews Beach on Jekyll Island, Ga. Hundreds of kidnapped Africans were brought to the coast of Georgia in the mid-19th century.

    NEW YORK TIMES PHOTOS

    St. Andrews Beach on Jekyll Island, Ga. Hundreds of kidnapped Africans were brought to the coast of Georgia in the mid-19th century.

  • NEW YORK TIMES 
                                The Wanderer Memory Trail on Jekyll Island off the southern coast of Georgia is named for the vessel that brought hundreds of kidnapped Africans to the coast of Georgia in the mid-19th century.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    The Wanderer Memory Trail on Jekyll Island off the southern coast of Georgia is named for the vessel that brought hundreds of kidnapped Africans to the coast of Georgia in the mid-19th century.

  • NEW YORK TIMES 
                                Many escaped slaves retreated to swamps in the South, including the Okefenokee, living in relative isolation in a challenging environment. A view of the Chesser prairie in the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is seen in Folkston, Ga.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Many escaped slaves retreated to swamps in the South, including the Okefenokee, living in relative isolation in a challenging environment. A view of the Chesser prairie in the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is seen in Folkston, Ga.

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

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

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

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

Through all the gushing, I never considered visiting these parts. The reason was simple: I’m not a fan of the Deep South. Too much Black blood spilled here. As an African American, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to outrun the ghosts of the South: their Confederacy, their Ku Klux Klan, their plantation overseers and all the other terrorists I’d read about in history books and viewed on TV and movie screens.

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

Driving, reflecting, reclaiming

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

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

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

On Jekyll Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the swamp

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

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

I arrived at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge around noon, purchased a $28 ticket, and within minutes I was on a schooner with a few other tourists on a 90-minute guided tour. The swamp, according to our guide, is geologically about 10,000 years old. Floating through the still, shallow waters beneath a canopy of cypress trees and Spanish moss, I learned many things from our guide: that the swamp, one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world, spans some 438,000 acres; that it’s home to 13,000 alligators, all sorts of rare and endangered birds, turtles and other wildlife. I also learned that our guide didn’t know much about this swamp providing refuge for escaped slaves.

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

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