A story of slavery and bravery

Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016

Savannah Morning News


You cannot make up a story like this.

Sometimes around 1848, the Crafts, a slave couple from Macon, married and desperate to be free, devise an outrageous plan of escape. And they pull it off. Ellen, a house servant, is the daughter of a white slaveholder and a black mother and is very light-skinned. For the 1,000-mile trip to freedom, which began in a train departing from Savannah, Ellen challenges race and gender when she disguises herself as a white male planter traveling with her slave. For the trip, her husband, William, poses as her personal valet. Ellen cut her hair, wears pants, a top hat and a jacket. To hide the fact that she couldn’t write she wears her arm in a sling. To minimize talking she wraps her face and pretends she was ill.

They make it up to Pennsylvania, then to Boston, where they learn to read and write. But they still aren’t safe. When Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, bounty hunters head north looking for the couple. From Boston the Crafts take off for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Eventually they sail to England, where they live with their five children and speak widely, opening and often against slavery.

Nineteen years later this improbable story circles back to the Savannah area when the Crafts return to the State to see Ellen’s mother. That’s when they decide to open the Woodville Co-Operative Farm School in Bryan County to train former slaves.

Raise your hand if you or anyone you know has ever heard this story – so close and yet so far from our consciousness and/or history books. Either story: the one about the Crafts or their determination to help others on the1, 800-acre farm less than an hour from Savannah. My hand would not be up.

It wasn’t until I went to the opening event at SCAD’s deFine art week that I heard the story. The art school was commemorating a plaque to the Crafts in its Museum of Art since it sits on the former site of the railroad, the one that launched the Crafts into their improbable trip. The plan for the historic marker was hatched by SCAD and Walter O. Evans and his wife, Linda, both inveterate collectors of books and art by and about African-Americans. Much of the art collection now resides at the SCAD Museum of Art. Walter, a former surgeon from Detroit, and Linda, a former high school science teacher, relocated to Savannah several decades ago. They are doing their best to bring the rest of us up to speed on a chapter of our country’s history no one seems too anxious to own or explore,

At least eight Craft relatives from all over the country traveled to SCAD for the dedication. The University of Georgia’s Barbara McCaskill spoke of the tale in her book, “Love, Liberation, and Escaping Slavery.”

The story of the Crafts is bold, heroic and empowering. I am glad we are now about to recognize it. But where are the hundreds of other stories? It’s not that they’re not around. Later in the week the subject of slavery came up again, this time at a three-day symposium entitled “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast,” an ambitious and well-attended project of the Ossabaw Island Foundation, Armstrong State University and Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History and the brainchild of Paul Pressley, a man who fortunately for us chose not to go gently into the night in 2004 when he stepped down as headmaster of Savannah Country Day School. The man is dogged; his curiosity never ends. This is not the first symposium Pressley organized. In 2008, it was called, “African-American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: 18th to the 20th century.”

At the time he said he was struck at how little information was available about African-Americans in the Georgia Lowcountry. No kidding. One particular speaker, Tiya Miles (Dr. Miles if you add her doctorate title) turned a long title – “The Ghosts of Dunbar Creek: Slave Narratives, Dark Tourism, and the Meaning of Water” – into a tale of magic realism, mass suicide, and the folkloric story of a group of West African slaves who when transported from Savannah to Igbo Landing on St. Simons Island chose to leave the ship and walk back into the water towards their African homeland and certain death rather than tolerate slavery. As a metaphor, this myth of “flying Africans” became the basis for popular Gullah stories and the opening of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.”

This group of people, unlike the Crafts, chose another kind of freedom.

Both stories call for more chapters in our history books or at the very least more prominent historic markers. The Crafts have one. All that marks the Dunbar Creek site is a sewage disposal plant. We can do better than that.





Of turntables and gambusia

Savannah Morning News

Sun., Feb. 21, 2016

If coming up with a good idea yourself is important, then recognizing one when you hear it is right up there near the top. Acting on the tip – or remembering to act – is the next big challenge. Last week, when the subject of standing water came up, as it can do with gardeners or people hanging around together, listening and watching a helicopter spewing poison out of the sky, someone reminded me about gambusia, the mosquito-eating fish the Chatham County Mosquito Control division keep in a pond near its headquarters. They give them away too. Free. All you have to do is drive out there – somewhere near the airport – and wait while a government employee happy to have an excuse to go outside leaves the front desk long enough to walk down to the pond, scoop some teeny weenie wiggly fishies out with a net and dump them into a plastic bag for you to take home (kind of like the goldfish you used to buy at the dime store) and deposit into any standing water you may have. In my case it’s the old, well-insulated canoe I keep near the garden that does not have access to water. The fish will do the rest. Gobble-gobble. Good-bye mosquitoes. Good-bye guilt.

That’s Good Idea No. 1.

Here’s Good Idea No. 2: the availability of an affordable turntable for all those vinyl records that have been nothing more than dust collectors since you gave away those ginormous wooden stereo speakers you got tired of schlepping around, along with the miles of tangled speaker wire and that enormous malfunctioning record player that was just one thing too much to pack the last time you moved your stash.

Who needs record players, anyway? Let’s go digital.

Except when it comes to technology I don’t like figuring things out. Not patient enough. I don’t like those things that go in your ears. They fall out. They don’t feel right. They’re off-putting.

Then someone mentioned turntables.

“You mean they still make them?” I asked. I couldn’t believe my luck.

It never occurred to me that something so analog, so simple, so basic and straightforward would still be available for those of us whose shoulders jerk up six inches at words like app or file (I’m not talking the paper kind) or download or dropbox or platform or application. Eek!

I didn’t believe it. Surely some techie or marketing maven must have potchkeyed (that would be Yiddish for fussing or messing around) with the basic design, which is basically a spindle that holds a vinyl record album, an on/off switch and a volume button. Surely there would be a hundred choices to make and I would have to turn around and walk out. I am not a shopper. But no. I went to Target. I followed the directions to electronics and there they sat, maybe three or four choices. Without reading any of the reviews I chose the cutest, most compact one I could find. The top folds down. There’s a handle for carrying purposes. It looks like a briefcase. Done.

I brought it home expecting to find pages of directions, anticipating I’d have to call someone to help me put it together. But no. Nothing. I lifted it out of the box, plugged it in, turned it on, set the needle (very carefully) on the album and stepped back to the sounds of Marvin Gaye. Then Tina Turner. Then Muddy Waters. Then Carole King. So simple. No commercials like with Pandora. Nothing else to push or manipulate. And so far, at least, no skipping. That’s what the reviews (which I read later) warn of. The needle skips; if that happens we’re supposed to take a dime to the handle to give it some weight. (Did I know that? No.) But some part of me expected the skipping. That would complete the nostalgic package. That would bring me back to certain albums that you knew would start skipping after the first (or third) song, that you knew you’d have to get up and nudge the needle because of some unfortunate grooving.

Nope. So far, so good. I’m reading the liner notes. I’m seeing people’s names (Peggy Smith) written on the back of certain albums. I’m grooving. And I’m kicking myself for all the albums I gave away, especially that old folkie, Rosalie Sorrells. Not to worry, a friend said. There’s plenty at thrift stores. Then she started telling me a way I could plug into my computer, blah, blah, blah.

No! I said. It’s perfect the way it is.