Savannah Morning News column
Oct. 12, 2014
The best book I’ve read lately – and am still reading: it’s long – is Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns.” I think it should be required reading for all high school students, both present and past. Wilkerson, who spoke at last year’s Savannah Book Festival, chronicles the Great Migration of nearly six million black people who fled the South for northern and western cities between 1915 and 1970, her mother among them. The north, as you might expect, was not always the panacea they sought.
At the same time I’m reading this I picked up Sunday’s New York Times’ travel section and read the latest take on Savannah. It’s not pretty. This writer reports on the city’s great racial divide. He calls it the “Low Country blackout” in a city more interested in pimping its beauty than looking at its underbelly. Savannah, he says, does not want to own up to its past. Even Charleston has gone the extra mile to say, “Yes, we had slavery. Yes, it was wrong and ugly and despicable, but we are acknowledging it.”
Not Savannah. We can’t even go so far as to put up historic markers for certain influential local African-Americans, despite the considerable efforts of art maven and mover and shaker Walter Evans.
There’s so much we don’t know about one another, so much history never studied, never noted, which is what made a recent conversation with Rev. Charlie Dillard so interesting. Rev. Dillard, who just retired from Chatham Steel, is the pastor of Bunn Memorial Baptist Church. The church, housed in a pleasant-looking red brick building, is sandwiched between East Gwinnett and Wheaton streets, not too far from the CAT station and Hubert Middle School. The church and the neighborhood were originally occupied by white families, Dillard said.
We were there to talk about Sadie Steele. Mother Steele, which is what most people called her (or Mother Love), had just died. She was103. Before taking the reins, Rev. Dillard heard a bit of tongue in cheek advice from church members.
“When I got here 20 years ago, I was told, ‘You may be the pastor, but Mother Steele runs the church.’”
She joined the church at 18 when her family – “which were pretty affluent,” Dillard said – left Bolton Street Baptist Church to follow the then preacher, Rev. Bunn, who “envisioned a church where anyone could attend. He used to go through the neighborhood in a horse and buggy picking up people.”
That church was called All Peoples New Century Baptist Church.
Sadie Steele didn’t make it into Isabel Wilkerson’s epic tale but in many ways her story probably reflects the lives of many people who stayed in the south.
As a child she went to Emma Swangon, “a private school,” Dillard said of a Savannah school that has no presence on the Internet let alone a historical marker, before going on to the better-known Cuyler Street School, established in 1915 for African American students. Then, as many students, black and white, she was sent away to aschool in Jacksonville, Fla., Stanton High School, Duval County Colored Schools. After that she graduated from the Normal Department of Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youths, which eventually morphed into Savannah State University. She returned home and married Clarence Steele, whose father owned Steele and Royal, a funeral home.
She taught at Haven Home, a former Savannah school that does have a historical marker. The school was established in 1885, smack in the middle of Jim Crow, as a school for African American girls. Then she taught at Johnson High School and Thunderbolt elementary, wining several Chatham County teacher of the year awards.
During the Civil Rights movement, she and activist W.W. Law would meet surreptitiously at Sadie Steele’s home to plan strategy. Later she would help Law set up his Negro History Tour.
Many people knew Sadie Steele through her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, many through the classroom, still others from 27 years of volunteer work at Goodwill Industries.
In the mid-1980s, when the Housing Authority of Savannah wanted to raze Bunn Memorial for the then new Blackshear Homes, Steele rallied the neighborhood and said, “Oh no, you don’t.” She wanted to keep the existing churches intact, said Dillard.
But when she passed away last month her church knew something else about her. There would be no funeral and there would be no flowers, even though her house, where she gave a New Year’s Day party every year, was known as the “crystal palace” because she had so many flowers. She requested money be given to a favorite charity or Bunn Memorial.
“She knew people at a funeral would cry,” said Deacon Larry Johnson. “She wanted to leave people happy. She was a warrior.”