Earlier this month I had the wonderful pleasure of taking the cultural resource bus tour of historic cemeteries that now lie within the 280,000 acres now owned by Fort Stewart.
The tour is for descendants of former residents of the vanished communities in Liberty, Bryan, Evans, Long and Tattnall counties to keep the memory of their ancestors alive. All that physically remains of the lost communities of Willie, Taylor’s Creek, Smiley, Green Bay, Banner, Long Branch, Trinity, Leonard, Swindle, Martin Town, Greasy Town and Stewart Town are the burial grounds. Some contain grave markers with names etched in stone, and others with only the disintegrating cedar stumps to indicate the remains of a life lived.
The impact of such movements on people is captured in the descriptive phrase "Root Shock." Root Shock is a term used to describe the traumatic stress reaction related to dismantling one’s emotional ecosystem which includes people and their physical and spiritual connection to land, home, self-sufficiency, marketplace, important buildings and crossroads, and all of the aspects that contribute to the meaning of "community."
The term developed because of the impact of urban renewal policies on American cities in the late 1940s when entire communities across the country were bulldozed to make room for progress. Decades later, generations of former residents related stories about the impact of community erasure and displacement. The analogy is similar to what happens when a plant is plucked from its place and connection to the soil.
The tone of the conversations among tourists on the excursion to Moody, Jerusalem, Salem and Long Branch cemeteries was somber as people were processing memory and recalling generational stories of the way it was for their ancestors in the old days. Root shock explains that people still carry forward the detailed memories of the beauty of their ancestral homes as well as the struggle that erasure threw their families into.
When we arrived at Moody Cemetery, I can recall one white gentleman on the tour reiterating with such deep emotions "…the Army didn’t pay my grandparents anywhere near what their land was worth."
As I traveled the back roads of Georgia a few months ago, in mostly rural communities, I began to think about what the memory of place means to people in an ever-changing world. In particular, I have been wondering about what place means for specific groups of people when communities no longer exist. In Newnan, where my great-grandparents worked from sunup to sundown, toiling on the land, they owned nearly 20 acres that had been in our family for generations.
When I was a child, each summer my sisters and I would take what seemed like a long drive back then from Atlanta to Coweta County to visit my great-grandmother Minnie where there was land and cows and chickens and horses and corn for days! It was like heaven to a city girl like me.
We would gather with long lost cousins, visit the old homestead and the surrounding community. This was the highlight of my summer.
Nowadays, it just ain’t the same. The land was lost to developers. The place that I considered my family roots is no more. When the family elders gather, they still share stories of the way it was, but their stories all converge into this one realization — sacrifice is the price we pay for modernization.
In conversation with an African American/Gullah-Geechee friend, Patt Gunn, whose ancestral ties are in the dismembered Willie Community, she shared what can be essentially described as root shock. Her great-grandfather, Elbert Golden, an ex-slave from McIntosh County, purchased 187 acres of property and settled his family in Willie. When he passed away, his son, Eddie Golden, inherited the farm, livestock and land that embodied the soul of his existence as a married father of eight children. In 1941 when the federal government took over, Eddie, his wife Ada Bell and children had less than a week to move all of their earthly possessions. Ergo, they left behind a way of life, a way of being that could not be carried on a wagon; farm, livestock, house, the community store and neighbors.
They were eventually resettled in Pembroke with far less property, 67 acres. Relatives tell how Eddie preached "We had to move. They took the land." At the age of 47, Eddie Golden died of a massive heart attack.
Gunn attributes her grandfather’s psychological and physical decline as a direct result of displacement. "It was a break in my grandfather’s life flow, his sense of self-sufficiency, and spiritual connection to the ancestral land and his roots."
Her grandfather and grandmother, as well as her great-grandparents, are buried in Jerusalem Cemetery and the Golden-Gunn families visit the burial ground often to pay homage, to keep their spirits alive, and to teach the young to always remember their heritage.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are holidays when almost every family in every big city and small town in the U.S.A. will invariably gather together at a table to feast on a cornucopia of goodness, to give thanks for another harvest of bountiful yields, and to exchange an appreciation of life and community. Change is constant. But the antidote for root shock is the ritual of remembering, narrative therapy and preservation of place.
Returning to place, whether real or vanished, and remembering its importance is a sign of a healing emotional ecosystem. So stay rooted and continue to tell the stories. Happy Holidays!
Glass-Hill, a transplant from Atlanta, who now lives in Midway, is a public historian at Ubuntu Strategic Concepts, an African American cultural heritage preservation and research firm.