Editor’s note: This is the third part of a series examining what life was like for African-Americans in Liberty County before and during the civil rights movement.
I recently drove to the Trade Hill Community in Sunbury to speak with 80-year-old Anna Tate Stevens.
Venus Monroe Fuller, 86, a childhood friend, stopped by to drop off a floral arrangement for a funeral the next day and also to begin making potato salad for the repast. Sitting at the kitchen table, we talked about the way it was as they peeled and cut potatoes.
I listened as they chatted round-robin, like blue jays, using Geechee accented words and phrases.
Anna Tate Stevens
“I attended the two-room Seabrook School in Sunbury and then I went to Liberty County Training School for the blacks,” Stevens said. “After high school, I worked as a domestic in white homes.”
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She worked long hours for little money.
“I made $2 per day from the early morning till 7 at night. I did cooking, prepared breakfast and dinner, cleaning, washing, ironing, taking care of their kids, and raking the yard,” Stevens said. “At night they’d take you home. I never ate at their homes because they treated you so unfairly. I started bringing my own food. It may have been just a biscuit and syrup or a peanut butter sandwich. You had to prepare their meals on china and even feed their pet dogs and cats before you ate what was left over and you had to eat out of something else, not the good china. On one job my mother told the lady of the house that she expected her to bring me home and not her husband.”
Separate but equal
“To go to Liberty County Training School, we got picked up at Tate Bend Crossing in Trade Hill by the school bus,” Stevens said. “When it rained all of the students around here would stand on our leaky porch. But there was a separate bus for whites who went to another school. I knew of black children who lived on Colonel’s Island because their parents worked for white families there. Sometimes it would be cold, especially in the winter. Black and white children were both going to school, but the bus picked up the white children, and the blacks had to walk all the way to Seabrook from Colonel’s Island to catch the bus. Sometimes they would heat up twigs on the way to keep warm. And sometimes when they reached the Seabrook School the teacher would take their jackets and warm it up for them.”
Stevens recalled a trip up north where things were different.
“My aunt Anna Margaret lived in Philadelphia and she would send my mother things for me, buy me clothes and help out. I was named for her. I graduated in 1955,” Stevens said. “After high school, I went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to briefly live with my aunt. I rode with some people who were going north. We took Highway 17. We had to go into the woods to use the restroom because they were segregated. We had to take our own food, water, and we had to sleep in the car.”
Stevens said she was in Philadelphia when she realized just how widespread racial prejudice was in the South. She heard about the Montgomery bus boycott and Rosa Parks while living in Philadelphia.
“It was like night and day. It was so different. There were all these different kinds of people living next to each other; whites, Italians, blacks, Jews. And everybody got along. It wasn’t like that back here.”
When she returned to Liberty County a couple of years later Stevens said she received information from people talking around the community and also from Savannah Morning News.
“We would go to Kress in Savannah and maybe buy some drinks or food and it was segregated,” she said. “There was ‘FOR COLORED’ signs on the water fountains and bathrooms and ‘WHITES ONLY.’
We could shop at Kress, but we couldn’t eat at the main counter. Later on, it made me proud to see President John F. Kennedy working with Dr. King to make changes. And the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ father is buried at our church here at Palmyra Missionary Baptist Church. The church was the place for us to get information about what was happening during the civil rights movement. Pastor Robert Brown Sr. and the deacons, Deacon Sylvester Fuller was vocal in pushing for equal rights around here.”
Both Stevens and Fuller recalled a chilling incident.
“Venus, do you remember when those men were found in the river dead? I can’t think of Roosevelt’s brother’s name. They did an autopsy on them at Dorchester Funeral Home, but there was no water in their lungs. Dr. King was preaching for non-violence, no fighting. The Lord gave him the vision to do it with no violence. It’s a joyful time now, but racism is still here.”
Venus Monroe Fuller
“Racism still exists in Liberty County even today. When you’re in the store, they [white people] cut you off, and they do it anywhere,” Fuller said. “I tell them how I feel and walk out. For the most part, black people could take care of themselves. I have always loved working. We had children. We needed money to get our children things they needed and some of what they wanted. We had to help our husbands to keep up the household, to bring in income, to keep our homes lovely… Blacks would grow their own vegetables and fruits, slaughter hogs, chickens. My grandfather had a market and we never went hungry. We grew rice and we beat that rice in a mortar, and we took our corn to the mill to make grits and cornmeal. There were shelves of canned vegetables: green beans, okra, tomatoes, snap beans, lima beans, and berries. In season we prepared food so when it was out of season we had food to eat. I loved fresh tomatoes with salt and pepper.”
Stevens and Fuller both recalled how preacher and folk artist Cyrus Bowens’ artistic imagination and Geechee ways of speaking originated in Africa.
“Mr. Cyrus would say, ‘Gawd he ah big-eye Gawd.’ Meaning that God was all-seeing. That man had more African traits than anybody. He would give all kinds of nicknames to his children. For Oscar, he called him ‘Cum-see.’ Nathaniel’s nickname was ‘Wasp’ and Alcaner’s was ‘Dauber.’ And his daughter Mary, her nickname was ‘Munzu.’ Everybody called Mr. Cyrus ‘Bub.’ And Bub would bring his horse and feed it biscuits and then he would give himself some. (laughing)”
Up next: Curtis and Florence Roberts
Glass-Hill is a scholar, author and public historian, known for her research on the life of Liberty County native Susie Baker King Taylor. Glass-Hill is executive director of the Susie King Taylor Women’s Institute and Ecology Center in Midway. For more information about the National Civil Rights Trail visit https://civilrightstrail.com