SAVANNAH, BOTH SIDES
New York Times, October 3, 2014
Written by Ron Stodghill
Johnnie Brown, stylish in a straw fedora and French cuffed shirt, strolled through one of Savannah’s oldest black cemeteries, pausing in front of a towering oak tree. Pointing at the clusters of gashes in the tree trunk, Mr. Brown shook his head bitterly. “Right here is the whipping tree,” he said. “You look at this and you don’t have to wonder why so many black folks left the South.”
Mr. Brown is among Savannah’s precious few black tour guides, and if you board his popular bus in downtown Savannah, you’ll get a few dollops of indignation, along with a hearty serving of Savannah’s powerful, if woefully undercelebrated, black narrative. In one breath, Mr. Brown is ruminating on how Georgia’s first slaves arrived as day laborers from South Carolina in 1733, or musing about the tombstone of a black Confederate soldier, or describing how from Emancipation through the 1960s more than six million black Southerners left the region. Then, in the next breath, he is lamenting how his family is still fighting for their land, which was seized by the government in the early 1940s to make way for an airfield.
Mr. Brown’s race-based riffs are a refreshing detour in a city that, one might argue, lolled through the 1990s amusing visitors with the eccentricities of locals in John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and fattened them the next decade on Paula Deen’s fried chicken and peach cobbler. If the Deep South is, in fact, a-changin’ (Savannah’s last three mayors have been black), the public persona of this city has often seemed — perhaps intentionally — stuck in its own kind of gauzy antebellum bubble.
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