Being on the wrong side of history isn’t unusual, and there are many examples of it in the United States (and around the world). Learning about such circumstances can be very enlightening, and when the wrong is clearly acknowledged I am so appreciative. Not long ago I paid a visit to beautiful St Simon’s Island in the state of Georgia, and learned so much about the history of the area! One of my favorite experiences was our visit to The Harrington School, and meeting Amy Roberts.
My group toured with Cap Fendig’s Lighthouse Trolleys and Tours, and he obtained permission to visit The Harrington School off hours. The school was founded in the 1920s by emancipated slaves on St Simon’s Island. The school provided education for children through 7th grade until the Georgia schools were desegregated in the 1960s. The school became the focal point of African American communities on St Simons Island. Apparently, Gullah Geechee heritage is simply being an American whose origins are in Africa and whose ancestors were slaves. At least that is what I gathered from Amy Roberts, our lovely guide at The Harrington School, which is open to the public.
Amy Roberts was a thoroughly enjoyable personality who attended the Harrington School in the 1950s. Her stories of the school and the community of former slaves and their families was riveting. I learned that Eugenia Price, a southern author, wrote a trilogy about the history and lives of the plantations of St Simons Island. From Amy, I also learned about an incident in St Simons that ought to have tremendous historical influence on us as Americans. The story as I heard it from Amy is that slave catchers “conned” a group of Igbo (now Nigeria) Africans to come to the United States to participate in agricultural endeavors. When they boarded the ship they were chained and learned what their fate was going to be: slavery. The Wanderer, the ship that carried them to America, docked in Savannah where most of the people were bought for about $100 per person by slaveholders John Couper and Thomas Spalding of St Simons’ Island. These poor people were crowded onto the York, a coastal vessel, in chains and transported to Dunbar Creek on St Simons. During the trip, led by their chief, the Igbo rebelled, took over the ship, and drowned their captors. Rather than endure slavery, several of the Igbo people committed suicide by drowning themselves in Dunbar Creek. The story grabbed my heart and I felt this sacrifice in my bone marrow. The event is known as the Igbo Landing Mass Suicide and even though there are accounts that differ regarding the event, the power of this story has a huge impact.
I love the South, but its past is on the wrong side of history. The Harrington School and the stories of “slaves” and their “owners” help to give us a view into the actual humanity of the individuals, and the redemption of the evils of slavery. I feel the same way about Confederate flags and statues, they should be displayed as artifacts of a time in history that must be remembered because of the great wrongs committed, not in honor of their “lost cause”. The idea of the demise of a society based on slavery being “romantic” doesn’t sit right with me. For me, it is an unfathomable evil to “own” people. Glorifying the antebellum society pre Civil War is something people tend to do, without recognizing exactly what they are glorifying. I found the history of St Simons and the birth of an African American community around The Harrington School to be a story of hope, perseverance and honesty on the part of the island, and the people of the island.
A visit to St Simon’s is many things, but among the many activities and quaint streets, there is a history worth knowing.