Drums and Shadows, by Georgia Writer's Project, , at sacred-texts.com
Yamacraw takes its name from the little Indian town that Tomochichi, chief and friend of General Oglethorpe, established on the Savannah River bluff west of the township of Savannah over two hundred years ago. Today waterfront industries have pushed the Negro district southward from the bluff, but it is still so close to the river that some of the small shanties rattle when winds roar across the water.
In this community the residents are drawn largely from coastal counties of Georgia and South Carolina. At one time an unruly element gained Yamacraw the reputation of being the toughest section of Savannah, but the presence of an unusual number of churches of various denominations seems to have improved law and order in recent years. Intense religious interest is aided by pride felt in the fact that the first Negro Baptist church in America was established here and also that Methodism gained an earlier start among Yamacraw Negroes than in any other part of the county.
In spite of the difference in religious doctrines there seem to be certain common beliefs handed down in families. We found an implicit and readily asserted faith in the power "tuh do unnatchul ting." Ghosts are everyday experiences. Root doctors are in constant demand.
Eighty-year old Martha Page, 1 a small and. frail woman, remembers her African grandfather and the strange "talk he use tuh make wid two udduh slabes on duh plantation."
"Wen dey git tuh gabbin, yuh couldn unnuhstan a wud dey say," Martha informed us. "Muh gran sho hab funny name fuh call ting, too. He lub tuh hunt an fish an he use tuh hab a lill piece uh wood wid a string on each en tuh kill squhrel an hawk wid. He call it he 'wah-hoo bahk.' Sometime he use tuh sing a song das staht off like dis, 'Dody boda do dandy.' He say it mean, 'We come tuh make waw tuhday."'
"Did your gran tell you about magic and conjure?" we asked.
"Dat he did. I sho wuz sked ub im wen he use tuh talk bout dem ting he people in Africa could do. 15, 22a, 22e, 48 Some ub em could make yuh disappeah, he say, an some could fly all roun duh elements an make yuh do anyting dey wants yuh tuh do. Wen I growd up, I discobuh dat plenty uh duh tings gran tell me is sho nuff true."
"You've had personal experiences?" we queried hopefully.
"Me an muh sistuh bote. Witches use tuh ride uh regluh till it seem she gwine swivel away an die. 69 One day a man tell uh tuh tro salt on duh bed an no witch would bodduh uh. So dat ebenin muh sistuh sprinkle a heap uh salt on uh cubbuh. 69a Soon attuh we git tuh bed, I seen a cat come 68 right in duh doe an look me in duh eye. I try tuh holluh but uh couldn make a soun. Nex ting I know sistuh wuz poin watuh in muh face.
"I dohn take tuh witches," said Martha Page. "I dohn mine ghos, cuz I caahn see em as I wuzn bawn wid a caul. 4 But I dohn want no mo sperience wid witches. Das wy uh sprinkle salt down ebry night uh muh life."
The broom precaution against witches is also believed in among Yamacraw residents. Martha Major, 2 aged sixty, related to us the time a witch had "worried" her. 69 She was alone in a basement in an empty house, as the landlady was out of the city. No sooner had she gone to bed than she heard "sumpm comin down duh steps."
"It jump on me," she declared, "an it choke me neah tuh
det. But I knowd who it wuz. She come tuh see me duh bery nex day but she ain nebuh been back sence, cuz I put a bruhm, by duh bed."
We noticed that as Martha Major had risen from her chair in excitement over her story, she had exhibited a slight limp.
"Have you hurt your foot?" we asked.
"Oh, it mos well. Mos all duh wuhrums done crawl out now." 5, 5c
At our astonishment she was instantly on guard.
"Muh foot all right," she said crossly, but her brown face was a mask of brooding. Finally she volunteered the information that she had been conjured the previous October, almost six months past. 15
"I dohn know who done it, but all ub a sudden muh leg begin tuh swell an swell. I call a regluh doctuh, but he didn seem tuh do no good; so tree weeks ago I went tuh a root man. 48 He gimme sumpm tuh take an sumpm tuh put in muh bed. 6 In a few days knots come out all obuh muh leg an wuhrums staht tuh crawl out. Only one knot lef. I guess I soon be well."
Out beyond Yamacraw, where the old brick and dirt streets of the community give way to the broad, paved Augusta road, an old Negro named James Cooper has for years conducted a miscellaneous business in a ramshackle push cart. 1 James sells lunches to the workers at the Savannah Sugar Refinery; he also cobbles shoes and repairs anything from broken pots to roller skates. Because of his skill as a wood carver, particularly of walking sticks, he has become known in the vicinity as "Stick Daddy." A decidedly original technique is evident in his carving, but he smiled when this was mentioned.
"I nevuh bin taught," he said. "I took up cahvin as paht time jis fuh the fun of it. Muh granfathuh, Pharo Cooper, he used tuh make things frum wood an straw, sech as baskets an cheahs an tables an othuh things fuh the home. I guess I sawt of inherited it frum, him."
One of "Stick Daddy's" canes is a slender, snake-encircled rod with a handle made from a large black and white die.
[paragraph continues] Another, slightly thicker, is carved with a single crocodile. The third, a heavy stick topped with a flashlight handle in which the snapshot of a young Negro girl has been inserted, is artfully decorated with a turtle, a large crocodile, and a small, sinuous snake. The chief characteristic of "Stick Daddy's" work is the boldness with which the carved figures, dark-stained and highly polished, stand out against their unfinished natural wood background. Very different is another stick that was found abandoned in an office building in the city. This has a man's head for a handle but the stick proper is so covered with minute, unpatterned crisscrosses that the little figure of a man upside down, a horned head also upside down, and an undetermined object which may be either man or animal, are noticed only when the cane is carefully studied.
"Stick Daddy," besides being a general repair man and carver, knows a few "sho cuos" for illnesses.
"I kin make a sho cuo fuh chills an fevuh. Yuh take some cawn fodduh an boil it an make a tea. Yuh drink some an bathe in some an yuh'll git well soon. Fuh a cold yuh git some life-evuh-lastin and make a tea tuh drink, aw git some Jack-O."
We asked about roots.
"I dohn believe in them things," asserted "Stick Daddy." "I dohn believe in nuthin like that. it's too dangerous. But I do believe in some signs. Yuh watch em and yuh'll see that they dohn nevuh fail. If somebody borruh salt frum yuh, 'tis not wise tuh accept it back; 'twill cause trouble. If yuh throw out stove an chimney cleanin aftuh sundown, 'tis sho death."
Fred Jones, 1 a tall Negro of nearly eighty, with brown complexion and piercing eyes, sternly forbade us to discuss conjure.
"Dohn yuh know," fearfully, "dat yuh might bring trouble on yuhsef? Das ting ain nobody ought tuh mess wid."
"How do you know that?"
"Ain no mattuh how come I knows. I seen it. I seen pusson wid duh powuh tuh tun hesef intuh any shape he got a mine tuh. 68 Dey kin cause yuh plenty trouble an duh only
ting kin sabe yuh is tuh git tuh a root man on time." 6, 48
Our surprise and interest drew him in spite of his fears to speak in a low voice of several instances where he had seen conjure working.
"Deah wuz a man wid duh powuh. 48 He draw a ring roun anudduh man an dat man couldn git out dat ring till duh root man come an wave tuh um. Den deah wuz a uhmun done up so bad by somebody dat ants wuz crawlin out tru uh skin. 5c Wenebuh a pusson go crazy, wut is dat but conjuh? 15
"I dohn lak tuh talk bout muhsef, but I caahn nebuh fuhgit duh time I hab a dose put on me by a uhmun uh didn lak. I wuz a good frien ub uh huzbun an she didn lak fuh us tuh go out tuhgedduh; so she tole me not tuh come tuh uh house no mo. I ain pay no tention. Well, suh, duh nex night soon as uh laid down, uh feel muhsef swoon. Ebry night it happen. Dis ting keep up till uh git sick. I couldn eat an jis git tuh pinin way. 15 Duh doctuh he caahn hep me none. Finally I went tuh a root man. 48 He say right off somebody done gib me a dose. He say 'I'll be roun tuhnight. Git some money tuhgedduh cuz I caahn do yuh no good less yuh staht off wid some silbuh.'
"Wen he come dat night an git duh silbuh, he look all roun duh house an den dig a hole unduh duh doe step. Deah he fine a bottle. He tro it in duh fyuh an holluh, 'Git gone, yuh debil.' Attuh dat I git bettuh, but I ain nebuh bin tuh dat uhmun's house since. An I dohn lak tuh talk about it."
Another octogenarian, Thomas Smith, 1 told us that the same magic power that Moses had used when he turned his rod to a snake before Pharaoh still exists today among Negroes.
"Dat happen in Africa duh Bible say. Ain dat show dat Africa wuz a Ian uh magic powuh since duh beginnin uh histry? Well den, duh descendants ub Africans hab duh same gif tuh do unnatchul ting. Ise heahd duh story uh duh flyin Africans 69c an I sho belieb it happen. I know doze wut could make a pot bile widout fyuh. Jis sit it anyweah on duh flo aw in duh yahd an bile deah meals. Dey could make a buzzud row a boat an hab a crow fuh pilot.
"Long yeahs ago deah wuz; a cunjuh man wut could git uh out uh jail by magic. A frien uh mine at Hilton Head git rested fuh stealin. He sen fuh duh cunjuh man 48 an duh man say, 'Dohn worry. Duh jedge gwine tun yuh loose.' Wen duh hour uh duh trial come, duh cunjuh man tell me, 'See dat bud on duh cote house? I sen im up deah. Deah wohn be no trial.' Sho nuff, wen duh case wuz call fuh, duh jedge git tuh suchin roun tuhnin up ebryting tuh fine duh chahge gense muh frien. Attuh wile he git disgusted an tell duh cote, 'Case dismissed. I caahn fine duh papuhs.' Wen we git outside duh bud done fly away."
Thomas Smith's reference to flying Africans caused us to mention this story to Carrie Hamilton, 1 whom we next visited.
"I hab heah uh dem people," said this seventy year old woman, who has the tall, heavy frame of a plantation hoe hand. "Muh mudduh use tuh tell me bout em wen we set in duh city mahket sellin vegetubbles an fruit. She say dat deah wuz a man an he wife an dey git fooled abode a slabe ship. Fus ting dey know dey wuz sole tuh a plantuh on St. Helena. So one day wen all duh slabes wuz tuhgedduh, dis man an he wife say, 'We gwine back home, goodie bye, goodie bye,' an jis like a bud they flew out uh sight. 69c
"Muh mudduh use tuh tell me all kine uh ting cuz I wuz bawn wid a caul 4 an wuz; diffrunt frum duh res. Ebry now an den I see ghos. Dey hab all kine uh shape, sometime no head, sometime no feet, jis floatin by. 59a Dey is duh spirits uh duh dead, but ef yuh dohn meddle in deah business, dey ain gwine meddle in yoze."
Not only among these older Yamacraw Negroes but among younger residents we found a solid background of ancestral beliefs and practices, for here little of modern progress has touched the dirt streets, pebbly walks, and tumble down houses of another day.
Ellen Dorsey, 2 forty years old, born in Savannah, gave us a detailed description of the conjure her husband put on her.
"Me an him couldn git long so I lef im. He went tuh a
root doctuh 48 fuh him tuh make me come back home. Den duh root doctuh put me down sick so duh wite people I wuz wukin fuh would dischahge me. I had pains runnin up an down muh whole body, an I knowed I wuz cunjuhed but uh wouldn gib in. 15 I call me in a man who use tuh try tuh sell me a han tuh wawd off cunjuh. 12a, 12c, 12d He rub muh legs down twice a day, an one mawnin a big black snake run outuh muh big toe. 5 'Deah goes duh devil,' say duh root man, an frum den on I git bettuh. A cousin uh mine git a dose once an wen duh root doctuh rub uh all ovuh wid a cleah liquid, bugs begin crawlin out of uh skin. 5, 15 Duh doctuh say if she had wait one mo day it would uh bin too late."
"Did your husband ever try any more conjure on you?"
She laughed with great amusement. "He sho did. He went tuh duh same man dat cuo me an give him thutty dolluhs tuh make me go back tuh him. One Sunday attuh chuch wen I ain had thought of evuh livin wid muh huzbun agen, I walked out duh chuch straight tuh muh huzbun's house. An dis happen," concluded Ellen, "widout duh root man evuh seein me. I didn know nuthin bout it till long attuh we wuz reconcile."
Evans Brown 1 is only fifty years old. To see him going daily about his duties as janitor of the West Broad Street Negro School, no one would suspect unusual powers at work beneath his good-natured exterior. Yet he not only said that he believed absolutely in the supernatural but proudly asserted that he could work magic himself.
"It come natchul tuh me, duh powuh tuh do suttn ting. Since I wuz lill I could see ghos, sometime two feet off duh groun, sometime walkin. Wen muh haiah rise on en an hot eah pass muh face, I tun roun an deah's alluz a ghos. Lots uh time it's duh spirit ub a frien. Many wintuh mawnins wen I go tuh school early tuh make fyuhs, uh heah doze open an shut an den uh see duh ghos dat do it. 59
"I didn know I hab powuh tuh do tings till muh mudduh wuz fixed. Yuh know, a man kin fix a dose fuh a suttn pusson an only dat pusson will git caught. Fo women wuz in duh house wid muh mudduh, but duh doe knob wuz dressed fuh
huh. All dem women pass out befo she did, all tuhnin duh knob. But wen she come out, a pain strik uh in duh side. We hab doctuhs but nuttn done no good. Uh whole side tun black an she die. 15
"Dat cause me tuh make a special study," Evans Brown quietly added, "an soon uh realize uh wuz bawn wid duh 48 powuh. I ain nebuh use it much, cuz I dohn lak tuh bodduh wid dem ting. But I knowd a man name Doctuh Buzzud wut git yuh out ub any trouble yuh wuz in. He would chahge yuh so much an tell yuh tuh hide duh money in a suttn place. Duh money would disappeah an yuh trouble wid it.
"Duh poeleece rested a man right yuh in Yamacraw. Dey hab him by duh pants' wais takin him tuh duh box tuh ring up fuh duh wagon. Wen duh poeleece git tru ringin an tun roun tuh look, dey holdin a ole gray mule an duh man done disappeah." 68d
21:1 Old Yamacraw has gone. Since late in 1939 there has been a radical physical change under the program of the Federal Housing Administration. Two thirds of the tumble-down brick houses and wooden shanties in the once crowded area have been replaced by modern concrete buildings with low rentals for Negro tenants.
22:1 Martha Page, 606 Zubly Street.
22:2 Martha Major, 542 West York Street.
23:1 James Cooper, Port Wentworth.
24:1 Fred Jones, 607 West Congress Street.
25:1 Thomas Smith, 37 Ann-Street.
26:1 Carrie Hamilton, 530 West President Street.
26:2 Ellen Dorsey, 515 West Congress Street.
27:1 Evans Brown, West Broad Street School.