Cover of Savannah: Brokers, Bankers and
“This soft climate and the moist coastal plains give the azaleas a wild, giant gorgeousness––and the semi-tropic trees––the palm, the magnolia, the live oak and the long-leafed pine––that might perhaps be found elsewhere, here are hung as far as eye can see with veil upon veil of long-fray Spanish moss––so that you are always imagining what you do not see, and not really seeing what is…” ––Mary Haskell writing from Savannah to author and artist Kahlil Gibran(from the book Beloved Prophet).
Upon its completion in 1991, the Georgia State Transportation Board had an opportunity to change the name of the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge––precisely as many suggested, and some begged they do––to the Savannah River Bridge, or just the Savannah Bridge. Instead, they chose to retain the name of an avowed white supremacist for whom the word “nigger” was virtually a negative campaign slogan used to frighten Whites into voting for him. The technique worked well enough to place him in the governor’s office four times.
Compare, if you would, Paula Deen’s supposed transgression to the following sample of the kind of language frequently employed by Talmadge:
“I want to deal with the nigger this way; he must come to my back door, take off his hat, and say, ‘Yes, sir.’”
The entire world knows of America’s troubled, and troubling, racial past, especially as it manifested in southern states like Georgia. The question posed by the name of the bridge in the present is why both officials and everyday citizens insist on maintaining a monument to a name as synonymous with racism as any in American history.
No one is suggesting that Talmadge should be denied his proper place in history. That, in fact, is not a possibility because his historical influence extends over too long a period of time for that to happen and his name even longer. Moreover, in all fairness, scalding racial bigotry is far from his only contribution to his beloved home state. But the pain it caused African Americans during his lifetime and the silent rage many harbor when considering it now is too readily dismissed as insignificant.
The Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge is in fact only one example of a public thoroughfare in Savannah that bears a name associated more with racial oppression than with social harmony or progress. One of the remarkable accomplishments of the aforementioned Civil War Savannah book series is the extent to which the authors have gone beyond a general acknowledgement of slavery to identify specifics of the “peculiar institution” as it was practiced in Savannah. That means they pulled back its fabled moss curtain to reveal who many of these slave-owners and slaves were, and how their customs and beliefs made Savannah one of the biggest slave-trading centers in the country.
Tourists visiting the city for the first time are unlikely to immediately make connections between the names of prominent slave-owners referenced in the books and the names of streets on which they might walk or drive, but natives of Savannah are. Those who are uninformed would be too busy taking in the beautiful surroundings to associate such names as DeRenne, LaRoche, Stephens, Wright, Bryan, or any number of others with slavery or slave-holders. Yet they clearly are. Possibly more significant is how that lack of awareness regarding this history reinforces a strangling culture of denial underlying racism in the present.
Is the city in fact honoring deserving civic leaders of the past or further institutionalizing racism with a wicked taste for piling grievous insults on top of history-inflicted injuries? This question might appear the height of absurdity in a city where more than half the population is African American and the last three people to occupy the mayor’s office (including the incumbent) have all been black.
Obviously, slavery as it was practiced centuries ago is no longer a threat to contemporary citizens black or white. What does remain a threat are cover practices, prejudices, and bigotries that did not disappear with the abolition of slavery itself and which still directly affect such dynamics as employment, housing, business opportunities, and healthcare.
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and Elemental The Power of Illuminated Love
Causes Aberjhani * Supports
I make contributions to a number of charities through my lenses on Squidoo but the following are a few that interest me the most: