“Yuh see dis lill bush–it call Cherokee an mos uh duh folks yuh plants it at duh doe. It bring um good luck.”
So said Sophie Davis in the late 1930s. Sophie Davis was born to slaves who worked on St. Catherine’s Island along the coast of South Georgia. She did not know what year she was born, but she was eight years old at the time of the war that would result in her freedom. After the war, young Sophie and her family were among the former slaves from St. Catherine’s Island who settled several communities along White Bluff Road south of Savannah: Rose Dhu, Cedar Grove, Twin Hill, and White Bluff. One group of the freed slaves negotiated with John Nicholson of the Cedar Grove Plantation south of Savannah to purchase 200 acres of his plantation. They named their community Nicholsonboro and built the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church at its center. My best guess is that the land where I now live and garden was either a part of the Nicholsonboro community or very near it; anyway, most days, I walk my dog past the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church, just a block and a half toward the river and across White Bluff Road from my house. I’ve written about Nicholsonboro here and here and here.
In the late 1930s, someone from the Georgia Writers’ Project came to these communities along White Bluff Road. They were a part of the Federal Writers’ Project, a program of the Works Progress Administration, part of the New Deal to try to get the United States out of the Great Depression. The purpose of the Federal Writers’ Project was to record in writing oral traditions, local histories, and other such information. In 1940, with the information they gathered in their study of the communities of White Bluff, they published a sort of anthropological ethnography called Drums and Shadows. Since the copyright was not renewed on it, the entire text can be found here; the section on the White Bluff communities can be found here.
Drums and Shadows focused primarily on the folk traditions of the former slaves: mystical traditions, ghost stories, folk remedies, and other “primitive” aspects of culture. The book is respectful enough, if condescending in that way academic ethnographers tend to be. The words of the writer are in precise, proper, academic prose; the pronunciation, syllables and grammar of the subjects are literally transcribed in their Gullah accents in ways that make them sound illiterate. But there is interesting information here for those of us who want a picture of who lived on this land before us.
Among the many stories and traditions with which she obliged her interviewer, Sophie Davis gave the quote above. She said that the people of Nicholsonboro and surrounding communities would plant this Cherokee bush near their doors for good luck. A little later in the interview, Sophie called to her neighbor, Susie Branch, who had grown up with Sophie on St. Catherine’s Island and at White Bluff, to join in the conversation. Susie also told the interviewer, “dis lill plant heah called ‘Cherokee’ is spose tuh bring good luck ef yuh plants it by duh front doe step.”
I would be fascinated to learn about this Cherokee bush which Sophie Davis and Susie Branch described. I would love to plant some of it near my front door; who couldn’t use a little more good luck? But I would also be fascinated because this time of year in the trees and shrubs which line Old Coffee Bluff Road, across the street and down a bit from the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church, blooms a beautiful specimen of Cherokee Rose. And I wonder if that could be the same bush Sophie and Susie described.
The Cherokee Rose, pictured above, is a large, creamy white, single rose with a pronounced set of pollen-makers protruding in a ring around a yellow center. It is a beautiful, if simple, plant which grows wildly around here. And it has its own story. In 1916, the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs lobbied the Georgia General Assembly to name the Cherokee Rose as the state flower of Georgia. It seems the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs had adopted the Cherokee Rose as their emblem when they first formed as a statewide federation twenty years earlier, so, I suppose the logic went, why not remedy the lack of a state flower by promoting the symbol of their own club, which happened to grow as if it was wild all over the state?
I wish that Sophie Davis’ and Susie Branch’s Cherokee plant which brought good luck to them and to their neighbors on this land is the same as the Cherokee Rose which the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs adopted as their emblem and promoted as the state flower. There would be such a terrific irony to these layers of meaning. The Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs could not be further in any way from the doorsteps of Sophie Davis and Susie Branch. In their lifetimes, the color of their skin would have been enough to exclude them from membership in any of the local chapters of the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs. But according to their website, the women who first formed the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1896, when Sophie Davis would have been about 40 years old, were described by their first president, Rebecca Lowe, this way:
“We, as Southern women, … have been the exotics of civilization: reared in the lap of luxury, with more time at our command than ordinarily falls to the lot of women, guided by mothers and grandmothers, not only endowed with superior intellect, but with that graceful tact, which enables a woman of education and brilliance to carry conviction in all she says.”
Sophie Davis and Susie Branch would not have been welcome in such a company of “exotics of civilization,” and for a lot of reasons in addition to the color of their skin.
But imagine that “dis lil bush” which Sophie Davis and Susie Branch described is the same as the state flower and symbol of the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs. And imagine that I planted a specimen of it here, near my front door, in the soil of this community. The meaning of that bush would be taken away from those women who, without much of what I would consider grace or tact, bragged of their rearing in their parents’ “lap of luxury.” Instead, its meaning would be defined by survivors of one of the most awful systems of oppression our nation has ever conceived. It would be given its meaning by women whose families had enabled those “exotics of civilization” to live with the decadence to have “more time at our command than ordinarily falls to the lot of women.” Its significance would have been granted by people who were denied the ability to exercise their right to vote for those who considered such important business for the good of the state as that which was presented by the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs. Sophie and Susie were Southern women, every bit as much as Rebecca Lowe and her subjects in the Women’s Clubs. But, although these Southern women could not exercise power in the way the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs could exercise power, they had a power all their own: the power to cultivate good luck for themselves, their families, their neighbors, and their communities, right at their doors, with their own strong hands and hard work.
As much as I would appreciate the layers of ironic meaning of a specimen of Cherokee Rose growing in my yard, I have my doubts that it is the same bush which Sophie Davis and Susie Branch described to their visitor from the Georgia Writers’ Project in the late 1930s. The bush they pointed to was described by the ethnographer as “a small bush growing beside the doorway of her little cabin.” The Cherokee Rose, though, is a vine with long, trailing stems; the ones blooming now across the street from the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church climb forty feet or more up the trees and power poles. A friend who lives not far from me showed me her Cherokee Rose the other day, trailing along her low, split-rail fence near her driveway gate. She said with a smirk that I should be grateful she finally trimmed it back; if she had not, it would have had me for lunch. Unless Sophie Davis and Susie Branch worked each year to cut theirs back hard, the bush could not be described as small.
Still, I would like to know what the Cherokee bush they talked about is because I would love to plant one near my front door. Who couldn’t use a little more good luck?
A footnote: There is a further irony in the story of the Cherokee Rose. In the resolution which the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs drafted and the Georgia General Assembly approved in 1916, among the supporting arguments, was this claim: “…The Cherokee Rose, having its origin among the aborigines of the northern portion of the State of Georgia, is indigenous to its soil…” The Cherokee Rose is not, in fact, indigenous to Georgia. It is native to China, Taiwan, Laos, and Vietnam. In one of those mysteries of globalization, née colonial trade, it probably came here to Georgia by way of England, probably only a little more than a century before the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs adopted it as their emblem. The Cherokee Rose found itself mixed up in the same systems of transatlantic trade as the ancestors of Sophie Davis and Susie Branch and millions of people like them. It is an immigrant to Georgia; maybe it came here with the intent to dominate the land and people, like Rebecca Lowe and her ancestors, or maybe against its will, like Sophie Davis and Susie Branch and their ancestors. But it is not a native species.