Gardening is a way of connecting with a particular place. I have been re-reading Michael Pollan’s 1991 book Second Nature recently. In his final chapter, he quotes Alexander Pope, who advised in a poem once about the importance in gardening of recognizing “the genius of the place.” Pollan took that metaphor to mean that what ought to grow on a particular patch of ground will reflect the particularities of its place, not only its climate, soil structure, light, and pattern of seasons, but also its history: who has tended that same patch of ground in the past, and to what uses it has been put.
And so, I started to ask questions about my own average suburban lot. Who owned it before me? What was here before this neighborhood was developed and my house was built? What did the people who were here before me do with this land? I don’t have all of the answers to these questions just yet. But what I do know is fascinating to me, both for the story it tells and the further questions it raises.
If you walk off of my front lawn and turn left down the street, after about a block and a half, you will run into White Bluff Road. In the section near where I live, White Bluff Road is a two-lane street. The tall, old oak trees press right up to the edge of the road on its east side, and their branches reach all the way to the yards of the houses and other buildings on the other side. Spanish moss drapes off of most of those branches, and all manner of brush surrounds the trunks of the trees. Not much further north, though, White Bluff Road is a four-lane thoroughfare. It travels through commercial areas and across intersections with major roads until it becomes Bull Street. It doesn’t end until it reaches the front steps of City Hall, about nine miles from its intersection with my street. White Bluff Road has been an important north-south connector for well over two centuries. At some times, it has been just a dirt road; other times, it has been covered in oyster shells, and only relatively recently has it been paved and expanded to handle the traffic of people commuting from suburban neighborhoods to their work, school, shopping, and leisure activities downtown.
If you walk across the two lanes of White Bluff Road at the end of my street, as my dog and I frequently do on our evening walks, you will be on Old White Bluff Road. This section of the major connector was bypassed some time ago with a new section a few yards to the west, allowing for a gentler curve which is safer for cars traveling the posted 40 mile-per-hour speed limit. Along Old White Bluff Road, a couple of small houses are on your right. They have hard-packed dirt in their front yards, indicating that it has been quite some time since anyone felt a need to disturb the ground on which children played, young men parked their tripped-out cars, and older women carried their groceries to reach the steps of the screened porches. After about half a block, Nicholsonboro Baptist Church emerges in a clearing in the trees. This is the largest landmark left for us by the previous inhabitants of this place.
The story is all explained on a historical marker posted at the intersection where Old White Bluff Road turns off of White Bluff Road. General Sherman declared all of the coastal islands a refuge for freed slaves in January, 1865, the marker says. A couple of years later, the lands reverted to their pre-war owners. The former slaves on St. Catherine’s Island, off the Georgia coast some miles south of here, could not reach an agreement with the owner of that property to stay there and live as free people. 200 of them came here in 1868 and settled on this portion of what was known as Cedar Grove Plantation, owned by John Nicholson. Eighteen of them purchased 200 acres of Nicholson’s land, a section which he called Janesville, paying off the total cost of $5,000 in 1882. The residents and their descendants supported themselves by fishing and farming for several generations, until changes in technology and commerce meant they could no longer make their living that way.
According to an article from the Savannah Morning News from 1998, those settlers quickly established a house of worship for themselves. The first building of the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church was constructed in 1870, only two years after the former slaves settled here. The building is a simple sanctuary with wooden benches and a pot-bellied stove in the corner to keep worshippers warm. That old sanctuary still stands, although other structures on the same property are what the congregation now uses for its worship, social, and educational activities.
As I reflect on this information about the history of this place where my garden grows, I find I have more questions than answers: What were the boundaries of the 200 acres owned by those settlers? What kind of structures did those former slaves build, other than their house of worship, and where were those structures located? What was life like for the people who lived here? What did they grow on this land to feed their families, bring some beauty to their lives, and haul into the city to sell in the markets? How long did they farm this land, and what happened to it after those freed slaves and their descendants couldn’t make a living off of it anymore? And what was here before they settled in this place?
And I wonder, too, why I cannot find answers to those questions easily. Most of what I have learned about the “genius of this place” came from the historic marker set up by the Georgia Historical Society in 1978. Some details were filled in by the 1998 article in the local newspaper. Other than that, an evening spent searching the internet for maps, books, government records, newspaper accounts, or items in historical society catalogs turned up very little. The only major publication I could find with a significant section dedicated to Nicholsonboro is a Works Progress Administration publication from 1940. That book contains transcriptions of conversations with a few of the freed slaves who came here as children, mostly on the subject of their practices of folk healing and magic. One additional publication, the Frommer’s Portable Savannah guidebook, mentions the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church as an interesting diversion for tourists who have a little extra time after seeing the sights of the downtown historic district.
What is fascinating to me about the lack of publications about the story of this area is that I live in a region which loves its history. The local bookstore has a whole shelf full of books on Savannah history, covering the settlement of this part of Georgia, its significance in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the fascinating people who lived in Savannah, the architecture and history of urban design here, and a quite a few volumes of ghost stories. There are even some volumes on the history of the African American community in Savannah. But a scan of the indexes of those books reveals that none of them mention Nicholsonboro or the other communities which lined White Bluff Road long before my property was annexed into the city limits.
And I can only speculate about why. The people out here were simple, country folk. They were former field hands who came here because they were free and they knew how to coax a life out of the land and the water here. They worked hard, they paid off their mortgage to the former plantation owner, and they proudly worshiped in their own sanctuary on their own land in their own community. And that story has not been nearly as interesting around here as the stories of other social classes: wealthy people who built ornate and excessive mansions and town homes, educated people who served as officers in wartime, even the children and widows of high-class families whose apparitions make up the bulk of the ghost stories people tell. I am not sure that race is the issue, either; the published stories of African-American history tell stories of people working their way up the social ladder to become successful professionals. Such stories fit well with the narrative expectations of people who write, publish, and purchase books. But the only stories of the folks out here that are deemed worthy of publication have to do with magic, folk healing, and other “primitive” fascinations.
I am sure some answers to my questions about the genius of this place can be found. I know than a few hours searching on the internet hardly constitutes serious research. I even know who I need to talk with next: people who have lived in this part of town all their lives, people who can describe from their own memories what was bulldozed to make room for my street, people who still worship just across White Bluff Road from my neighborhood because their ancestors worshiped there, too. But I also know that value is assigned to stories and to the people who live them when the names of their families and communities can be found in the catalogs of the historical society, the archives of the newspaper, and the search feature on Amazon. And Nicholsonboro does not show up in any of those places.