In the twilight of the 20th century they drove to Savannah. It was a day in time before 9-11, the iPhone or Facebook. Social media hadn’t spread across the world nor did anyone, anywhere hold the internet in the palm of their hand. They relied on televisions and radios for news and information and on books and movies to inspire.
John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” spent a record-breaking 216 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list — still, to this day, the longest standing best seller of the Times — before being made into a box office failure about an American city. How a pervert, street hustler and drag queen all made their way into polite society was given an R rating not for its violence — which portrayed an older man murdering a young paramour in cold blood — but rather because the principle characters in the story were gay. At the dawn of the 21st century, homosexuality in the United States was considered a sin, a disease and a crime.
It was, perhaps, by some coincidence that the film coincided with their commitment ceremony. They'd declared “the love that dare not speak its name” in the summer of 1997; when ‘coming out’ was as scandalous as a debutant in black. Learning to survive as a marginalized community — much like the emigrants, enslaved, and Indigenous Peoples' of the United States — drew them to summer weekends in Savannah for the next 25 years.
There were approximately 44.8 million immigrants in the U.S. in 2021; 41.4 million were the direct descendants of slaves; 1.7% are full blooded Native Americans. According to Ancestry, the remaining 300 million people are descendants of the Native American Indian.
While the Europeans arrival in the Americas is relatively storied, the conception of the Colony of Georgia is unique. When James Oglethorpe, founder of British America’s Colony of Georgia, landed on the Yamacraw Bluff in 1733 his intention was to resettle Britain's prisoners in the New World.
A Minister of Parliament for Haslemere, Oglethorpe chaired the Gaols Committee; investigating the conditions of roughly 2000 people imprisoned for back payments to creditors. Considered the first social inquiry of the House of Commons (1729), the report was chronicled in Daniel DeFoe’s The Review; pointing the nation's attention to the appalling conditions in private debtor’s prisons.
While there were 12 London newspapers in 1729, DeFoe’s "Robinson Crusoe" had caught the world’s attention. Assimilating London’s “worthy poor” in a new colony was Defoe’s notion, and in 1733 life began to imitate art when Oglethorpe arrived on the Yamacraw Bluff in modern-day Savannah.
His tenure followed "Crusoe" like a script — encountering 30 wigwams, 200 indigenous Peoples’, even befriending their chief — Oglethorpe prohibited slavery in the “Georgia Experiment” and effectively partnered with Chief Tomochichi to create diplomacy missions to the court of King George II and beyond. Moreover, he aspired to build an enlightened society saying, “slavery will have a negative effect on the manners and morality of Georgia's inhabitants.” DeFoe put it this way in The Review:
It is never too late to be wise.
Between 1650 and 1900, approximately 10.2 million men, women and children were captured in West Africa and shipped to Charleston, South Carolina.
Sold at public auctions — where government property is sold to the highest bidder — the Old Slave Mart is the last extant slave auction facility in existence today. For Charlestonians, it sits proudly on the National Register of Historic Places.
Separated from their families and scattered to the South Carolina Lowcountry, enslaved people created an alternate caste system. The Gullah, for example, were people of color not free to exercise even the right to life. Legal, political, religious and social rights eluded them, and they turned to mysticism to inform, inspire and empower their people.
Hoodoo was a unique language and set of spiritual practices unfamiliar to American slaveholders. Evolved from various African religions, the faith incorporated the indigenous people’s comprehensive botanical knowledge, too. In the Gullah South Carolina Lowcountry, Hoodoo came to be known colloquially as "Lowcountry Voodoo” and followed the Great Migration of African Americans throughout the United States.
Garden of Good and Evil
Throughout four separate trials, Valerie Fennell Boles, a renown Voodoo high priestess in Savannah, was commissioned by Jim Williams to exonerate him from murder. During his 8+ year ordeal, they made nearly 50 trips up the Savannah River to a cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina where spells and incantations were performed to exonerate Williams.
She called the hour of midnight "The Dead Zone:" a time when good voodoo is practiced 30 minutes before midnight; and evil voodoo was practiced 30 minutes thereafter. “Ask the boy for forgiveness,” she’d say, as they sailed through the southern bayous. Williams may have been the only man in Georgia to survive four murder trials for the same crime, but when he died of pneumonia just six months following his acquittal Boles explained, “the boy did it.”
Savannah has remained somehow frozen in time to its 12 million annual visitors who’ve come to wander through her Victorian squares, underneath canopies of live oak, and into the historically preserved mansions and slave quarters of the past.
The Sorrel-Weed House, in particular, was built in 1840 and the subject of fantastical speculations by Ghost Hunters, HGTV’s “If Walls Could Talk” and Ghost Adventures. Specifically, it was the tragic double suicide of the mansion’s matron and mistress that draws less upon our interest in ghosts than upon a universal tension between good and evil.
When Francis Sorrel married the former Matilda Moxley in 1829, a persistent urban legend claims he'd installed a 28-year old mistress named Molly above their carriage house. A slave manifest aboard the Augustus confirms they'd traveled together during the season, but it was an authenticated letter that confirmed their affair. Charles Jones writes;
The sad news has reached us that Matilda Sorrel has leaped from the third story of the mansion; falling to the pavement of the courtyard and terminating her life.
Two days later, Jones receives a reply;
The death of Mrs. Sorrel was very distressing. We hear that she was subject to great mental depressions and we're not sufficiently grateful, neither for our reason nor our station, for our commonest blessings are the greatest. We need only to be deprived of them to feel it so.
Slave schedules in 1862 — the year of the Emancipation Proclamation — reveals that 2000 mulattoes traveled to and from the city of Savannah with a quizzical paradox. While a master legally owned his slave until 1862, interracial relations and marriages thereafter were criminalized for the next 100 years.
The U.S. Supreme Court would correct those institutions by legalizing interracial marriage in 1967 (Loving v. Virginia), same-sex marriage in 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges), and the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, and A Proclamation on Indigenous Peoples’ Day combined to challenge the very question at the heart of institutional racism.
Master, Slave Morality
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest influencer of 20th century political thinkers, argued there are only two kinds of morality: Master Morality is informed by pride and power; Slave Morality by kindness, empathy and sympathy. While the former explains actions as either good and bad; the latter knows they're just good or evil.
Remembered for declaring "God is Dead," Friedrich Nietzsche exerted a profound influence on modern intellectual history by challenging existential philosophers like Heidegger, Sartre and Jung to explain the existence of faith.
The Age of Enlightenment called mankind to reason, but it was the emigrants, slaves, and indigenous peoples' of Savannah who dared to believe there were more than enough seats in heaven.
They're 25th Anniversary rising, they stayed in different hotels on opposite sides of town that summer. This journey, once exclusively theirs, was conceived upon the highest peaks of wanderlust before splitting into deltas and surrendering to the sea.
There was an emigrant, African American, and four gay men among them that summer. None married, nor in any legal combination, their numbers grew through the years in faith that love and truth are stronger in the end than any solid reason or fashion could refute.
Somewhere beyond right and wrong there is a garden. I will meet you there.