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 portrays a predatorial older man shooting 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 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 compete as a marginalized community — much like the emigrants, indigenous and enslaved people of the United States — would draw them to summer weekends in Savannah for the next 25 years.
Transportation: The Compulsory Cruise
In absolute numbers, the United States has a larger immigrant population than any other country in the world. More than 86 million people immigrated to the United States between 1783 and 2019 and for radically different reasons.
With only three pathways to British North America, only a fraction came by voluntarily immigration while most were forced to emigrate through transportation or slavery. If Immigration is the “international movement of people to a destination where they are not citizens,” the term Transportation was reserved for “the forced relocation of convicted criminals to a distant place.”
Under English common law, the fate for a felony conviction was death. Though criminals sentenced to hang could opt for transportation to Great Britain’s newly acquired colonies in North America. So the voyage to Savannah in 1733 may have been compulsory for the original 115 passengers aboard the good ship Anne who sailed for 2 months across the Atlantic, but the zeal we’re told to survive was their own. Originally established as a military fortress between the Carolinas and Florida, then controlled by Spain, self-proclaimed Governor Captain James Oglethorpe landed in Charleston on February 1, 1733 and sailed further up the Savannah River to scout “an ideal spot to put down stakes.” When he encountered 30 wigwams on the Yamacraw Bluff, he vanquished the tribe and claimed “Chief Tomochichi gave us permission to establish Savannah in order to take advantage of trading and diplomatic connections.”
Resettling the native Americans, Great Britain intended to build and develop the city of Savannah on the backs of its own British prisoners. Though he initially prohibited slavery in the newly acquired British Colony of Georgia, the impetus was elitist. In the Georgia Experiment, Oglethorpe opposed slavery because he said “slaves would try to defect to Spanish Florida for their freedom.” Moreover, he aspired to build an enlightened society and explained “slaves will have a negative effect on the manners and morality of Georgia's white inhabitants.” Great Britain wasn’t merely colonizing the North American continent. They were replacing a pre-existing culture with their own countenance.
Slave Trades: The Birth of Voodoo
Of the estimated 388,000 captive Africans that would transport to the United States, over half disembarked in Charleston. 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.
From the founding of the United States of America in 1776 through 1862, owners of male and female slaves could freely and legally use their slaves as sexual objects. The deed of ownership provided by the auction house read: “It is within the gift of the slaveholder to violate the chastity of his slave and/or slaves.” Separated from their families and scattered to the South Carolina Low-country, enslaved people began fostering a conduit to a higher, absolute authority. The Gullah, for example, were people of color not free to exercise even basic liberties such as the right to life. Civic, political, economic, social, cultural and collective rights eluded them, and they turned to mysticism to inform and empower their people.
Hoodoo, for instance, was a unique language and set of spiritual practices unfamiliar to American slaveholders. Hoodoo evolved from various African religions and practices and incorporated the indigenous people’s comprehensive botanical knowledge, too. In the Gullah South Carolina Low-country, Hoodoo came to be known colloquially as "Low-country Voodoo” and followed the Great Migration of African Americans throughout the United States.
Dead Zone: The Dichotomy 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 where evil voodoo is 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.”
Master / Slave Morality
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 the past, than upon the universal tension of good and evil.
When Francis Sorrel married the former Matilda Moxley in 1829, a persistent urban legend claims that he cozily installed a 28-year old mistress named Molly above their carriage house. A slave manifest aboard the Augustus confirms that master and slave traveled together lavishly during the season. Despite the fashion, a letter reveals that Mrs. Sorrel, the matron of the house, is depressed. Close friend Charles Jones writes to his mother. “The sad news has reached us that Matilda Sorrel has leaped from the third story of the mansion, falling upon the pavement of the courtyard, and by concussion terminating her life.”
Two days later, Jones’ mother replies. “The death of Mrs. Sorrel was very distressing. We hear that she was subject to great mental depressions. We’re not sufficiently grateful; neither for our reason nor our station. For our commonest blessings are our 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 would be criminalized for the next 100 years. The Supreme Court’s 1967 decision Loving v. Virginia found that “states and laws banning interracial marriage violate the Equal Protection clause of the United States Constitution,” yet the dye of institutional racism had been cast in every city and state of the nation.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, known for his radical critiques of Truth, argued there are only two fundamental types of morality. Master Morality is informed by pride and power, whilst Slave Morality values forgiveness and seemingly selfless acts of kindness. While the former judges’ actions as either good or bad, the latter sees them more simply as good and evil. For Nietzsche, morality was inseparable from the culture it serves because societies are created less by conflict than intent. That Molly hung herself in the carriage house only weeks after Matilda Sorrel’s suicide reminds us the arc of the moral universe is long, but always bends toward justice.
Silver Linings Playbook
Their 25th Anniversary rising, they stayed in different hotels on opposite sides of town that summer. This voyage, once exclusively theirs, was conceived upon the highest peaks of wanderlust before splitting into deltas and surrendering to the sea.
In the 289 years since the good ship Anne and her 115 souls landed on the Yamacraw Bluff in Savannah, racism against immigrants, indigenous, enslaved, even gay and transgender people and particularly women has been disguised as an "enlightened society." Institutional racism was written into every law and manifested as customs and abject discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, education, political representation and health care. “If you came to help us,” Chief Tomochichi told Captain Oglethorpe, “you’re wasting your time. Your liberties and ours are inseparable.”
There was an immigrant, an African American and four gay men among them that summer. None married, nor in any legal combination, their numbers grew through the years from hope that real love and truth are stronger in the end than any sort of misfortune, evil or fashion in the world.