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"The old ones (songs) make you feel good, the new ones don’t make you feel anything.’ (Ben Davis to Lydia Parrish)

Bessie Jones was born in southwest Georgia. She arrived on St. Simons Island with her baby and husband Cassius Davis, nephew of Spiritual Singer Big John Davis. Although mainlanders, her family had always been singers and Bessie, close to her four grandparents, had learned storytelling, games, plays, and “the old ways” from her elders especially her grandfather Jet Sampson who was enslaved in Africa and brought to Western Hemisphere in 1843 with his five brothers. Sampson died in 1941 at the age of 105. Thanks to her “buoyant personality, extensive repertoire, and experienced singing style,” her husband’s family invited her to join their group.

Around this same time 1935 at the suggestion of Florida folklorist Zora Neal Hurston, John Lomax and his son Alan came to St. Simons Island. They were searching out folk songs for what would become the American Folklife Collection at the Library of Congress. Alan Lomax met Bessie Jones in 1959 when he returned to St. Simons Island with modern equipment to record some of the singers he had encountered two decades earlier. The music was still strong, although Lomax reported that the conditions for recording at the Harrington schoolhouse were like “recording in a barrel.”

In the early 1960s the interest in folk traditions and the growing civil rights movement came at a time when the group was ready to step on the bigger stage. They performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Newport News Folk Festival (alongside Pete Seeger and Peter Paul and Mary). The Georgia Sea Island Singer were selected as one of the first groups to perform at the first Smithsonian Folk Festival on the Washington, D.C. Mall (1967) thus cementing their place in American folklife.

The role their music played in the civil rights movement was among their proudest. In 1964 Bessie Jones participated in two workshops designed to develop songs to support the freedom marches: (The Highlander Folk School and the Sing for Freedom Workshop in Atlanta). When others implied that only new songs would work, Bessie argued that the older spirituals provided a much longer tradition of protest and opposition on which freedom songs could draw. “One of their prized experiences was as staff culture-workers for the Poor Peoples March in Washington (1968) during which they taught their music to thousands of African Americans and poor whites.” (cover notes to album Southern Journey). In 1976 the group performed at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter.

In the 1970s Jones and Mabel Hillary held the first Georgia Sea Island Festival on St. Simons Island. Along with traditional foods (smoked mullet) and demonstrations of traditional African American skills/jobs (net knitting and rice pounding) there were musical performances celebrating the variety of African American heritage. Thanks to Sandy Jones, you can “visit” the festival by viewing the video she posted Here. The SSAAHC continued hosting the festival until the pandemic.

The Georgia Sea Island Singers toured for almost a decade and performed locally at The Cloister and at Altama for the Jones family. They continued to work “day jobs.” Bessie Jones was a migrant farm laborer, domestic, cook, and even moonshiner. Emma Ramsey worked for the Aikens. Aiken was president of the bank and his wife was descended from slave owners at Retreat Plantation. Big John and Peter Davis were brothers. Peter was a yardman at Frederica Yacht Club and John was a crabber and fisherman. Henry Morrison had the fishing camp at end of south Harrington Road where neighbors could hear the group practicing. Mabel Hillary toured early on with the group. Eventually, as Bessie put it, Mabel “went off to blues” and became a well- known solo performer in NYC. Bessie Jones passed away in 1984. One by one, the original members either stopped performing or passed away, but Frankie Quimby and her husband Douglas embraced the mission to share the Gullah culture, which Bill Moyers calls “a heritage so rich no price tag can measure its value.”

For over thirty years, the Quimbys and Tony Merrell took the music to The White House, to Africa, to world leaders at the G8 Summit and to thousands of school children across the nation. Frankie felt that their most powerful performances were given to new generations of “her people” at the annual Georgia Sea Island Festival and the SICARS festival on Sapelo Island. In 2016 Bessie Jones, the Quimbys and the other members of the singers were celebrated in “Around the world and Back Again” at the Coastal Georgia Historical Society when the Lomax recordings were brought back to SSI to be saved at their archives. Three generations of singers performed at the program. The next day, Frankie gathered the children at the historic Harrington schoolhouse and did the play songs that their grandparents had enjoyed so many years before.

Sources: ACE, The Association for Cultural Equity, www.culturalequity.org and the Library of Congress.

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The rhythms came with the slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. The tunes were nurtured by sweat in the rice fields and cotton fields. The cadences were counted at the mills and docks and with each sweep of the oars on the rivers and each stoke of the washtubs. Children clapped their plays in the yards of their segregated schoolhouses. Fathers and mothers sang hymns in wooden churches and offered prayers to God from the porches of the homes built by their freed parents. The Families were singing mostly for themselves and for those in their community.

They did not sing for performances. Nor for the public. And definitely not for >white folks. Until a Quaker lady from up North asked them to.

One hundred years ago Lydia Parrish, a Quaker lady from Pennsylvania wintering on St. Simons Island, took notice of the songs she heard that her domestic Julia Armstrong sang and hummed while doing housework at the Parrish home near Bloody Marsh. Parrish asked Armstrong, “Did she know others who sang? Who were the singers? What were the other songs? Would they share the songs with her?” Yes, Julia knew some “singing families who knew the old songs.” So, and in her own words, Parrish “took steps to insure that the songs “should not escape her.”

Parrish organized the “Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia” in 1924 and listed these families and “hundreds of others in a membership book of our Society” – a membership book which is sadly lost to us.

The singers included Julia’s family, the Proctors, from the South End — her brother Willis, their father Adam, and her husband stevedore Joe Armstrong. On the North End at Frederica and Harrington the Davis and Ramsey families were noted for their singing. Floyd White, Bill Tattnall and other members of The First African Baptist Church could be depended upon when it came time for performances. When the causeway to St. Simons Island was opened Parrish reached out to singing families from the mainland who worked for her friends, owners of Southern plantations. There was the Broadfield group – families who worked at Hofwyl Plantation, who lived at Petersville and who attended Needwood School and Church. From Sapelo came Katie Brown, Shad Hall, and the descendants of Sapelo Bilali. From McIntosh County came 100- year old Wallace Quarterman. And the Harris, Luke and Gibbs families from Camden County.

These were not professional performers. They were laborers, farmers, fishermen, laundresses, cooks, butlers, store owners, stevedores, mill workers, deacons, and pastors – many descendants of those who been enslaved at Cannons Point, Hamilton, Retreat, and other coastal plantations.

Bringing them together was not always easy because, as Parrish wrote, “These primitive songs…had been ridiculed, and the Negroes were ashamed to sing them in the presence of strangers. It took considerable brain-cudgeling to find a way to overcome their feelings that the traditional mode of expression was peculiar and old-fashioned, and to show the singers that many white people recognized its beauty.”

In 1929 Parrish built a small cabin on her land near Bloody Marsh for performances. She encouraged Howard Coffin to book the singers to perform at the new Cloister resort on Sea Island. The singers were paid with cash, transportation money, and liquor. And it was good pay for those times/years.

A competition held in 1931 under Mrs. Parrish’s direction featured four competing groups representing Darien, Harris Neck, St. Simons Island, and Freedman’s Rest (or Petersville). According to the article in the Brunswick News the St. Simons group won first place and custody of a silver loving cup (donated by Mrs. Eugene Lewis of Hampton Plantation and Detroit). The judges also voted an award (and a second loving cup) to the group from Darien who as described in the Brunswick News, “attracted particular attention and fascinated the audience with its singing and accompanying dramatization of the native ‘shouts’ in which the participants circle and weave with a peculiar shuffling step accompanied by gestures of the arms and swaying of the bodies interpretation of the chant’s repeated refrain.”[Today this tradition is continued by the McIntosh County Shouters and Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters]. An annual competition for Spiritual Singers in 1934 at Sea Island Casino brought 125 Singers from Negro communities 100 miles away to an audience of 300.

In 1942 Parish published The Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands which included essays by leading musicologists, song lyrics and musical notations, and photos of the singers. Her work was – and still is — a terrific compenium for an amateur who was very devoted to this music and to the persons who sang it.

Parrish concludes the chapter entitled “Concerning Slave Songs and Their Preservation” with this prediction: “Within the last year [1941], there are indications that up-to-date young Negroes are beginning to appreciate the authentic slave songs; and the increasing popularity of exotic African tones and rhythms among white people leads me to believe that the pendulum of taste is swinging toward the music of Africa and away from the European preponderance of melody and harmony. In this trend lies a ray of hope for the survival of the contribution made by the Afro-American slave.”

Sources: Lydia Parrish, The Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942)

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This month we listen to the musical heritage of the islands and to Brunswick. First, the Spiritual Singers who knew the old songs and helped a Quaker lady from up north preserve them. Next we honor Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers whose voices rallied youth during the civil rights movement and whose songs are saved at the Library of Congress. During Week three we swing to recall the African American musical greats who performed here along the Chitlin Circuit. Finally we shout out to the Risley High School marching band, the hometown talent who drew a crowd at every parade or special event, and who are remembered that on the football field, they “did some hell of a half time show.”

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Always a Team

In 1967 AIC Maurice T. Wilson, Jr.  told his CO that he planned to get married. He was denied permission with a typical military response, “If the service wanted you married, they would have issued you a spouse.”  57 years later Stella and Maurice T. Wilson, Jr. are still a team. When a man enlists or joins the military so does his spouse and family. But whether living thousands of miles apart, or together on six different bases, “The spouse is the backbone,” Wilson stated.

Maurice grew up on SSI, Route 4, Box 325 North Harrington Road and attended the Harrington School. He enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school in 1964 and retired as a Master Sergeant, as he put it, “23 years,11 months, 7 days. I stayed to serve my country.”  Wilson points out, “I also stayed those extra three years so my Bride would also have twenty years as a military spouse.”

During his long career he worked mostly in Logistics and Transportation.

The Vietnam War was underway and so were the struggles and clashes of the 1960s civil rights movement.  “Race wasn’t much of an issue on base,” said Wilson recalled. “I lived in squadron dorms with Caucasian soldiers and had a white roommate.” The biggest thing that separated soldiers, he smiled, was music. “We liked R&B. They liked Country Western.”

African Americans did struggle for rank in the Air Force. “We were given the unwanted jobs, the worse jobs to clean up after others… Some supervisors were more willing than others to move you up. Others kept you down.”  Wilson recalled being passed over for a promotion when a supervisor, unfamiliar with him, gave the promotion to a white soldier. Later, another supervisor reviewed Wilson’s excellent scores and he got a promotion. Even after retirement he was aware of racial prejudices. Wilson got a job with a DOD contractor who remembered him from another base where he was the Military Quality Assurance Evaluator, for the Base Contracting Officer because, he told Wilson,“You tell the truth.” He worked for LB&B Associates under a DOD contract at various domestic bases for almost 19 years after retiring from the military.

The Wilsons spoke fondly about the numerous places they lived while in the service. Their son and daughter were born in Germany.  They moved every three years.  Stella recalled how army spouses supported each other. Commissioned officers lived on the base, waiting their turn to move on to the base, so the Wilsons lived “on the economy” their term for living off the base.

They liked Germany but would never forget West Virginia when Maurice worked for a DOD contractor. Stella described that “It was like the 1920s — some places had no electricity, no plumbing etc.”  Of course, Mississippi in the segregated 1960s was a time to remember too. Stella remembered that blacks could sit anywhere on the buses that ran on the base, but when the bus crossed outside the base, the African Americans had to move to the back of the bus.

Maurice said that his work at Ft. Sills, Oklahoma probably impacted him the most. There are seven Native American cemeteries on the base and one on Post cemetery.  Geronimo is buried on the base.  As Fort Sills Base Maintenance Contractor one of LB&B ‘s many duties was to maintain at the Post Cemetery.  “I came across a grave marker for a Buffalo Soldier,” he recalled.  “Here I was standing at the grave of a black soldier who had fought against the Indians and who represented an important part of U.S. military history and black history.” This grave was for the first Buffalo Soldier who was killed in the Indian war in Indian territory (Oklahoma) and was the reason for the start of the Fort Sill Oklahoma Cemetery. 

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We can’t thank you enough for your service to our country. Your commitment to our freedom and safety deserves thanks. It takes a special person to serve like you did.

Son of A Preacher

James H. Scott, Jr.  grew up in the Harrington community and attended Harrington School. When Glynn County consolidated schools and closed the Harrington School, his father Reverend Scott drove the children to school in Brunswick.

Four Scott brothers – Samuel, Charlton, Robbie and Jim — enlisted in the Air Force. Jim enlisted in the Air Force in 1961 and retired in 1996 after having attained the rank of Colonel in Command of the Defense Commissaries Agency responsible for 45 DOD (Dept of Defense) Commissaries from North Dakota to Texas.

Colonel Scott continued to serve after his retirement. He was VP of USAA’s Executive Management Group and Chief of Procurement in 2001. Next he was Vice Chairman of the Texas Veterans Commission which serves Texas veterans, their dependants or survivors in all matters pertaining to veteran benefits. Scott also served on the board of Disabled American Veterans and National Association of Black Veterans. Colonel Scott was proudest when he talked about the youth he mentored in Texas and his grandsons.

At least once a year he and his wife drove back to coastal Georgia to visit family. Scott was related to most everyone in the Harrington community — Hunters, Davis, Johnsons, Hecks, etc. — and he stayed close to his roots.  In 2010 he volunteered to be on the board of the Friends of Harrington School and helped raise funds to restore his old school. At fundraising events he shared his stories of the community and the school. He was most proud when the school restoration was completed and the Historic Harrington Cultural Center opened in 2017.  “Each year on Mothers Day, Colonel Scott called or texted me to thank me for helping to restore the schoolhouse and to ask about my family,” recalled Patty Deveau, Founding President of the Friends of Harrington School. In their last conversation about the upcoming 100th Anniversary Celebration, Deveau remembered, he told me “he was in if I was.”

Col. Scott passed away in October 2023 and is buried with his ancestors at Village Cemetery. His obituary recalled, “Throughout his career Jim traveled extensively and had many laudable accomplishments, but never forgot where he was from and the community that shaped him. “

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To be heroic is to be Courageous enough to die for something, to be inspirational is to be crazy enough to live a little.

Truck Driver Hero

James A. Lotson, Jr. grew up on St. Simons Island. He did all the usual things boys did on an island including riding his bike and babysitting his little sister. “’Sonny’ pushed me in my stroller to the field.” recalled his sister Amy Lotson Roberts, “I was supposed to cry if someone was coming while he and the other boys snatched watermelons from a nearby field.” Like many youth, Lotson thought about when he would leave the island. He lived in South End but attended Harrington School like his younger sister Amy. In August 1954 James was drafted into the Army.  Finally he could be off the island and find adventure. He was stationed in Korea during the Korean War. James was a Private First Class and member of the 43rd Transportation Company (light Truck), 69th Transportation  Battalion (Truck)  when he became a hero. The citation for his Soldier’s Medal of Honor presented in 1955 tells the story,

At approximately 0900 hours, Private Lotson, a truck driver, observed a fire burning around the gas tank of his vehicle. At this time Private Lotson’s vehicle was parked immediately beside an ammunition storage Quonset and was loaded with 500 rounds of 60-mm mortar ammunition. The ammunition storage Quonset, one of seven similar Quonsets in the immediate vicinity, contained 50 tons of ammunition. Private Lotson immediately tried to extinguish the fire with sand but to no avail. Private Lotson, without regard for his personal safety, entered his vehicle and drove it approximately 100 yards away from the area and then ran for cover. The ammunition on the vehicle then exploded completely destroying the vehicle. Private Lotson’s heroic action, in addition to preventing the loss of approximately 350 tons of ammunition stored in the Quonsets very possibly saved the lives of American soldiers and Korean service personnel working in the vicinity.

A photo treasured by his sister shows General Eisenhower meeting her heroic brother. Lotson left the military in 1957 and moved to New York where he worked for Republic Garbage Company driving garbage truck in New York City. He is buried at Union Memorial Cemetery on St. Simons Island.

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Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia November 1775

I do require every person capable of bearing arms to report to his Majesty’s STANDARD, or be looked upon as traitors …And I do herby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (pertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his Majesty’s troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this colony to a proper sense of their duty, to his Majesty’s crown and dignity.  

Royal Admiral Alexander Cochrane, April 2, 1814

That all those who may be disposed to emigrate from the United States will, with their Families, be received on board of His Majesty’s Ships or Vessels of War, or at the Military Posts that may be established, upon or near the Coast of the United States, when they will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces, or being sent as FREE Settlers to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with all due encouragement.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, January 1, 1863

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons…

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service. 

The reward, or lure, of freedom was used by Tories, Patriots, Loyalists, British, Yankees, and Rebels when either side needed more troops or more laborers. The thousands of Negro slaves were their trump card — a way to weaken their opponents’ economy and at the same time bolster the number of laborers and fighting men needed to replace their dead.

Revolutionary War and War of 1812

Near the end of the Revolutionary War, the British carried away some four thousand Blacks from Savannah to Jamaica and St. Augustine. Consequently, the price of slaves doubled and rice production suffered for years due to the labor shortage.  In 1814 over a hundred former coastal Georgia enslaved men belonging to the Coupers, Hamilton, McNish, Grant, and Spalding escaped to Cumberland Island and took up the British offer to join the Colonial Militia or West India Regiments. Later the British removed them and their families to Trinidad, Jamaica or Nova Scotia where they established free villages.

The Civil War

During the Civil War, a Yankee captain recalled, “As soon as we took a slave from his claimant, we placed a musket in his hand and he began to fight for the freedom of the others.”  Often, however, a newly freed or escaped slave was recaptured and resold to raise more funds for either the North or the South.

African Americans on St. Simons Island did not wait for Yankees to arrive to fight for their freedom. A company from 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers under the command of Captain Trowbridge expected to encounter “a party of rebel guerillas” when they arrived on St. Simons Island in August 1862.  Instead, Colonel Higginson wrote in his book Army Life in a Black Regiment,   they “found that the local colored men of the island had already undertaken the enterprise. Twenty- five of them had armed themselves, under the command of one of their own number, whose name was John Brown. The second command was Edward Gould who afterwards was a corporal in my own regiment….The men were not soldiers, nor in uniform, though some of them afterwards enlisted in Trowbridge’s company.”

While public sentiment was opposed to black soldiers their white commanders Higginson and Trowbridge found that they “seemed better material” for soldiers perhaps because “they had home and household and freedom to fight for, besides that abstraction of ‘the Union.’”  Even  the government was not enthusiastic about arming African Americans , or as Higginson put it “the government was shy about this experiment” and stalled paying the troops.

Susie King Taylor explained the impact. Born a slave in Liberty County and raised in Savannah Susie King Taylor and her family came to St. Simons Island from Darien and St. Catherine’s Island in April 1862 “under the protection of the Union fleet.”   She was put in charge of a school for about forty children on the island, and “a number of adults who came to me nights, all of them so eager to learn to read, to read above anything else.”   King stayed with the 33rd USCT as laundress, nurse, and teacher until the end of the war. Looking back in her book A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs she criticized the government:  “The first colored troops did not receive pay for eighteen months…, A great many of these men had large families, and as they had no money to give them, their wives were obliged to support themselves and children by washing for the officers of the gunboats and soldiers, making cakes and pies which they sold to the boys in camp. Finally, in 1863, the government decided to give them half pay, but the men would not accept this.”  King wrote in her memoirs, “They wanted “full pay” or nothing. They preferred rather to give their services to the state, which they did until 1864, when the government granted them full pay, with all back pay due.” King stated that she also had given “my service willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar. I was glad…to care for the sick and afflicted comrades.”

Commanding Officers Higginson and Trowbridge steamed over the bureaucratic prejudice and delay in paying colored troops. In 1864 Higginson complained to Congress that sales of confiscated land “were beginning, and there is danger of every foot of land being sold from beneath my [colored] soldier’s feet, because they have not the petty sum which the Government first promised, and then refused to pay.”  Later that year Higginson wrote “It is not a matter of dollars and cents only; it is a question of common honesty, — whether the United State Government has sufficient integrity for the fulfillment of an explicit business contract.”

Sources: Thomas W. Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment, 1870,1997 Penguin Classic; Susie King Taylor, A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs, 1902, 1988 Markus Wiener Publishers; www.brambleman.com; John McNish Weiss, misc articles about Merikens: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad.

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May is Military Appreciation Month

Let us respect every soldier, from every country who serves beside us in the hard work of history. America is grateful, and America will never forget.

African Americans took up arms for their freedom in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Later, they entered the military by draft or by enlisting as a way off the small island and a way to see the world. Some served only a few months. Others chose the military as a long career that provided a paycheck, benefits, health insurance, and housing, Their career supported their families and served their country. And wherever they were stationed around the globe they always kept in touch with their island families.

This month our articles highlight African American participation for freedom, and profiles of three Harrington students Private First Class James A. Lotson, Jr., Colonel USAF James H. Scott and Master Sergeant Maurice Wilson, Jr.

Do you have family members who served? Pls. email any photos and details to include in an exhibit in May at the Harrington School and to save in the SSAAHC archives to Judith Stevens at stevens259@att.net.

The exhibit will feature names, photos, service branch, and military details such as where they served and recollections of their service.

JOIN US FOR

MILITARY RECOGNITION DAY

PROGRAM AND OPENING EXHIBIT

SATURDAY, MAY 18, 1-3 p.m.

Historic Harrington School Cultural Center

291 South Harrington Rd., St. Simons Island, GA

During military appreciation day we honor the bravery of the servicemen and service women who risked their lives on behalf of our country and citizens.

Keynote speaker: Former Mayor Cornell Harvey
USAF (Ret) Chief Master Sergeant

Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifices, for your valor, for the things you carry, for protecting us, and for defending our rights. Thank you to all our veterans for your courage, strength and dedication to keeping us safe.

Hosted by The St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition

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Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born on November 28. 1868, to parents Flora Butler and Thomas Abbott. Both of Robert Abbott’s parents had formerly been enslaved on St. Simons Island, where their son was born, and Thomas Abbott died there when Robert was only four months old. Flora and her infant son soon moved to Savannah, and when Robert was six years old, Flora married John Hermann Henry Sengstacke, whose family name Robert adopted as his own middle name.

Throughout Robert’s childhood, his mother and stepfather instilled values of hard work and ingenuity. John Sengstacke undertook many ventures. He was a Congregationalist minister, a schoolteacher and advocate for the education of African American children, and the publisher of at least two newspapers near Savannah—the Woodville Times and West End Post. Robert was educated in printing at Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, in Virginia, and he later earned a law degree from Chicago’s Kent College of Law, graduating in 1898 as the only African American in his class.

Robert Abbott tried unsuccessfully to establish a law practice in the Midwest. In 1905, he returned to printing and newspaper publishing, trades he had learned from his family and from his education. The newspaper he founded that year, the Chicago Defender, would grow from humble beginnings to become one of the foremost African American newspapers in the country. It was the first newspaper of its kind to reach a circulation of over 100,000, with two-thirds of those readers located outside of Chicago. By the 1920s, the paper’s success had made Robert Abbott one of the country’s first African American millionaires.

The Chicago Defender took a strong stance on issues that affected its readers, publishing statements like “American race prejudice must be destroyed” and pushing for “full enfranchisement of all American citizens” as part of its core beliefs. White distributers often refused to carry the paper, and it was smuggled on trains to southern readers by Pullman porters and traveling African American entertainers. Today, the Chicago Defender is remembered for its advocacy for African Americans and for encouraging thousands to take part in the Great Migration. Robert Abbott died in 1940, and on St. Simons, he is remembered for his business successes, his commitment to justice, and the monument he built near Fort Frederica in memory of his aunt and his father. Abbott’s memory also lives on through a namesake organization, the Robert S. Abbott Race Unity Institute, which works to foster communication and collaboration within our Coastal Georgia community. More information about the Abbott Institute can be found at https://theabbottinstitute.org/.

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Long-time residents of St. Simons Island will remember that the stretch of road linking the north end of Mallery Street with Demere Road was once known as Proctor Lane. When that lane became part of Mallery Street, we lost an important reference to one of the island’s most prominent African American families. Proctor Lane was at the heart of the South End neighborhood, a community established after the Civil War by former enslaved workers from nearby cotton plantations.

Willis Proctor, in particular, was well known on St. Simons Island. For many years, he operated an emporium in South End. Previously, he had managed the dining room at the Arnold House Hotel (once located in the vicinity of the present day King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort) and worked at the Jekyll Island Club, for a time serving as valet to club member William Rockefeller. Other Proctor family members had businesses in South End, including a fruit stand, a fish market, and a nightclub.

Perhaps one of Willis Proctor’s most lasting legacies is his involvement with the preservation of the musical traditions of his Gullah Geechee ancestors. Through his sister Julia, he met folklorists Lydia Parrish, Alan Lomax, and Zora Neale Hurston (best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God) during the 1930s. From the memories of the Proctors and others who became known as the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Parrish collected and transcribed their music for her book, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942). It included work songs that Proctor had learned from his father Adam, who had been an enslaved worker at Black Banks Plantation.

By the time Alan Lomax returned with stereo equipment to record Gullah Geechee music in 1961, Willis Proctor was one of only two surviving members of the original island singers group. He was featured as lead singer on two of the recordings from that 1961 session: the praise shout “Daniel” and the dance song “Walk, Billy Abbot.”

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