Geechee Relatives????

In my secret, undercover life I am an amateur genealogist and have been working on compiling my family pedigree since
I was about seventeen.  Recently, I discovered a familiar name in the
most unlikely of places!!!  As I was preparing to teach my ENGL 3960
course, “The Gullah Presence in African American Literature by Women,”  I
read as much background info to refresh my perspective.  I picked up
the book Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among Georgia Coastal Negroes
(1986) expecting to find some interesting folklore I could share with
my class.  As I read the interviews from formerly enslaved persons and
their descendants in Yamacraw, Georgia I was floored when I read the
testimony of James “Stick Daddy” Cooper:

beyond Yamacraw, where the old brick and dirt streets of the community
give way to the broad, paved Augusta road, an old Negro named James
Cooper has for years conducted a miscellaneous business in a ramshackle
push cart. 1
James sells lunches to the workers at the Savannah Sugar Refinery; he
also cobbles shoes and repairs anything from broken pots to roller
skates. Because of his skill as a wood carver, particularly of walking
sticks, he has become known in the vicinity as “Stick Daddy.” A
decidedly original technique is evident in his carving, but he smiled
when this was mentioned.
“I nevuh bin taught,” he said. “I took up cahvin as paht time jis fuh the fun of it. Muh granfathuh, Pharo Cooper,
he used tuh make things frum wood an straw, sech as baskets an cheahs
an tables an othuh things fuh the home. I guess I sawt of inherited it
frum, him.”
One of “Stick Daddy’s” canes is a slender, snake-encircled rod with a handle made from a large black and white die (24).
continues] Another, slightly thicker, is carved with a single
crocodile. The third, a heavy stick topped with a flashlight handle in
which the snapshot of a young Negro girl has been inserted, is artfully
decorated with a turtle, a large crocodile, and a small, sinuous
snake. The chief characteristic of “Stick Daddy’s” work is the boldness
with which the carved figures, dark-stained and highly polished, stand
out against their unfinished natural wood background. Very different
is another stick that was found abandoned in an office building in the
city. This has a man’s head for a handle but the stick proper is so
covered with minute, unpatterned crisscrosses that the little figure of
a man upside down, a horned head also upside down, and an undetermined
object which may be either man or animal, are noticed only when the
cane is carefully studied.
“Stick Daddy,” besides being a general repair man and carver, knows a few “sho cuos” for illnesses (25).
Cooper, you see, just happens to be the name of my paternal
great-grandfather.  I only recently recovered “Pharo Cooper” as my
relative and had done minimal research on him at the time I was
reading.  I have since been on a whirlwind adventure trying to prove or
disprove that the craftsman Pharo Cooper, referred to by “Stick Daddy,” 
is the same Pharo Cooper from whom I am directly descended.
I have discovered, through the agency of, that
my ancestor was born between 1859-1862.  The earliest record in which I
can locate him is the 1880 Federal Census.  He was living in Indian,
Williamsburg County, South Carolina.  I researched the area to see if
there was a plantation owner with the surname Cooper.  I discovered that
William Cooper also lived in Indian, Williamsburg County, South
Carolina along with more than one hundred people of African descent
carrying the surname Cooper.  Now, logically this leads me to believe
that William Cooper was the owner (former owner by 1880) of a huge
number of slaves including Pharo’s parents (Manassa and Nannie) and
possibly had possession of Pharo during slavery.  Williamsburg County is
one county inland from the South Carolina coast and given the
historical fact that the enslaved population outnumbered the slave
owning population, especially in South Carolina, I willingly assume that
Pharo Cooper participated and was fluent in what we now refer to as
Geechee/Gullah culture.
1900, Pharo had married and moved to Sycamore Town, Irwin County,
Georgia.  He sired at least 12 children that can be documented in the
census record.  I have run up against a brick wall in my next phase of
research: trying to locate a direct connection between James “Stick
Daddy” Cooper’s parentage and Pharo Cooper’s progeny.
I am proud of my lineage regardless if my Pharo Cooper was a craftsman
and furniture maker or not, I am certainly excited about the possibility
of finding my ancestors name in a published book!  Before reading Drums and Shadows,
I was uncertain where my paternal ancestry would lead me.  I was
inspired to make a familial connection with the Pharo Cooper in the book
and discovered a whole new branch of my family history that is
connected to Geechee/Gullah corridor. I am continually amazed at how I
am able to intersect my work with my personal life.  As some black
feminist critics would say, “the personal is political.”  I have always
had an interest and profound respect for Geechee/Gullah culture; I see
it as the origin of African American culture as we know it.  So to
discover that I have ancestors that are more than likely part and parcel
of this originating culture is profoundly humbling and satisfying.  I
have a REAL, tangible connection to Geechee/Gullah Culture!!!!  This
make my experience at St. Simons even more horrific (See my earlier
blog), but it also fuels my passion for this part of the south and for
the preservation/reclamation of the African American legacy.  I still
don’t know if “Stick Daddy” may be a distant relative, but I’m always
working toward finding that answer! More to come soon!

In Search of Ibo Landing….

Back in September, my good friend and I ventured to St. Simons
Island to visit the ocean and place ourselves on historic Ibo Landing
and other various places our slave ancestors formerly occupied (See:
for the story behind Ibo Landing).  Much to our dismay NONE of the
visitor’s center brochures/maps even made mention of Ibo Landing. This,
however, had no bearing on us for we are known for going rouge and
finding what we have sought out. What was much more disturbing is that
upon discovering the location of Ibo Landing—a MONUMENTAL site of
historic importance for anyone of African descent in this country–we
were barred from it because “its on private property”.
Feel me?

I have been trying to work through the anger, rage, insult, and
feelings of being violated since then.  Daaiyah and I were able to view
the site from the side of the road, but I still feel a tremendous void
and ache in my soul about being denied access to something that should
by all rights not be ANYONE’s private property.  Ibo Landing is “in
someone’s backyard”.  Are you serious? How DARE they allow such a
sacred site to be owned, to be part of some affluent sub-division.  It
is shameful on an island that has resurrected and restored other
notable points on the map of American history, but has done nothing to
acquire this property for its historic value.  But then, I must
remember that what is valuable and sacred to my heritage is seldom
valued by others in this country.
Walk with me….

To add insult to injury…we did discover a map of African American
historic interests and immediately set out to find them after paying
the proper homage to Ibo Landing from a far. Some how, the slave
cemetery of Retreat Plantation has been protected and for obvious
reasons we sought it out. It is couched somewhere on the grand property
of the Retreat Golf Course and exclusive Golf Club.  It was
permissible to drive on to the property and view the “majestic”
greens…but when I stopped to ask the gatekeeper about viewing the
cemetery I was met with smuggness and a swift rejection: “Yeah, its
around here but its only open to direct descendents”.  He didn’t
entertain any other inquiries and it was obvious that he wanted us off
the property. Now, sure…I understand that one’s last resting place is
to be protected and respected.  I can dig it. Let’s be clear. Me and
sista Daaiyah only had intentions of doing some righteous praying and
maybe leavin’ a lil somethin’ in honor of the dead.  But really? You
are gonna deny me based on a genealogy that you made sure was wiped
from my memory and your records? I mean, we are talking about a slave
cemetery!!! How many of those who descended from the Retreat Plantation
slaves actually KNOW who their slave ancestors were or where they are
buried????  How does one prove that one is a direct descendant?Would
you know me by sight? By name?

I’m sure he could have provided an answer to these questions had he
entertained them…but for me that is neither here nor there.  As far
as I am concerned I AM A DESCENDANT OF ALL SLAVES and I have a right to
view and honor the last resting place of “the slaves who were
ourselves”.  I can’t help but come to the realization that in so many
ways we are still being owned.  This Golf Club literally OWNS some of
our ancestors and has the power to deny us access to our own people. 
Now what kind of TRASH is that???Was I expecting too much by thinking my
skin gives me some sort of privilege or access in this matter? I mean,
really…tell me if I’m trippin’.

I was overwhelmed with so many emotions.  I felt helpless.  I felt
the tears sting my eyes.  I felt the uncontrollable urge to moan and
wail like I had lost a child. I felt the hair on my arms stand up,
readying myself to assualt this man who meant me spiritual harm. I felt
that familiar tingle on the back of my neck telling me I was not
alone. I felt my mouth begin to foam in insane rage.  My breathing
became arhythmic and stuccato, my blood pressure rose like the sun, 
and my muscles trembled.

I suppose I’m sharing this partly because I need to get it off my
chest.  I have been so shaken by this experience, I think, because it
had so much to do with a spiritual connection to our past. I still feel
wounded right here in this very moment.  Another part of me wants to
have a conversation about how to heal from these subtle, but often
spiritually seismic blows.  I have to admit, I don’t feel empowered
enough to make any changes for future seekers of Ibo Landing or the
Retreat Village Cemetery, but I do know that my unresolved
tension/anger/hurt is not imagined and this time…I just can’t act
like it didn’t happen.  So let me hear from you….this is not just my
hurt.  Let’s talk about our ancestral legacies and what it means when
we can’t have access to them.    Let’s talk about the kind of damage
that is done and how to reconcile with it—I’m not sure I’ll really
heal from it.

Moving towards Peace,

Dunbar’s Creek, the site of the incident @ Ibo Landing. St. Simons Island, Georgia.