The Bridge and the Monument:
a Tale of Two Legacies
"We have skeletonized because it is easier to
The incongruities and idiosyncrasies of history's fondness for irony are rarely as evident as when standing next to the African-American Monument on River Street at night in Savannah, Georgia, and looking westward at the glittering beams of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge. Some 100 yards or so in the opposite direction, off to the southeast beneath the area known as Factors Walk and facing municipal administrative offices, are the circular red brick holding pens in which, reportedly, Africans were often kept upon their arrival to Savannah during slavery and until they were sold as slaves.
In keeping with the custom of refraining from naming public monuments after living individuals, the African-American monument is not named after Dr. Abigail Jordan, the black woman whose decade-long drive to provide Savannah with its first monument to honor the contributions of blacks to the city culminated with a triumphant ceremony on July 27, 2002. Nor would the unpresumptuous and patrician Jordan have it any other way. Though her personal financial contributions to the completion of the monument and sacrifices of time and energy would certainly make such an honor appropriate, and, one would imagine, one day inevitable.
By contrast, the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge is named after a man who in 1935 declined to lend his name to a highway for fear that he might end up "on the chain gang or go wrong before I die," and thus run the insufferable risk of breaking rocks and sweating all day long on a road bearing his name. While the bridge that does bear his name is a far more poetic and majestic construction than the highway proposed in the last century, it is also something of an unlikely symbol for a man who championed segregation between human beings rather than unification, and who spent four terms as governor of Georgia (though he died shortly after his fourth election) battling to hold onto the past rather than welcoming a future made unstoppable by the Great Migration and the reforms of Franklin Dealano Roosevelt's New Deal.
Perched on a four-foot-tall marble base, the richly dark bronze African-American Monument altogether stands approximately ten feet tall. It is neither provocative nor pretentious in its quiet projection of a black family garbed in what once were called Sunday go-to-church clothes but stands with the calm assurance of dignity that became a trademark of African-American cultural identity during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. That the artist, Dorothy R. Spradley, was more intent on indulging her personal creative sensibilities than communicating a point of any particular historical significance is also evident. One wonders what the impact might be if, say, the two adults looming over the boy and girl were dressed in the rags of slaves and their faces, scarred, covered with expressions of fierce determination and courage rather than featureless complacency. Their broken manacles and near-nakedness would communicate something of the past political and social struggles by older African Americans on behalf of their progeny. The more modern apparel of the children could then indicate the hard-won abundant harvest of equal opportunities for employment and education, the right to vote without fear of being murdered for doing so, and more adequate healthcare and housing.
That the visual image of the sculpture does not make as potent a statement as this quote from Maya Angelou on its base does not lessen its beauty, import, or relevance: "We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African Continent. We got on the slave ship together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy."
After all, the fact that it is Savannah's first such monument need not mean it must remain the city's only African-American monument. In a city where dozens of monuments pay tribute to the days of the Confederacy, the once-thriving Native American presence, and different aspects of the city's European heritage, another half dozen monuments documenting the many contributions of African Americans would be more than appropriate in different parts of the city.
The nobility, sincerity, and necessity that inform the intent behind the creation of the African-American monument stand as clearly as those behind the renovation of the bridge linking Savannah to South Carolina. What is less clear in the minds of the 131,510 citizens that inhabit Savannah, and the millions of tourists that visit the city annually, is the intent behind the bridge's official name. Many assume that it is named the Savannah Bridge and look with blank astonishment upon hearing that it is actually the Talmadge Memorial Bridge. A local African American might smile with confused pain when learning that Talmadge campaigned and won offices based on a platform that championed white supremacy and that his general policy in regard to blacks was: "I want to deal with the nigger this way; he must come to my back door, take off his hat, and say, 'Yes, sir.'"
Although his pose as an incorrigible rural hick at times seemed blatantly exaggerated, Talmadge's appreciation of the culture was authentic enough that he could laugh at himself when his political rivals accused him in court of copulating with his mule. He rather admired them for the one-upmanship they demonstrated with the slogan, "You wouldn't vote for no mule-screwing sonofabitch, would you?" These brilliantly flashing colors of Talmadge's character, according to Anderson, communicated different messages to different people: "Crude, ill-tempered, profane, out of control to some, he was a God-fearing, kind, and compassionate man to others." It was this persona of a recalcitrant rural delinquent that he took with him into office upon his election to agriculture commissioner in 1926, 1928, and 1930; and, that he further promulgated upon his election to governor in 1932, 1934, 1940, and 1946.
He was also a devotee of the past whose regressive leanings did not end with racial integration but sought to discredit and dismantle those reforms set forth in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program, recognized by most others as the single most important cure for those economic, social, and political ills brought on by the world-ravishing Great Depression. At the same time that Talmadge donned red suspenders and declared himself a champion of the white working class, he was comfortable protesting the daily wage of $1.50 that the New Deal would afford farm laborers. Similarly, he opposed a pension for retired workers because he feared it would corrode the southern tradition of family members caring for their elders in the home. His opposition of such New Deal programs as Social Security was total enough that he voiced his rejection of it both within the pages of his newspaper, The Statesman, and at the 1936 Democratic Convention. And his opposition apparently extended to Roosevelt himself as he was fond (although he later would apologize for it) of ridiculing Roosevelt's handicap and pointing out that, "The only voices to reach his wheelchair were the cries of the "gimme crowd."
That his assessment of the New Deal program and FDR proved erroneous even before history could have its say did not make much of an impression on Talmadge. Admitting fault was not one of his stronger points and he conceded that, "I'll never admit I'm wrong, even if I am, and I'll never apologize. If I've made a mistake, I'll ignore it and in time it'll work itself out."
One mistake he tried to ignore but that refused to simply work itself out was his decision to orchestrate the dismissal of educators Walter D. Cocking from the University of Georgia and Marvin S. Pittman from the Georgia Teachers College in Statesboro based on rumors that they were pro-integration. Despite Talmadge's declaration that he was, "not goint to put up with social equality [because] we don't need no niggers and white people taught together," the Southern Accrediting System expressed its disapproval of Talmadge's attempts to manipulate the policies of higher education by revoking the accreditation for ten schools in Georgia's educational system. The conflict between the governor and the educational community cost Talmadge his bid for re-election in 1942 and during the 1946 campaign prompted students attending a speech by him to hang him in effigy. In a true indicator, however, of the political and racial schizophrenia of the times, Talmadge intensified his commitment to segregation for the 1946 campaign and on the basis of it won his fourth, albeit short-lived, gubernatorial election.
Talmadge's attitudes toward race and power can be described in many ways. A favorite contemporary euphemism for white supremacy is "traditional southern values," a term particularly effective for southern white politicians in battle for offices against black opponents, and "traditional southern values" occupied in Talmadge's heart as secure a place as anything else he dared to love. His willingness to jeopardize the state educational system, however, in order to exercise the traditional southern value of segregation, illustrated a predilection for repression and intolerance that many felt bordered on fascism.
His admiration for Adolph Hitler was not a secret and his reading of the charismatic dictator's Mien Kampf more than half a dozen times would have won him a place of some honor among present-day National Front right-wing extremists. As if to further legitimize ideological kinship between him and Hitler, Talmadge described himself as a "minor dictator." The Atlanta Journal in 1942 termed his specific brand of dogmatism as "Talmadgism" and defined it as "bullying, brow-beating, dictatorship. Its reliance is not on reason but on arbitrary force..." The "arbitrary force" named here was likely an allusion to the use of the state militia to end a strike by cotton mill laborers and, in so doing, also ending their attempt to establish a much-needed union.
Talmadgism relied also, the Atlanta Journal might have added, on the proven sleight of hand of manipulating white people's xenophobic nightmares in regard to blacks in order to maintain a guaranteed percentage of the white vote. The more rural and destitute the white population Talmadge addressed while campaigning or executing the duties of his office, the more frequent and brutal became his use of racial slurs. As his political rival, and another former governor, Richard Russell put it, whenever Talmadge's economic or administrative policies caused him to lose popularity before the white public, the one rallying cry always certain to garner some measure of support was, "nigger, nigger, nigger." And whether dressed in hoods and sheets or overalls stained with sweat from their labors in the fields, his constituency would gather round him like youth with cleanly-shaven heads circling a Nazi flag.
How much of Talmadge's aggressive racism can be attributed to or excused by "the times" is debatable. Ensconced as he was in the state of Georgia's highest office and made privy to events and individuals of national and international import, it is difficult to believe he was unaware of such African-American men and women as W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary Church Terrell, or that he thought their influence upon the country a negligible one relevant only to the black race. It hardly seems possible that the virtual legion of black doctors, lawyers, educators, scientists, diplomats, journalists, and military officers making their way through such facilities as Howard University in Washington, D. C, Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Georgia's own Atlanta University system, did not serve to indicate to Talmadge that not all blacks were the child-like simpletons or near-savages he claimed to believe they were. Yet the deaths of blacks lynched year after year in Georgia during the two decades that Talmadge was active in state politics remained the kind of atrocity that he excused as "regrettable."
Accepting that Talmadge was a product, representative, and extension of his times increases one's comprehension of him as a demagogue empowered by racism but it does not encourage or excuse a tolerance of the bigotry, xenophobia, and repression for which he stood. A major public thoroughfare bearing his name, however, certainly makes it appear as if the city of Savannah does encourage such bigotry, xenophobia, and repression.
The Talmadge Bridge was subject to some four years of planning and design starting in July, 1983. That was followed by another four years of reconstruction before undergoing its Cinderella-like metamorphosis from a modestly adequate cantilever truss bridge to the superior performing cable-stayed highway bridge that it is now, as anchored in reinforced concrete as it is in the modern technology that made its span of 1,100 feet and its length of 2,037 miraculously possible. More than a symbol of the kind of leap toward the future that Talmadge distrusted so faithfully, it is a manifestation of it. Adorning such a triumph of visionary science with his name seems nearly an insult to a man who rejected modern medical equipment for rural areas because, according to him, the inhabitants of such areas did not believe in the existence of germs. As if not believing in a bullet would necessarily prevent the same from splattering one's brains if it were shot into one's skull.
Unlike Talmadge, Jordan was not born into the material comforts enjoyed by the elite of the time, and the title of her as yet unpublished fictionalized biography, Memoirs of A Slave's Granddaughter, reflect that fact. She nevertheless did benefit from the labors of her self-employed father, Sam Williams, who used to make the wooden ties upon which railroad tracks were laid. She also received from her mother, Leah Williams, who worked at home to raise her six offspring, a great deal by way of self-determination and a lack of patience with racism.
The same kind of disregard for the rights and lives of African Americans that Talmadge excused as "regrettable" eventually led to most of Jordan's family relocating to Savannah while a few remained and worked with her father. Her memories are clear enough of going with her mother to the Wilcox County Courthouse and watching her attempt to vote. Leah Williams was not surprised when she didn't get to vote but mother and daughter were both traumatized when a white man tripped her on the courthouse steps and caused her to fall, suffering an injury from which she never fully recovered. A visit from the Ku Klux Klan, which left its trademark calling card of a cross burning in their yard, forced Sam and Leah Williams to do what so many black families have done since the days of slavery: divide in order to survive.
Jordan, however, did much more than survive. She thrived by gaining entry into a private school in Albany and washed dishes to help pay for her education there. She later received an undergraduate degree in 1949 at Albany State College (now University) and a Master of Arts degree from Atlanta University. She drove back and forth between Athens and Savannah to study for her Doctorate of Education, which she received from the University of Georgia in 1980. In the course of obtaining her education, she married John Wesley Jordan and had one son.
In 1991, Jordan was strolling down River Street when it struck her that out of Savannah's then 43 monuments, not one acknowledged the contributions of African Americans to the city. The closest thing to such an acknowledgement was the cobble stone street over which she and others were walking. "History has it that these stones were laid by the hands of slaves who selected and adjusted the odd shaped rocks that would accommodate the pounding of human and animal feet," she later stated. "In many instances, blood and flesh from the hands and fingers of the slaves were left in the mortar that still holds the stony material together today."
Her meditations upon this revelation, and an inability to point out, for visitors to Savannah, a monument denoting the African-American presence, created in Jordan a determination that became the central driving force of her life. In the same year that she began her crusade to place on River Street a monument dedicated to Savannah's African-American legacy, Jordan also founded the Consortium of Doctors, a group of women doctorates dedicated to helping remove barriers to education and employment among black youth. At its first induction ceremony on Saturday, July 27, 1991, the Consortium welcomed approximately fifty-four members. Eleven years later to the date, also on a Saturday, July 27, 2002, Jordan's dream to see the monument unveiled on River Street became a reality. Media representatives from around the world either attended the event in person or scheduled phone interviews with Jordan to report the historic event.
Three years following the monument's unveiling, city officials, state representatives, and out-of-state dignitaries gathered again at the site of the monument on River Street and loudly cheered as Mayor Otis S. Johnson declared July 30, 2005, as Dr. Abigail Jordan Day. That the monument was not christened with her name did not matter to her. What did matter was that it was there, standing as bronze and eternal as any other monument in the city for the whole world to see.
Upon the completed construction of what is now known as the East Broad Street School, Law argued that the school should be named after Robert Abbott, the famed black publisher of the Chicago Defender. He considered the possibility that when black, white, Asian, and Hispanic children inquired about the name of their school, they would learn how this black man born on St. Simon's Island and raised in Savannah made his way to Chicago, then, with only twenty-five cents, started a newspaper that grew into one of the most influential in the world. They would learn how his editorials were so powerfully persuasive that he helped launch and maintain the Great Migration of African Americans into the North and Midwest from the 1910s to the 1940s, a demographic shift that had no small impact on the cultural and political history of the United States. By speaking that single name and cultivating an awareness of that single individual, students might have been inspired by his examples of courage, fortitude, industriousness, eloquence, and leadership. Instead, they utter a name with echoes of other very different implications. The "street life" that has claimed millions of youth comes to mind. The determination to obscure the brave realities of black history comes to mind. And so does the danger of doing so.
Correcting the racial errors of the twentieth century--even while new ones are committed--has rapidly become one of the chief occupations of the early years of the twenty-first century. The hue and cry of outrage that echoed from coast to coast following Congressman Trent Lott's unwitting pledge of allegiance to the country's overtly racist past reverberated powerfully enough to dislodge him from the Republican Senatorial leadership he vowed to maintain. A similar groundswell of indignation threatened to engulf Georgia's capital as the state replaced one flag sporting its sympathetic homage to a would-be confederacy with another. Although the replacement flag also honored the state's first flag of the confederacy, it somehow proved less offensive. While the state's voters presumably have no desire in these modern times to be slaves or own any, they voted to keep the new flag.
Clearly, Abigail Jordan's decade-long battle, begun in one century and concluded in the next to provide Savannah with what truly should be the first of at least half a dozen monuments dedicated to the city's African-American heritage, is also among the corrections of errors left over from the past. Can the same be said of retaining the name Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge for a major public structure in a major southern city with a population of some 80,353 African Americans, comprising sixty-two percent of the total population, and however many progressive-minded whites?
To what degree does the name honor Georgia's historical legacies and to what degree does is simply extend one of the worse elements--racism--of those legacies? That Eugene Talmadge served his constituency of impoverished whites and fellow segregationists is not a point that can be debated. He often did so quite ably by making their voice his own and insuring that it was heard both in Georgia and in Washington, D. C. The problem was that Georgia, like the rest of the country, had never been all white, but those empowered to decide such things as the names of schools and boulevards and bridges insisted on indulging their pigmentation as though it were.
Insofar as the case in point is concerned, the name was simply carried over from that of the original bridge, which had been so christened by the Georgia State Transportation Board. Neither ignorance of the pain that such indulgence causes people of color nor apathy towards it can safeguard against the violence of social catechism that generally follows when a given segment of a given population realizes it has been duped. A sleeping giant poses little danger lolling back and forth between the comfort of dreams. Once awake and aware that it has been, as it were, bleeding for a long time from wounds to its very real and vital soul, it then poses the greatest danger of all.
It doesn't take long, once one truly considers it, to realize that the bridge that shines above the Savannah River and sits like a giant tiara upon its brow is a far from suitable structure to memorialize the racism, bigotry, and regression championed by Talmadge. On the other hand, the red brick holding pens beneath Factors Walk, where kidnapped Africans resigned themselves to life and death in hell, would seem fitting indeed. Or is this observation less relevant than some may think?
In March 2006, like many cities across the United States, Savannah held "A Celebration of the Civil Rights Struggle: 50 Years Plus." The theme of the celebration was "Then, Now, Transition, Future." To commemorate this event paying such noble tribute to the legions that fought for civil rights equality, its organization committee published a handsome 56-page journal that contained a listing of programs, timelines of the civil rights struggle, and recognitions of African-American firsts in Savannah. The image on its cover was of the African-American Monument, symbolizing the strength and courage of a people's past rather than their degradation, promising a future of shared love and humanity rather than one of divisive bigotry and oppression.
Aberjhani is the co-author of the award-winning Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, the author of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois, and the recently-released e-book Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black. Voted Best Spoken Word Artist in Savannah, Ga., for 2006 by Connect Savannah readers, Aberjhani released his first
spoken word CD this year with poet Nordette Adams and producer Mark "Rahkyt" Rockeymoore. Click this link to visit Aberjhani's website.
Early African-American History in Savannah (article) By Aberjhani