Sacred Texts  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 

Drums and Shadows, by Georgia Writer's Project, [1940], at

p. 11

Tin City

Eastward from Savannah in weed-grown fields lies Tin City, born of the depression and nurtured by the lean years that have followed. The little settlement, with its uncertain lanes winding through a maze of grass and tall shrubbery, stretches out over two hundred acres of land where long ago slaves labored in the black muck of rice fields.

To the west and south this land is touched by the ragged fringe of Savannah; to the north it sweeps away to the murky waters of the Savannah River. In 1819 the city of Savannah condemned the wet-culture rice lands and attempted to build up the unhealthy, low-lying acres with leaves and trash. With the passing years the place has been marked with peculiar ridges and mounds, the result of this building-up process. A wild growth of tall greenery covers the land.

About 1929 Louis Ellis, an old Negro who had been evicted from his home for non-payment of rent, secured permission from Savannah to settle on the land. His shack of discarded tin and his patch of a garden soon attracted other poverty stricken Negroes, and around him grew up a small community, self sufficient in its rent-free houses and its produce of garden and river. Although some of the settlers have abandoned the community and only about twenty remain, Tin City still leads its own independent existence. Within its precincts the fresh atmosphere of a country district prevails, for here and there a clump of chinaberry trees or an oak tree spreads shade, rows of sugar cane and green corn grow tall, and sweet potato and pumpkin vines wander at random. The

p. 12

rusty little huts are built of scrap tin, bits of cast-off shed roof, salvagings from automobile junk yards, even discarded signs advertising soft drinks or headache tablets. Each house is surrounded by a garden, fenced either with uneven poles driven into the earth or with ingenious odds and ends of junk. Now and then through the coils of an old bed spring that serves as a fence a wild morning glory vine climbs riotously, or beside a wall hangs a yellow gourd effectively decorative above a row of "greens."

Two men claim the mayoralty of the settlement. One, through natural ability, has held the office almost from the founding of the town. The other, settling later, simply announced that he was mayor. Both officials have a following of political supporters.

Nathaniel John Lewis, 1 the first mayor, has a neat little one-room dwelling behind a board fence. As he politely apologized for not being at his best, a certain amount of schooling was evident in his speech, which was extremely soft, slow, and careful. He smiled with grim amusement when we asked if he knew anything about conjure or spells.

"Cunjuh?" he repeated. "That's what is wrong with this ahm of mine. As I sit heah, I know that my enemy brought about this affliction. 15 One night two, three yeahs ago, I put out my hand to open my gate. Pain went into my palm jus like stabbin with a shahp needle. This ahm has been no use since then."

"Perhaps it is rheumatism?" we suggested.

"No, sir. It isn't. I know. An cunjuh must be fought with cunjuh. 6 If I know my enemy's name I could get somethin frum a cunjuh doctuh to help me seek revenge. But I am helpless."

"What would the doctor do about it?" we asked.

"The toe nails, the finguh nails, even the scrapins frum the bottom of the foot are all very powuhful. 10 If the doctuh could get any of these frum my enemy, he would mix them in whiskey an make my enemy drink. That is all."

"Would the enemy die or just get sick?"

But the old man was brooding with a faraway look in his eyes and would not answer our question.

p. 13

"Cunjuh," he said again. "You ask me if I know about these dahk things. I know too well. My wife Hattie had a spell put on uh fuh three long yeahs with a nest of rattlesnakes inside uh. She jus lay theah an swelled an suffuhed. How she suffuhed! Jus like the foam that comes on a snake's mouth when he is hungry, she would foam. But she couldn't eat."

"Did she die of snakes?" we wanted to know.

"No. It was predicted that she would have a spell put on uh to die by fyuh and sho enough one night she was burned to death with the snakes still inside uh." 15

"But how were the snakes given to her?"

"That I can't tell. She maybe drank them in a little whiskey. But I can't tell."

Nathaniel Lewis' somber gaze had all this time been directed through the open door to his garden. It was a pretty little green inclosure with rustic benches set hospitably about. We commented on the vines and ferns, which showed careful cultivation.

"You like my gahden?" Lewis said mournfully. "That's all I can think of, my gahden. Theah's a bush out theah that's goin to protect me frum any othuh enemies. 34 Nobody can cunjuh me now because of that bush. If only I'd had a little piece of that plant befo, Hattie would be alive an me well an strong. But I kept puttin off goin to get a piece. You have to go to the woods in the dahk of night an find it faw yuhself. If you get caught at sunrise in those woods, you can't get out till night again. You plant a piece of the bush in somebody's yahd. They can't go out till you let them. You plant it in yuh own yahd. Nobody can get in to do you hahm. That's why I'm safe now. But," he concluded, with a melancholy look around his meagerly furnished domain, "I should've had it befo. My enemy has even prevented me from gettin on relief."

Lewis showed us his single treasured book, which he said contained magic art. 1

"This book has helped me some," he said, "but I didn't

p. 14

really need it. I was birthed with my wisdom because I was the seventh child an bawn with a caul." 4

We asked if he could see and talk with spirits.

"I see them," he said simply. 54,  5559 "Theah is a little ghos that stays right roun this house. The firs night I moved in heah he walked right in an jumped on me. I managed to throw him off. Now he comes every night. Sometimes he stands at the gate with his feet so high off the groun," measuring about a foot, "an his face is turned backwards, 57 but he can always see you. I don't talk to him any aw try to come close, because he would hahm me aw cause me to hahm myself. I jus pass him by as if he wasn't theah. But I see him.

"I know theah must be buried treasure wheah this house is built, fuh wheahevuh theah is money aw othuh treasure a ghos is put theah to gahd it. 61 One time I went out to Deptford with two othuh men to dig up a pot of money that I knew was buried theah. I saw three spirits, one man an two women. We dug and dug an finally we could see the pot of money. Jus then one of the women laughed, 'Ha! Ha! Ha!'', pot sunk down deepuh in the groun. We all ran.

The laugh that spirit gave went right through me. I nevuh tried to dig up the money again. Right now I know theah is treasure buried heah unduh me, but I wouldn't try to get it. It is bad luck. That spirit warned me.

"I see witches, too," he continued. "Not everybody can tell a witch, but I can. Theah's an old woman on Gwinnett Street with some cows. Othuh people don't know it, but she's the worse kind of witch. Not very long ago she came and rode a woman heah in Tin City and sucked uh blood. 69c You ought to see that woman. She's so thin and weak she can't stand up."

"But isn't there some way to keep witches out?" we asked.

"Yes, you can lay a bruhmstick cross the doe befo night an they can't come in. A little salt is good. They don't take to salt." 69a

Then he insisted on returning to the subject of his magic book. We evinced the proper interest and he showed us a strange recipe jotted down in almost illegible writing on the flyleaf of this book.

p. 15

carisin--1 pint
turpentine--1 pint
cy pepper table
salt--1 box

"That's a cunjuh mixin," the old man explained. "I don't know what it's faw. It was in the book when Joe Fraser, a root doctuh, 48 gave it to me."

"Where is Joe Fraser?"

"He is dead these long yeahs. All the real old root doctuhs are passin on to the beyon." And Nathaniel Lewis sadly stroked his lame arm.

We left him standing in his garden and went on down the winding path. On each side, closed away behind their fences, stood the little houses of the town. One was made entirely of old signs; another was merely a battered automobile body with a rickety chimney sending up smoke from the roof.

From the doorway of one of the little tin houses, two heads peered out curiously at us. We stopped and talked for a few minutes with Paul Singleton 1 and his wife.

The old man told us that he had been born during slavery times on a plantation near Darien. His master had owned about thirty-five plantations in the vicinity. He added that he had been brought to Savannah in 1869.

"Muh daddy use tuh tell me all duh time bout folks wut could fly back tuh Africa. Dey could take wing an jis fly off," he confided. "Lots uh time he tell me annudduh story bout a slabe ship bout tuh be caught by revenoo boat. Duh slabe ship slip tru back ribbuh intuh creek. Deah wuz bout fifty slabes on bode. Duh slabe runnuhs tie rocks roun duh slabes' necks and tro um ovuhbode tuh drown. Dey say yuh kin heah um moanin an groanin in duh creek ef yuh goes neah deah tuh-day.

"I bin seein ghos all muh life. 59 One time a ghos try tuh skeah me an uh git mad and den he leab me. Muh fus wife is dead, an muh second wife heah kin see uh come roun mos any time. She kin see any uh duh kin folks wut dead.

p. 16

"Ef I goes tuh duh cimiterry at twelve o'clock at night I kin see any one uh duh dead folks standin at duh head bode uh deah grabe. Den dey settle down an disappeah."

Mose Brown 1 who lived near by told us, "I bin rid by witches 69 an seed a thousandn mo ghos. 59 I see um mos any time. Dey jis float long bout two feet frum duh groun. Sometime dey come in a wirlwin.

"One day at duh rosin yahd deah come up a wirlwin. I see a big wite man in it. I show im tuh duh udduh men but dey dohn see im. I kin see im cuz uh wuz bawn wid a double caul 4 an foot foemos. Dat gib yuh duh powuh tuh see um. A ghos come heah ebry night an peep in duh soouh obuh deah. He look in duh soouh, walk tuh duh cawnuh, an den disappeah. Any night I'm on dis stoop I kin see im.

"My gran use tuh tell me bout folks flyin back tuh Africa. A man an his wife wuz brung frum Africa. Wen dey fine out dey wuz slabes an got treat so hahd, dey jis fret an fret. One day dey wuz standin wid some udduh slabes an all uh a sudden dey say, 'We gwine back tuh Africa. So goodie bye, goodie bye.' Den dey flied right out uh sight."

"No, I nebuh see no ghos, but uh kin feel em," 59 said another resident of the community. This was Emma Monroe, 2 an elderly woman who had formerly been a slave on a plantation known as Wilton Bluff Plantation. "Wen a ghos is roun muh haiah rise up on muh head an sumpm tech me an uh feel strange all tru. It's duh same wen witches is roun. Deah's plenty folks roun yuh duh witches ride. 69 Dey kin git in yuh house nebuh mine how yuh shut up.

"Duh ole folks use tuh tell us chillun duh story bout people dat flied off tuh Africa. 69c I blieb um bout flyin. Some folks kin wuk roots too. Dey hab duh powuh tuh lay down sumpm tuh hahm yuh, 15 an udduhs hab duh powuh tuh moob wut dey done put down fuh yuh. 6 I ain nebuh bin rooted yit, cuz I stay way frum sech people.

"One ting I do blieb in is signs. Ef yuh watch signs, dey alluz mean good aw bad luck tuh yuh. Ef muh lef eye jump, I kin look fuh bad nooz, and ef muh right eye jump, I kin look fuh good nooz. Same ting wen yuh han itch. Yuh lef

p. 17

han mean yuh gwine tuh git a piece uh money; yuh right han say yuh gwine shake hans wid a strainjuh. Wen yuh foot itch, yuh gwine tuh walk on strange lan aw go tuh duh grabeyahd. Dogs an chickens an buds all make signs dat mean sumpm. Ef somebody is comin, a roostuh come right up tuh duh doe an crow. Ef a dog sets up a howlin, somebody in duh neighbuhhood gwine die. A screech owl screechin roun tells yuh somebody neah by gwine die." 44

Christine Nelson, 1 a middle-aged Negro woman, admitted that she, too, believed in witches and ghosts and that she knew there was a good deal of conjuring going on in the neighborhood. 15

"Cunjuh is magic some folks is bawn wid," she explained. "It gibs um powuh obuh tings udduh folks dohn unnuhstan. 22a,  22e Dey kin wuk dat powuh fuh good aw bad. Dey kin put spells on yuh an lif duh spell some udduh root wukuh hab put on yuh. 6 Ef a root wukuh break yuh spirit, he kin hanl yuh lak he want tuh. A witch is a cunjuh man dat somebody paid tuh tawment yuh. I know uh folks dat wuz rid so much by witches dat dey jis pine way an die." 69b

The case of a man who had been conjured was described to us by James Moore. 2 "He jis mope roun--couldn git spirit nuff tuh wuk. Den all uh a sudden he swell up an duh doctuhs couldn tell wut ail im. We tink he gonuh die. 15 Den long come a man we call Professuh. 48 He say ef we kin git any money he kin lif duh spell. 6 We git some money tuhgedduh and he go out in duh stable an wen he come back he hab a lill black sack. He say dis hab duh cunjuh in it. 8a,  8h Den he bile up some mullen leaves and bathe muh frien in um. He tell us tuh keep on doin dis. In two weeks duh swellin go down an he all right. Deah's root men wukin gense yuh all duh time. Dey kin lay tings down fuh yuh an ef yuh walk obuh dis, yuh fall unduh duh spell. Less yuh kin fine somebody else wut kin wuk roots an kin lif duh spell, 6 yuh is doomed.

"I kin see duh spirits uh people fo dey die. 59a Duh spirit is most lak duh natchul pusson but wen I see it I know dat duh pusson will soon die. Attuh a pusson die, I see duh

p. 18

ghos 56 an sometime dey is lak animals, 54 and den agen lak people, jis floatin long lak a piece uh papuh in duh win. Sometime dey hab no head aw feet an dey's alluz dressed in wite.

"Witches done ride me plenty times. 69 I spicioned who dey wuz but nebuh could ketch one. Dey alluz tun out tuh be somebody right in yuh neighbuhhood. Yuh kin keep em away by puttin sulphuh roun yuh house aw by placin a knife aw a Bible unduh yuh pilluh.

"Deah's lots uh strange tings dat happen. I seen folks disappeah right fo muh eyes. Jis go right out uh sight. Dey do say dat people brought frum Africa in slabery times could disappeah an fly right back tuh Africa. Frum duh tings I see mysef I blieb dat dey could do dis."

Ozie Cohen 1 said that he too saw the spirits of people just before they were about to die. 59a He told us, "Not long ago a frien uh mine wuz sick. Duh night befo he die I see his spirit floatin long befo me in duh street. Duh nex day he pass away. Eben aftuh some uh muh friens die, I see deah spirits nuff tuh know em. 56

"Hags worry me too. I see um slide in from noweah. I try tuh call out, den all at once I'm hepless an strugglin. 69 Ef I membuh tuh put a Bible unduh muh pilluh, dey dohn bodduh me.

"I hab heahd duh story bout folks flyin back tuh Africa. I tink it mus be true wen I tink bout how witches kin come tru a keyhole tuhday. 69c

"Yuh heah lots bout roots an fixin. 15 Folks is alluz sayin somebody bin rooted mos anytime somebody git sick fuh a long spell. Den yuh heah dem sayin, duh sickness ain feah. Dey bin rooted."

Down one long lane and up another we came upon the two or three-room dwelling of the second mayor, George Boddison, 2 built on the banks of the old rice canal. Boddison came out of his home to meet us. His wrists and arms were encircled by copper wire strung with good luck charms; 8 his fingers were covered with several large plain rings. A copper wire was bound around his head and attached to this wire

p. 19

were two broken bits of mirror which, lying flat against his temples with the reflecting side out, flashed and glittered when he moved his head.

"Yes, Ise duh mayuh," he admitted. He was reluctant to talk of what he termed "mysterious tings uh duh elements." But after a few minutes' conversation, he told us that he believed there was "sumpm" to certain beliefs and superstitions.

"I hab a deep suspicious mine dat way muhsef. I know deah is luck an unluck an some people kin wuk it. it's a science in mos ebryting dey does. Dey kin swap yuh frum good luck place tuh bad luck place." 15

"Has anyone tried to harm you?"

"Yes, dat dey hab." He smiled at this, and we saw that a brass ring had been inserted in his mouth in the place of a lower jaw tooth. "Some days I feel lak uh jis caahn make it. It seem lak sumpm hab a holt on me an uh caahn wuk. Den I know strong currents is directed tuh do me ebil. If dey res on me, uh would be sick, maybe die. But deze dat I weahs," indicating the copper wire, the mirrors, and the other charms, "keeps all deze tings frum huttn me. Duh ebil caahn dwell on me. It hab tuh pass on. 12a,  12c,  12d

"Many tings kin be done tuh cause people hahm aw make em disability," he went on. "Dis is wut I hab confidence in. A pusson kin take sech as a cat aw dog aw a lizud, sech creatures as libin. Dey kin kill dis animal an dey hab some way tuh cause its spirit tuh be ebil. Dis spirit moobs on currents tuh somebody duh pusson do not lak an is so powuhful dat it cause eben duh flesh tuh rot. 5

"So I weahs deze," he ended. "Long as I weahs em deah is nuttn kin do me reel hahm." 8

When we thanked him, he did not smile but only bowed his head. To the end of the interview he kept his dignified and serious demeanor.

As we drove away, he stood there before his little house with the tall butterbean vine covered fence encircling it and the wild greenness of uncultivated fields growing all around. The last glimpse we had was of the fragments of mirror bound to his head glittering in the sun.


12:1 Nathaniel John Lewis, Tin City.

13:1 W. de Laurence, "The Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic and East Indian Occultism." Chicago: The de Laurence Company, Twelfth Edition, Revised, 1914.

15:1 Paul Singleton, Tin City.

16:1 Mose Brown, Tin City.

16:2 Emma Monroe, Tin City.

17:1 Christine Nelson, Tin City.

17:2 James Moore, Tin City.

18:1 Ozie Cohen, Tin City.

18:2 George Boddison, Tin City.

Next: Yamacraw