mostly white history

Port of Brunswick

It is often said, “history is written by the victors.”[1] I’ve found that not to be quite true in my research – at least not in the American South. Since the invention of the printing press, history has been based mostly on what the people who got themselves noticed by newspapers and had both the inclination and time to preserve their clippings in the archives historians are wont to peruse. In other words, historians ending up with a biased perspective is not entirely their fault. They work with what they’ve got.

BRUNSWICK: THE CITY BY THE SEA by Patricia BarefootThat certainly seems to have been the case when Patricia Barefoot undertook to produce a picture-heavy biography of “Brunswick, The City by the Sea,” a designation for Brunswick she first came across in an 1888 promotional piece in Harper’s Magazine Advertiser. One hundred and twenty-five years ago there was hype and today there is hype. The only difference is that now, instead of calling attention to a “city by the sea”, it’s the “golden isles” that is supposed to distract us from reality.

Why do I say that? In the interim between 1930 when the population of the city peaked at 14,022 and before the temporary inflation caused by World War II, Brunswick is supposed to be thriving with a 2010 grand total of the 15,383 residents. Granted, the city is sort of a hole in the donut. The surrounding Glynn County has grown to 72,000+ residents. My question is how did that come to pass?

Does the palpable distress at the termination of the Confederate Memorial Day celebration provide a clue? What about the fact that the flag of the Confederate states, augmented by the official seal of Georgia has been adopted as the state flag? Does a reluctance to surrender what is referred to as heritage account for the economic doldrums which have befallen what was one of the fifteen largest cities in Georgia in 1930?

Why have most of the landmark structures either been razed or succumbed to fire (most recently, the waterfront was again in flames, most likely because modern precautions had not been followed)? Why is all that is left of the various “economic miracles” a handful of superfund sites and a depleted resource base? Can we blame a pervasive pattern of deception in the land of the euphemism? Can we point to the fact that of over a thousand recognizable persons in Ms. Barefoot’s biography, only 90 are black? Does the benign neglect of a significant portion of the black community account for the stagnation?

Judge Samuel C. Atkinson
Judge Samuel C. Atkinson

Perhaps “benign neglect” is not all that benign. What does it mean, for example, when the biographer writes:

Hon. Judge Orion J. Douglass holds the distinction of being the first man of African-American descent to serve as an elected judge of State Court, only the tenth jurist in this position. Created in 1895 by an act of legislation in the General Assembly, the State Court was originally called the “City Court of Brunswick.” The first judge, Samuel Carter Atkinson (1864-1942), seen at right, presided from 1896 to 1900.

What are we to conclude from the fact that the image of a person, who sat on the bench for a mere four years over a century ago is featured, while Judge Douglass, who, as it happens, is still taking rotation on the court in 2015, is nowhere to be seen? Wherefore the praise for a man who…

Judge Orion Douglass
Judge Orion Douglass

upheld the doctrine of stare decisis (to abide by or adhere to decided cases) and was adamant about the importance of construing the law so that a law-abiding citizen had no doubt about the correct path.

What prompts an author to wander from the first African-American judge to such drivel? Is she merely honoring the expectations of her audience, the people who shared pictures from their private collections?

Which leads me to the hypothesis that the pervasive patterns of deception, albeit endemic to the corporate objective of avoiding risk, may actually arise initially out of a rather prevalent preference for deceiving oneself. “Misery loves company.” Perhaps misery also wants company and “failure by design” is the recipe for getting there. Shared loss is what heritage is all about. Come, let us commiserate together!

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[1] Attribution to this is mixed. Some attribute to Winston Churchill, others to Walter Benjamin.

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Image Credits: The photo of the Port of Brunswick is by Jaxfl via Wikipedia.org (public domain); the photo of Judge Samuel C. Atkinson from The Atkinson Family Tree (public domain); the photo of Judge Orion Douglass is from his Linkedin page (appearing to be his official photo/public domain).

Monica Smith

Monica Smith writes Hannah's Blog. Born in Germany, she came to the United States as a child, living first in California, then after an interval in Chile, in New York. Married to a retired professor at the University of Florida, where she lived for 17 years, she moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia, in 1993 and now divides her time between Georgia and New Hampshire. (New Hampshire, she says, is always interesting during a presidential election.) She and her husband have three children and five grandchildren. Ms. Smith says she "learned long ago that I am not a good team player when I got hired at the Library of Congress, fresh out of college with a degree in political science and proficiency in four foreign languages, to 'edit' library cards and informed my supervisor that if she was going to insist I punch the clock exactly on time, my productivity was going to fall from being the highest to being the same as everyone else's. The supervisor opted to assign me to another building where there was no time-clock. After I had the first of our three children, I decided a paycheck wasn't worth the hassle."