Shall We Gather At The River

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Here, where the water meets the land, our past often lingers in our present. Allison Hersh sets out in search of the community spirit that inspired the Pin Point Heritage Museum. Photography by Katie McGee.

Women once picked crab at the A.S. Varn & Son Factory in Pin Point while rocking their babies to sleep in make-do bassinettes crafted from crab pots. Every afternoon, men would return from sea in wooden bateaus heavy with hauls of fresh oysters in the winter and live crabs in the summer.

Today, that lifestyle only exists in a museum.

With its iconic red roof jutting out over the Moon River, the white cinderblock building that once housed Varn & Son now shares the story of the Pin Point community through interactive displays, live demonstrations and the words of the people who have called the neighborhood home for generations.  The oyster and crab cannery once served as Pin Point’s economic engine, supplying jobs to neighborhood residents and seafood to some of the nation’s finest restaurants.  The factory closed in 1985 but, every Saturday, museum visitors can tour the original site, tucked away to the south of the Diamond Causeway on the way from downtown to The Landings.

Founded in 1890 by freed slaves from nearby Ossabaw, Skidaway, Pigeon and Green islands, Pin Point—so named because of its tiny size—is perhaps best known as the birthplace of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  Its importance, however, is far greater than the legacy of one individual.  Due to its strong traditional ties to West Africa, cultural historians, anthropologists and sociologists revere this tightly knit community as one of the nation’s last remaining Gullah-Geechee waterfront havens.

It’s a sunny afternoon when I step outside the gates of the museum, charmed by my tour and eager to experience the place itself.  As I turn left and walk down Pin Point Avenue, I wonder what I will find.  What remains of the old ways?  What toll has the 21st century taken on this historic enclave?  Are outsiders even welcome here?

A Welcoming Party

My anxiety dissipates when I’m swiftly surrounded by five locals eager to share Pin Point’s lore.  Beneath a dense canopy of live oak and pine trees, on the front porches of modest cinderblock homes and amid a chorus of crowing roosters, I immediately feel the deep sense of connection that has taken root over the course of many generations.

Earl Haynes, a tall, slim 64-year-old with skin smoother than that of a man half his age, freely shares memories of growing up in a neighborhood where everyone felt like part of one extended family.  For this fifth-generation resident, often lovingly referred to as “the Mayor of Pin Point,” this area was a childhood utopia.

“It was always, ‘If I have something, you got it,’” he reminisces.  “Everybody was pretty much the same.  That relationship is still alive and well.”

Nicknamed “Weasel” and “Eye” because he was a skinny child with big eyes, Earl, now wearing dark shades, remembers when his grandmother walked to work at the oyster and crab factory.  He recalls watching women carry oversized bundles of firewood and full buckets of water on their heads, reflecting their West African roots.  He tells me larger-than-life stories about his one-armed uncle, who built boats by hand, and his grandfather, who swam from Skidaway Island to Pin Point at low tide.

“Everybody grew up with a connection to the water,” he explains, tilting his head toward the river.

Just One of Us

Archie Varn, also known as “Mr. Archie” and “Old Man Varn,” owned the canning factory and is remembered as a benevolent employer.  Known for his generosity and kindness to local residents, Mr. Archie bought the uniforms, shoes and bats for kids to play baseball and even took employees and their families to Atlanta and Washington, D.C., to watch major league baseball games.

“He was a good man in the neighborhood,” recalls Rebecca Bonds Bowen—better known as “Miss Sula”—who is now an elder herself.  “He looked out for a lot of people.”

Back then, Clarence Thomas—Earl’s first cousin—was just another neighborhood kid, known to all by the nickname “Boy.”  According to Earl, the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice lived in Pin Point with his family until their house burned down when Clarence was about 8 years old, and the family moved to Savannah’s east side.

I ask Earl if there were any early indications Clarence was destined to be famous.

“Definitely not,” he chuckles, casually adjusting his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose.  “He was just one of us.”

The Family Feeling

Just up the street from the museum at Pin Point Hall—a nondescript, beige cinderblock structure with barbecue grills outside and a tin roof overhead—I ask Pin Point Heritage Museum interpreter Gail Smith to describe a typical Friday or Saturday night in the neighborhood.

“There’s a party and there is always food,” she tells me with a smile. “Everybody is friendly, warm and embracing.”

Gail—a stunning beauty with a talent for writing poetry—still lives on the same property where she grew up and raised her daughter, Jasmine.  Every Saturday, she offers museum tours to the public, translating the Gullah language and giving visitors a sense of what makes this community special.

“Pin Point is about enjoying the simple things in life,” she enthuses, her eyes dreamy and her voice thick with emotion.  “You can borrow a cup of sugar and get a ride to the store if your car is broken down.  It’s about the simple friendliness of life.  We have a jewel here.”

Gail loves the family feeling that defines her community.  She has fond memories of swimming in the creek every summer, attending lawn parties and eating fresh seafood, pulled from the river or the marsh.

Sweetfield of Eden Baptist Church, which is still home to an active congregation, organized regular bus trips for local kids to go to Disney World, Myrtle Beach, Jekyll Island and Six Flags in Atlanta.  When her family didn’t have enough money to send her on a bus trip one year, Gail was heartbroken.

“I was 12 years old, sitting on the front porch, crying,” she remembers.  “Two of our neighbors bought my ticket to go on the bus ride and gave me money for food to eat.  I will never forget that.  Pin Point is the kind of place where you feel like everyone is your auntie, your grandmother, your sister or your brother.”

Bounty From the Sea

As the oldest daughter in her family, Miss Sula learned to skin a raccoon, make saltwater turtle soup, prepare deviled crab and cook oyster purloo—a thick Lowcountry stew—from her elders.

“We do it like the old folks taught us to do,” she says with a smile that flashes a hint of gold.  “I learned from watching everybody and paying attention.  We do it the natural way, the real way.”

Isaac Martin, a revered crab net maker nicknamed “Boney D,” nods his head in enthusiastic agreement.

“New Orleans can’t touch the food here,” he enthuses.

He praises the culinary innovation of the women in the community, who typically prepared three meals a day for their husbands in addition to working full-time at the canning factory.

“They could take anything and make a meal,” Isaac raves, his fingers opening wide for emphasis as he recalls the culinary innovation defining everyday life in this waterfront community. “Anything.”

Earl agrees, adding: “In Pin Point, you ate off the land.  You’d eat crab, shrimp, fish and turtles.  Fried eel was a delicacy.”

For Miss Sula, the expert preparation of meals made with fresh coastal ingredients offers the deepest insight into the heart and soul of Pin Point.

“We were very blessed,” she says of the place that nourished her mind, body and spirit.  “There was always food.  We ain’t never starved around here.  Pin Point was a blessed community.”

The word “was” lingers in my mind, chilling me for a moment, but I shake it off and follow my hosts up the road.

The Power of Play

At “Dog’s Retreat and Country Club”—an informal series of six miniature golf holes set up in Isaac’s yard—neighborhood residents gather to tee off with homemade clubs fashioned from wooden sticks, as well as with more conventional golf clubs.  This is serious business, with each player making three rounds on the green squares of outdoor carpet carefully set in the dirt.

“It’s a way to keep us together,” Isaac explains.  “We have a whole lot of fun here.”

Neighborhood men, women and children take turns putting, testing their mettle on this makeshift course.

Each golfer has his or her own perspective on the qualities that best define their neighborhood.  Tania Smith-Jones, who oversees exhibits and schedules tours as the site administrator at the Pin Point Heritage Museum, recalls 13 freewheeling childhood summers crabbing and spending time “out in the country” with her mother’s relatives in Pin Point.

“I’d walk this road, day or night, and I never had to worry about my parents tracking me,” she laughs, her voice rich with memories of teenage freedom as she takes a swing at the golf ball. “It was very different than living in Savannah the rest of the year.”

As we watch the game, I ask Miss Sula what the neighborhood was like before the advent of electricity, when life was much harder.

“I remember when Pin Point was a dirt road and the women would come down the street with a bucket on their head to work in the factory.”  She levels her gaze with mine. “That was for real.  Those were strong women back then.”

The Spirit Moves

As we reach the end of Pin Point Avenue, I glimpse the humble architecture of Sweetfield of Eden Baptist Church, which still serves as the epicenter of religious life for many Pin Point residents.  This house of worship has a devoted congregation united by a love of God and a commitment to community.

“Being baptized was a ceremonial process that went on for a whole month,” Gail explains, raising her eyebrows.  “You weren’t allowed to watch TV or listen to the radio.  I had to pray in the woods at midnight and kneel facing east as a tribute to the African homeland.”

Although the Baptist religion runs deep in Pin Point, African folk traditions run even deeper.

“The natural herbs and religious beliefs and customs were passed down through the Gullah tradition,” Gail explains.

Earl remembers his grandmother asking him to collect spider webs to help heal wounds.  If he stepped on a nail, his relatives would wrap a penny in bacon fat and place it on the wound to prevent lockjaw.  If he developed a fever, they would turn to African folk remedies—like mullein or sassafras root—to offer relief.

A Fragile Future?

From culinary innovations to spiritual traditions, Pin Point has nurtured its residents for generations.  This waterfront haven might not look like much to the outsider’s eye, but it offers timeless lessons about what really matters most in life: family and friendship, connection and community.

“Our ancestors worked hard to own this land,” Gail whispers to me, her eyes filled with emotion.  “There’s no price you can put on this.  I wouldn’t trade it for all the money in the world.”

I’m inspired by what I’ve seen in Pin Point but, as we walk back to my car, I can’t help but feel concerned about the neighborhood’s future.  My new friends and their families no longer can walk to work in the old way.  They no longer can harvest enough food from local waters to fill their dinner tables.  They face the same technological temptations and family trials we all do.  Will this rich Gullah-Geechee tradition continue, or will present-day Pin Point soon exist only as a museum exhibit?

As soon as I think this, I remember the core cultural institutions I’ve seen—the humble community center, the improvised “golf club” and the powerful church.  I look at the faces around me.  I realize that Pin Point thrives because its residents choose togetherness.  They work at it every day, and that’s a lesson for all of us.