Growing up Native American in a segregated South
Part Seven of the Series, Southeast Georgia and the World of Pernell Roberts
In February 2010, a law firm in San Francisco sent me a large manilla envelope, packed to the brim with photocopies, which described actor Pernell Roberts’ life, beginning to end . . . except it contained NOTHING about his childhood in Waycross, Georgia. It jumps from his birth in 1928 to his freshman year at Waycross High School. The packet was essentially, the memoir of Pernell Roberts that he never wrote. He obviously had something to do with its content, because the brief accompanying note from the law firm said that “he wanted me to have this.” Pernell was, of course among many things, Adam Cartwright on the hit TV series, “Bonanza,” which ran from 1959 to 1973. However, few people knew that he was a man, who almost became a Methodist minister and who throughout his life was an activist for promoting a peaceful and egalitarian society in the United States. He paid the cost of college tuition for many Native American students throughout his life.
One of the biggest shocks from reading the photocopies was that Pernell had been a Sunday School teacher at Trinity Methodist Church in Waycross in 1948, where I later became a youthful member. I knew that many of his relatives were members of the church, but his name was never mentioned at the church. His father had dropped me head first on a concrete floor, when I was six months old. His father owned a business that shared a party wall with my parent’s business on Oak Street in Waycross. That’s the only Roberts name that was discussed. Gunsmoke had been on the air for a couple of years before many people in Georgia knew that the state had a Native son, who was a nationally famous TV star. In fact, Pernell was the first white southerner to have leading role in a TV series . . . except that he really wasn’t Pure White. In addition to keeping his Southern origin a secret for a long time, Pernell told no one that he had substantial Creek Indian heritage.
An photocopied article from a Californian newspaper stated that Pernell suddenly cancelled his plans to study for Methodist ministry at Emory University in Atlanta then resigned his position as a Sunday School teacher. He then moved to Washington, DC and soon enrolled in the University of Maryland . . . but never graduated. Another article stated that he had become disillusioned with the hypocrisy of Southern churches in their ongoing support of segregation. That’s all. Nowhere in the packet was I told that after leaving the cast of Gunsmoke at the peak of its popularity in 1965, Pernell Roberts immediately became a participant in the famous 1965 Civil Rights March from Montgomery to Selma. There is great significance in the contemporaneous nature of those two acts. However, Pernell’s photocopy memoir is totally silent on what he experienced in Waycross that made him a Civil Rights activist.
In 1960, Andy Griffith became the second white Southerner to star in an American TV series. In 1966, Burt Reynolds became the second Southerner to star in a movie . . . “Navajo Joe.” The first was Norvell Hardy of the 1940s comedy team, Laurel and Hardy. Hardy was born in Harlem, GA near Augusta, but always faked a British accent to match the authentic British accent of his comedian partner, Stan Laurel.
Substituting my own childhood memories
Since Pernell was silent about his childhood memories, I am going to relate some of mine. I think that a major impetus for Pernell desiring to play the roles of other people, was his lifelong inability to articulate those concealed, apparently dark, childhood experiences. Of course, I grew up in Georgia during a later generation, but I don’t think that there were any significant changes in the situation until after 1965, when the first Civil Rights Act was passed.
There was no real change in the situation for Southern Native Americans until 1971, when Georgia’s newly elected governor, Jimmy Carter, immediately demanded that the General Assembly abolish all punitive laws against American Indians and then called for the state to set up a process to recognize American Indian tribes, which had been “erased” by federal policies. Nevertheless, it can be safely said that the national media and Hollywood consistently simplified the cultural situation in the South and stereotyped all Southerners into less-than-human cartoon characters. Consistently, until the 1970’s, white and black Southerners were portrayed as ignorant provincials, while Native American Southerners were long extinct. The truth was that there were a whole bunch of awfully nice folks in the South like the citizens of Mayberry portrayed in the Andy Griffith Show . . . then there were and still are those Southerners obviously possessed by demons.
This is the author at age 10 months in front of a block of buildings on Oak Street in Waycross. My parents moved to Waycross in 1947, after my birth certificate father graduated with a law degree from the University of Georgia. My mother taught school but co-owned a restaurant with him and Earl Ray, one of his law school classmates. On the far left is my parents’ short order restaurant. In the middle is the Roberts Insurance Agency. During most of his life up to that time, Pernell’s farther had been a worker or salesman for either the Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper soft drink franchises in Waycross. At some time in the past, the block of buildings in the photo were torn down. . . first to make an unpaved parking lot and then to build Waycross’s current police station.
Segregation was taught to Southern children as something created by God . . . kinda like we were told that it was God’s will that there would be a few rich people and most everybody else was struggling to survive. It did not come natural . . . especially if you were a covert Native American. Here is where the national media just didn’t get it. Segregation was one thing. Racial hatred was another. I was trained from an early age by my grandparents and parents to treat Colored People with respect as fellow human beings and to never, ever use the N word. On the other hand racial segregation was treated as something natural that the rich families had wisely ordained to maintain the plan of God. Only trouble was that some of us, even at early age, began to read Jesus’s actual words . . . and like Pernell Roberts, we quickly figured out that our elders were lying to us about a lot of things . . . especially racial hatred and segregation.
See those dark objects against the wall on the far left of the photo of the stores on Oak Street in Waycross? Those were public water fountains. Public drinking fountains are virtually extinct now in the Southeast, but they were endemic in the mid-20th century. They were installed in cities when the first municipal water systems were constructed at the turn of the century. The original fountain had only been for whites. Then after World War II as a gesture to Colored veterans, the city of Waycross installed a new fountain for whites then re-installed the old fountain about six inches lower and put up a sign saying “Colored Only.” Thus, Colored citizens would have to stoop over more to drink water . . . as a sign of submission to White People.
One of my first acts of rebellion against Satan was to intentionally drink water from the Colored water fountain in front of the restaurant. It was lower and so much easier for a six year old kid to utilize. My mother was horrified at first, moaning that if customers saw me drinking Colored water they wouldn’t come back to the restaurant. However, several of my friends followed suit for the same reason. It was easier to drink from the lower fountain. After awhile, most folks ignored us . . . thinking that we were too young to understand God’s plans. However, pretty soon we began to question several other aspects of the world, our elders had created. More about that later.
They treated us worse than the coloreds
Scattered throughout my grandparents’ house were American Indian baskets and pottery, made by my grandmother when she was a young woman. My grandfather displayed some of his best wood bowls, but the best one was used by my grandmother to make huge sourdough biscuits each morning. In the old office desk by the door of the family room in their house was a shoe box filled with late 19th and early 20th century photographs. What confused us all was that sometimes Granny Rubby’s family and ancestors would be dressed like Seminole Indians. In other photos, they were dressed in the typical clothes of that era. Whenever, we asked her about those photos or our Native heritage, she would typically answer . . .
“I don’t want to talk about it. They treated us worse than the Coloreds!”
My mother’s Native ancestry was from Northeast Georgia, but originated in the Lower Savannah River Basin. Granny Ruby’s Creek & Uchee ancestors were living just north of Savannah and in the vicinity of Lexington, SC when Georgia was settled. In the early 1750s, they moved to immediately south of Augusta then in 1773 to Ruckers Bottom on the Savannah River in Elbert County, GA. Grandpa Obie’s Native ancestors were Pee Dee (aka Hillabee Creeks) from the Catawba River Basin in northern South Carolina. We didn’t know that her real name was Mahala, which means “teacher” in Creek, until about two weeks before her death. In fact, she was the fifth generation of Bone women named Mahala.
After she died, my uncle Hal became the Keeper of the Family and did much to unravel our Native heritage. He hired a Creek genealogist from Oklahoma and spent a great deal of time talking to old-timers in Elbert County. Until then no one realized how many Creek families lived near the Savannah and Broad Rivers in Elbert, Madison and Hart Counties until Lake Russell was constructed. Each family tried to keep it a secret.
All of the Uchee and Creek families in that region generally traced their continued presence to “veteran’s” reserves that were granted to those, who fought with honor in the American Revolution, Cherokee Wars, War of 1812 or Redstick War. The Bone Family had assembled over 3,000 acres of such reserves by the mid-19th century. The veteran’s reserves were completely immune to Creek land cessions and the Trail of Tears. The Bones also credited the Methodist Church for protecting its American Indian members during the various pogroms against the Northeast Georgia Creeks, whenever their kin in Florida, the Seminoles, were at war with the United States. A family myth grew up that our ancestors were converted to Methodist Christianity by none other than the Rev. John Wesley. It is highly unlikely, since when John Wesley preached to them at Palachicola, Pon Pon and Salketcher, he was not a Methodist. Furthermore, Wesley was told by the elders that they were already Christians (probably converted by French Huguenots) but preferred to worship in the open air.
It seems that these Itsate Creek-Uchee families had been viewed as heroes in the late 1700s and 1800s because they protected their white neighbors from Cherokee raids during the American Revolution and Upper Creek raids in the 1780s and early 1790s. Many of the young Creek men served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, even though they didn’t have slaves. All of my maternal gg-grandfathers were in one of the most famous Confederate units of all . . . Cobb’s Legion. It was featured in the movie, “Gods and Generals.” Its battle flag was adopted as today’s Georgia flag. I seriously doubt that any of the people, who fought to get the Army of Virginia’s Battle Flag removed from the Georgia flag had a clue that they instead had adopted the battle flag of a special unit within the Army of Northern Virginia. The only difference is 11 stars versus 13 stars today.
Just about the time that my grandmother was born in 1898, demons took possession of Georgia. Suddenly, the whites in Northeast Georgia and Northwest South Carolina turned on their Uchee-Creek neighbors. Within a few years, the white trash kids in Elberton began throwing mud and manure at my grandmother and her siblings when they rode into town on the back of mule wagons. Mahala took a “white” name, Ruby, but still was not allowed to go into town anymore. The Creek children were not allowed to attend public school, so for eight years my grandmother attended a school in the basement of the Ruckersville Methodist Church, taught by the minister, who had a Doctor of Theology degree from Emory University. Back then most rural public school teachers only had two years of “Normal School” beyond high school.
Then, just before World War I, some wealthy landowners decided that they wanted the rich bottomland farms that the Bone Family owned. A group of white trash thugs were hired to rape and torture my grandmother’s 16 year old sister. She was then hung from a tree at the edge of Ruckers Bottom. Just like is often the case today in the Southeast, the local law enforcement, aka the Sheriff, was in the pocket of the wealthy white planters. Nothing was done by the sheriff to arrest the murderers. It was assumed that the Creeks would quickly leave the region after this act of terrorism. That didn’t happen . . . and ultimately, my grandfather would become a county commissioner. By the late 20th century, my grandmother had become one of the most respected women in her town of Bowman. She earned the equivalent of about $30,000 a year today, making and selling fried, dried fruit pies. She and my grandfather kept separate checking accounts, but had a very happy, love-filled marriage.
Don’t tell anyone that we are Indians
One of my most poignant memories from childhood occurred when I was about five years old. I was sitting in the hallway between the kitchen and the dining area. My mother received a telephone call late one afternoon from a federal government official. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. She began looking frightened then at the end told the person, “Thank you sir, but I don’t want anybody to know we are Indians.”
My mother had been offered a 120 acre farm in Oklahoma, which had a 100 acres of fruit trees. This was to be partial compensation from the Creek Docket for a couple thousand acres stolen from the family in the 1800s, because they were Indians. When she was a teenager, the same program had paid her $38 in compensation.
Indians? We are Indians? What immediately came to mind was a cowboy and Indians movie, with my ancestors rising across the prairie hunting buffalo. I asked her what kind of Indians were we?
Still agitated, she answered, “I’m not really sure, but Uncle Earl said that we might be Seminoles or Creeks. That’s one of the reasons that he moved down to Plant City, Florida so he could blend in with the Seminoles down there. Don’t you dare tell the neighbors that we are Indians. I’ll spank you if you do!”
I was excited and asked her if I could have an Indian war bonnet for my birthday. She said no, but if I would promise to not tell the neighbors about the phone call, she would be take me tothe movie theater next weekend to see the new Davie Crockett movie and would buy me a coonskin cap. FURTHER MORE, Mama Ruby had told her that the textile plant in Bowman was now making Davie Crockett simulated buckskin shirts and pants. If I was a good boy and still hadn’t told the neighbors by the time of my birthday, she would give me an entire Davie Crockett suit! Everyone has a price for silence.
Watching Davie Crockett made me a very confused little boy. Much of the movie had to do with the Creek Redstick War in which Crockett actually had only a marginal role. Most of the movie was filmed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Creeks and Seminoles were portrayed as the bad guys and the “peace-loving Cherokees” were the good guys. The Peace Loving Cherokees were played by Italian and Jewish actors. However, the savage, bloodthirsty Creeks under the command of evil Chief Redstick (yes, really!) were played by Cherokees, wearing Mohawks. At the end, Crockett goes down to Florida to persuade a band of Creeks, who survived the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, to surrender. These were talking roles and were played by real Florida Seminoles, wearing authentic Creek clothing.
That summer we went to Fernandino Beach near Jacksonville, Florida one weekend. An Indian family came up to us while my mother was buying me a corndog. The woman asked my mother if she and I were Seminoles. My mother said no and denied having Indian heritage.
Apparently, my mother did later have some guilt pangs for denying her heritage. That fall, while we were driving up to Atlanta to visit relatives, my parents announced that they were taking me to Ocmulgee Park after we ate barbecue at the famous Pig ‘n Whistle Restaurant. Mother made a point of leading me to a small shed building that covered an Indian king’s grave. She said, “Richard, this could be one of your ancestors!” Now, I was really kornfuzed!
The old Southern aristocracy
Toss out your sophomoric Yankee journalist-created stereotypes of the Olde South dominated by ignorant Boss Hoggs and Klu Klux Klan wizards. What is sorely missing in the region today are aristocrats, such as Jack Williams, Sr. of Waycross. Yes, they accumulated wealth through hard work and intelligent decisions. Yes, they displayed their wealth with beautiful houses and estates . . . but they gave back to the community and even the nation far more than they took. What have today are too many nouveau-riche demagogues, who feign patriotism and whip up idiotic political causes such as “the God-given right to carry guns in church,” in order to fatten their bank accounts and enrich their patrons.
Jack Williams, Sr came Waycross in 1914 during the town’s railroad boom to own the Waycross Herald newspaper. He soon purchased its competitor, the Journal, then started the region’s first radio station. He devoted much of his energy and newspaper editorials to promoting greater economic opportunities for the “Average Joe” in the Waycross Area. There were good wages to be had with the railroad back then, but otherwise, people like Pernell Roberts father barely scraped by and were forced to live in sub-standard housing. Their ambitious children generally left town as soon as they could . . . just like Pernell Roberts. Williams focused his efforts on developing an attractive downtown around the railroad station and residential neighborhoods on the edge of the city, which would provide a high quality of living for new residents.
Williams was a friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After Roosevelt died, Williams played a major role in preserving the Little White House in Warm Springs, GA. It is now a National Historic Landmark. I remember both he and his wife as being kind, gentile people, who treated me like their own grandchild. They allowed me to wander the grounds and often invited me into the mansion for cookies and lemonade. Unfortunately, Williams died in 1957, just as the Atlantic Coast Line was considering consolidation of its shops. With no one of his political stature to bargain for Waycross, most of its good-paying railroad jobs were moved to Jacksonville. The economy of the city and region has never been the same since then. A common complaint about Waycross today is that most of the jobs are either minimum wage or locked up by families, which inherit them from generation to generation.
For the first four years of my life, our family lived in the garage apartment, now called the “carriage house,” which was then one of the most magnificent estates in Georgia . . . the Williams Estate. At that time the estate covered an entire block, which was densely bordered by date palms and semi-tropical flowers. The estate was then shaded by giant long leaf pines, magnolias and live oaks and filled with a wide variety of flowering shrubs such as azaleas, gardenias and camellias.
What’s left of the original landscaping is but a shadow of its former self. The giant long leafs have been replaced by scrub pines and most of the date palms have died. The house was designed by one of Jacksonville’s leading architects and constructed in 1939, when very few people in Waycross had discretionary income. At the time, Pernell Roberts was 11 years old, so I am certain that he rode his bike past there many times, wondering what it was like to live in such a magnificent house, when all he had known all his life were small “shotgun” cottages.
You must see the interior of this house. Unlike the grounds, it has been well maintained. A small fraction of the original estate, which included the carriage house, was on the market earlier this year for $371,000. The same house and estate in Atlanta would be at least $3,700,000. To see about two dozen photos of the house, “carriage house” and interior, go to:
On this matter of skin color
All my neighborhood friends, Laura Lawrence, Elizabeth Bell, Buddy Clayton, Carl Tomberlin, Butch Odum and Mike Ray had blond or red hair with much lighter skin than me. However, kids at church, who were cousins, nieces and nephews of Pernell Roberts had similar features to me. So did the “Swamp Rats” who occasionally ventured out of the edges of the swamp to sell produce on Tebeau Street. I also had Colored playmates, who lived on the other side of the swamp . . . but I never saw them again after we started school, so this many decades later, I don’t remember their names. Mike Ray’s parents, Earl and Aileen, moved to Clarkesville, GA shortly after this photo was made, but we became friends again, when my parents moved to nearby Gainesville at the end of second grade.
When you are young, skin color is conceived in the same way as the color of one’s shirt or coat . . . nothing more. It never dawned on me that my “Colored” playmates were particularly different than me until it came time to go to school. At age six, I couldn’t understand why we all didn’t attend Williams Heights Elementary (as in Jack Williams), since we all lived in nearby Cherokee Heights. My parents did a very poor job of explaining why and so I always thought segregation was hog manure even when my elders said it was God’s Plan. I also liked to play in the stairwells of our church with the children of Trinity’s Colored janitor. Like the situation beheld by Pernell Roberts, I could not understand why the Colored janitor could work in the sanctuary before and after church, but his family could not attend services.
Looking back now, I think that a lot of intelligent young people in the South thought the same way as I did. The only reason why we were not protesting segregation as teenagers was that it had been so deeply drilled into us to not oppose authority. Uneducated or unscrupulous educated Southerners have a real bad tendency to associate religion with very non-religious attitudes. Remember in 2012 when the Republicans were involved with the Mayas In Georgia Thang for a few months. Their first tactic was to hand out fliers in Southern Baptist churches, which presented the Cherokees as good, fundamentalist Christian Conservative Republicans, but the Creeks and Mayas as demonic, Librul Marxist atheists, who wanted to flood North Georgia with illegal aliens. This tactic ended quickly when they were shocked to learn that there were quite a few (very angry) Creek Baptists, while most of us were non-political and Jon Haskell, the man, who had the only videos of the Track Rock site, was a diehard Republican! LOL
My mother planned a gala Sixth Birthday Party for me with at least 32 kids invited. I wanted to invite my Colored playmates from across the swamp and the children of the janitor at Trinity Methodist. My parents had a hissyfit about that. It was one thing to treat Colored People decently in public, but another to have them as guests in your home. Of course, it was okay to have them in your home as maids. I can’t say that her refusal to allow Colored friends was traumatic for me, but it was the first step of a lifetime of rejection and dehumanization for them. I would have no social contacts with African-Americans for the next eleven years. Note that my mother is the only female in the photo above with black hair and that natural blond hair predominated in Waycross back then. I don’t know why.
This is a frightening thought. Both the house, I lived in as a child and its neighborhood, are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. I can see it now . . . some wet-behind-the-ears historic preservation planner will write the following description of the cottage: “This house is historically significant because of being the childhood home of Architect Richard Thornton, who is best known for the Mayas In Georgia Thang, but otherwise was viewed as a crumb-bum by the powers-that-be in Georgia bureaucracies.“
Several of my high school classmates and at least two ex-girlfriends are subscribers of POOF. They can verify this. Because of its extremely high scholastic rating, Lakeshore High was selected as the first high school in the Fulton County, GA system to be integrated. We bragged about being integrated and saw it as a act of youthful rebellion against the old feudal South. There were no problems and within a year, two of the new African-American students were sitting on the Student Council.
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