The Okefenokee Swamp . . . narrated by Pernell Roberts
Part Three of Southeast Georgia and the World of Pernell Roberts
Note: The packet of photocopies sent to me by a law firm in San Francisco, about two weeks after Pernell Roberts’ death in 2010, contains quite a bit of intimate information on him that either is left out of his Wikipedia bio or actually conflicts with it. The difference is that this packet was prepared by either him personally or perhaps by a secretary under his supervision. The value of this information will become more evident in a forthcoming article of this series on “Being Native American in a Segregated South.”
Until the 1960s, fingers of the Okefenokee Swamp penetrated into the southern and southeastern edges of the city of Waycross. It was quite common for alligators and poisonous snakes to sneak up into the yards of homes in Cherokee Heights. At age six, with a butcher knife I cut off the head of a cottonmouth moccasin that dropped into my flat-bottomed canoe, while I was paddling alone in the swamp next to present day Baltimore Ave. in Waycross. At this time, Baltimore, like most residential streets in the newer parts of Waycross, was paved with sand. Very few streets in the city had been paved since the beginning of the Great Depression. It should be remembered that Pernell Roberts grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. Those traumatic experiences would have definitely shaped his attitude toward life in the South.
The Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was just being made accessible to the general public in the late 1940s, when Pernell Roberts returned home to Waycross after two years in the Marine Corps and then flunking out of Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture. While trying to figure out what to do with his life, he taught Sunday School at Trinity Methodist Church. My mother, herself a young school teacher at Cherokee Heights Elementary School, said that he was a wonderful teacher, but espoused literal statements by Jesus, which conflicted drastically with the political beliefs of the powers-that-be in Waycross at that time. The White Citizens Council secretly dominated the county’s politics. During this period, Pernell seriously considered becoming a Methodist minister. The church thought so highly of the Roberts Family that the members were putting together matching funds for a scholarship to send him to Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
Something happened . . . the “The Life of Pernell Roberts” packet does not provide the details. The first vestiges of the Civil Rights Movement began around 1947 and it reached Trinity Methodist in 1948. There was an incident in Waycross, perhaps even in the church, which made Roberts very disillusioned with what he called in my packet, “the hypocrisy of Christian churches in the South.” He left Waycross suddenly and ended up at the University of Maryland, but did not graduate. However, while at Maryland, he become exposed to acting. He dropped out of the University of Maryland and then studied acting at a famous school in New York City. Several of classmates would become the leading stars of Hollywood and TV in the late 1950s and 1960s. While Pernell was learning the craft of acting, he supported himself as a butcher, tombstone carver and forest ranger . . . among other things.
For the next three decades of his life, Pernell would studiously try to erase his South Georgia accent, plus conceal both his birthplace and Creek Indian ancestry. Like fellow Creek, Carrie Underwood, he minimized exposure to the sun, so he wouldn’t look too “ethnic.”* He stated in the packet that he did not want to be typecast as either a Southern Redneck or an American Indian. Why? He said that until the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was elected President, Southerners and Native Americans almost never got speaking parts in movies. Actors from other regions faked Southern accents for roles portraying Southerners. The only the actor or actress with a significant speaking role in Gone With the Wind, and born in the South was Butterfly McQueen (Prissy). She was born in Tampa, but her family moved to New York City. Male actors with Italian or Jewish heritage typically portrayed Indian chiefs with speaking roles. Native American women were played by Anglo-American or Irish-American women with dyed black hair. *While I was living in Jasper, GA about a decade ago, a female stylist, cutting my hair suggested that I should bleach my hair blond or dye it light brown, so I wouldn’t look “too ethnic.”
Not mentioned in his “Life of Pernell Roberts” packet was that he participated in the 1965 Montgomery to Selma, Alabama March. He was also was the FIRST actor to write national TV networks to demand that they use minority actors to portray minority roles on TV programs. The letter didn’t mention that he was part Creek Indian! LOL As stated above, Pernell was concerned about being typecast. Well, there is so much more the public didn’t know about Pernell Roberts that I did learn from the packet. While in the Marines, he played in the Marine Band. In high school, he was simultaneously a football star, basketball star and played drums in a rock band! He also organized and acted in several plays at Trinity Methodist that drew crowds from many other churches.
Ironically, Navajo Joe, was the first full length movie to have (supposedly) a Native American playing the lead role. It starred Burt Reynolds. As discussed in a previous People of One Fire article, for over 40 years, Burt pretended to have been born in Waycross like Pernell Roberts and either presented himself as a Seminole or Cherokee Indian . . . depending on the circumstances. Throughout much of his life, Burt even claimed to have attended high school with Pernell Roberts. Pernell didn’t remember him and was eight years older, so it would have been impossible for them to be classmates. Burt actually was born in Lansing, Michigan and grew up in southern Florida. He DID spend either some summers or maybe even a couple of years with a relative in Waycross as a teen, but never revealed who that person was. Burt probably did have SOME Native American ancestry, but it was probably a northern tribe. We will probably never know the truth about this fib, which Burt kept most of his life.
Secretly, Pernell DID acknowledge his Creek ancestry and in the 1970s began giving generously to Native American causes. He personally financed the college educations of dozens of Native American young people. (Photo- Upper Left) This is the old Waycross High School, where Pernell attended (Photo -Lower Left) This is a Creek cousin of Pernell with his daughter and me (I am on the right) in front of the old Waycross Auditorium. (Photo – Right) My mother holding me in the gardens of the Williams Mansion. Our family lived in a garage apartment behind this mansion until I was four, when we moved to 1305 Suwanee Drive. The Williams Family owned the Waycross Journal-Herald newspaper. While living in Waycross, my mother was terrified of some neighbor finding out that she had substantial Native ancestry. We will talk more about that in the “Growing up in the Southeast” article. In the next article in this series, we will discuss the little known Native American history of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Pernell Robert’s “coming out” as both a Southerner from Waycross and a Creek descendant did not occur until 1986. He agreed to host a National Geographic TV special on the Okefenokee Swamp, called “Realm of the Alligator“. It was the first time that he ever stated on television that he grew up in Waycross . . . on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. We have included both that documentary and a much more recent one on the Okefenokee Swamp, produced by the BBC.
Facts that both TV documentaries got wrong!
- The word, Okefenokee, is derived from the Itsate Creek words Oka Fenokke, which mean “Water Shaking.” Okefenokee does NOT mean “Land of the Trembling Earth” . . . as all other sources tell you.
- In 1564, the Okefenokee was not a swamp, but a large shallow lake with a large island in it that the French commander at Fort Caroline, René de Laudonnièrre, called Serope. That word in Itsate Creek means “stubborn.” At that time, the North Satilla River was a branch of the Altamaha River, but would flow into the Okefenokee Basin during spring floods. The South Satilla, St. Marys and Suwannee Rivers drained the lake.
- Until the mid-1700s there was a very sacred Oconee-Creek town on that island, which is now called Billy’s Island. It contained a temple dedicated to the invisible sun goddess, Amana. The temple was maintained by priestesses, who were selected for their intelligence and beauty from throughout the Creek realm. The Oconee Creeks believed that their tribe originated in the Okefenokee. Their name means “Born in Water” in the Itsate Creek language. Archaeologists have identified over 70 Indian mounds within the Okefenokee Swamp and along its edge. More about that in the next article!
- In 1776, according to eyewitness William Bartram, the Okefenokee looked much more like a lake than today. In the early spring, when the snow pack on the Georgia Mountains melted, he said that the Okefenokee would swell to three times its normal size and cover most of Southeast Georgia. By the late 1700s, the climate of Georgia had changed starkly. Substantially less snow fell on its mountains. Lake Tama on the Ocmulgee River shrank to become the Little Ocmulgee River Swamp.
- A Creek tribe, called the “Ware County Indians,” continued to live on islands in the Okefenokee Swamp until the 1890s. Northern timber barons suddenly showed up in Waycross and obtained quit claim deeds for the swamp in order to harvest its virgin cypress trees . . . almost worth their weight in gold. No one had ever thought of legally claiming ownership to the swamp. Most of the Creeks were thrown off their ancestral islands, but some families continued to live on the edge of the swamp or in one of the towns nearby.
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