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Looking Back to the Future

A Georgia hamlet with deep African American roots struggles to document its heritage as a legal bulwark against creeping development.

May 01, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

SANDFLY, Ga. — The fish and hush puppies are frying hot, and in the kitchen of Cecelia Aris, a family discussion sizzles, too.

It is of the past. Not last year's past, but the one reaching back farther than anyone in the room was alive to remember, the misty back-then when black folks like Aris' ancestors worked as slaves along the Georgia coast, then became free and turned their labors to the building of a community.

The place was called Sandfly, a marshy speck named for a gnat, and the two dozen or so families who lived here more than a century ago are represented still: Luten, Golden, Jones, Kemp, Grant, among others. From lowly beginnings grew a tight enclave of carpenters, fishermen and maids. They raised backyard chickens and vegetables, hustled their children into church on Sundays and preached the value of school, even if a segregated one.

Sandfly developed sturdy, middle-class legs, with residents inhabiting tracts handed down since emancipation. They gave little thought to its history, which, given the slave origins, tended to be a hazy pursuit -- full of told tales and contradictions and shrugs.

But they are worrying now. Encroaching development, exemplified by plans for a parkway and a Wal-Mart shopping center, has stoked an outcry among residents over the future of Sandfly, and its village air.

Theirs is not a splashy struggle over a renowned landmark, for Sandfly has none. It instead centers on more amorphous notions -- such as community and a shared past -- in an out-of-the-way place that mattered only to the blacks who lived there.

There remains an old-style neighborly closeness, born of a long kinship, along Sandfly's narrow streets, even among modern ranch homes and shiny SUVs. Nobody wondered why the church secretary was weeping during a recent Sunday service -- they all knew she had just lost her mother.

"Everybody knows everybody," said Herbert Kemp, 71, who lives on land his family has held for 120 years. "They say it takes a village to raise a child. It's been like that here for as long as I can remember."

Residents have gone to court to turn back the projects, gaining a temporary halt in the building of a highway exchange that would serve the proposed shopping center. Some Sandfly families have been moved to make room for the road, called the Truman Parkway.

The proposed store would sit on a wooded 52-acre lot, seven miles south of downtown Savannah. Opponents fear it will spell a commercial takeover of Sandfly, which now has about 2,000 residents, two gas stations, a couple of restaurants and a Piggly Wiggly market in a small shopping center.

At stake, too, residents say, is the under-appreciated history of a tiny African American community -- a history they now hope to preserve. First they must collect it.

To that end, Sandfly residents are plumbing their memories, dredging up pictures and articles -- and trying to agree on the boundaries of the roughly 2-square-mile community. Most of it sits in unincorporated Chatham County, though a piece belongs to Savannah.

Beneath a canopy of live oaks and tired Spanish moss, Sandfly in places feels far removed from the world outside. Modest homes line streets bearing the names of the oldest families. The few churches are pocket-sized. Dogwoods and azaleas decorate an unpaved road, not far from where a pecan orchard once stood. The tidal marsh reminds that the ocean sits near, too.

But the slow spread of subdivisions and strip malls has already surrounded Sandfly, making it difficult to tell where it begins. Residents maintain that the two development projects would spell the demise of what's left.

The quest for the past isn't tidy, as was clear at the Aris home recently when she and an aunt noisily tried to sort out whether their ancestor, who settled in Sandfly, could have been a slave or the child of a slave. But they agreed on the need today to preserve Sandfly's sense of itself.

"No one thought of Sandfly as being historical, as being an entity that you need to consider. When we say we want to preserve our history, we want to preserve not only what my great-grandmother did, we want to preserve it for our children and grandchildren," said Aris, who is 40 and works for a human-resources firm.

"We fought for this community," she said. The effort has yielded some success. Sandfly recently won recognition from the Georgia Historical Society, and a marker is to be erected here May 10. The marker doesn't offer many tangible benefits, but shows that outsiders are acknowledging Sandfly's history. The community plans a celebration.

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