A black man and his family, before the turn of the twentieth century, left Liberty County one summer in the dead of night and were never again seen in the county. Their relatives and friends feared fowl play, until the man wrote a letter of explanation to one of his relatives.
It seems the family moved without warning because a hoot owl for three nights in a row perched on the roof of their home and hooted away all night. The frightened family assumed that somebody had put a voodoo curse on them, and left quickly to avoid what they feared would be a terrible death.
White persons in Liberty County laughed when they heard the story, but black persons in the county heard the story soberly and quietly. They had heard of such occurrences, and knew that fears of the family were based on voodoo beliefs which most white persons did not understand.
It might be significant that Robert M. (“Bob”) Martin printed the story on the front page of the Liberty County Herald. The Savannah Morning News reprinted the story a few days later. Both newspapers were aware that nothing was so feared by so many black persons residing along the Georgia coast as voodoo and hoodoo.
One of the most tangible reminders of the Works Program Administration, a relief program during the depression years, is a book titled Drums and Shadows. It was compiled by several writers employed by the WPA to document supernatural beliefs of black persons residing along the South Carolina and Georgia coast. They chose the locale because the practice of voodoo and hoodoo was common among such people since the earliest days of slavery.
The writers of Drums and Shadows came to Sunbury in 1938 and conducted interviews, which they transferred to print in the “Gullah” or “Geechee” dialect. It is here translated into normal English for the benefit of the reader. The interviewers had to approach their subject obliquely, because the practice of voodoo and hoodoo was secret and few black persons would discuss it.
The interviewers asked where local churches had their baptisms. “The Sunbury Baptist Church and the Palmyra Baptist Church,” they were told, “have their baptisms right other there in the Sunbury River. The preacher comes out from Savannah in a long white robe. He marches into the river and those to be baptized march in after him. This always happens when the tide is going out, so the sins will be washed away.”
When asked about burial customs, the black persons said they still had “sitting-ups” for those who died. “We all sit with the body,” they said, “and sing and pray to keep the spirit company.”
The writer had heard in other coastal communities that when a person died away from home, his body was brought back home for burial. “Everybody wants to be buried in their own place,” the black people said, “and we never bury strangers with our folks. If a stranger dies here, we bury him in the strangers’ lot.”
One black man said that they had to be careful about spirits. “The spirit,” he said, “is hungry just like a person. You have to put food with the dead person or the spirit will get hungry and come back and haunt you.”
After such an innoxious beginning, the interviewers then directed questions to the black persons about darker matters. They were assured that when a person dies his spirit does not go with the body to the grave. “It just wanders around and comes out when there is a new moon,” one black woman said. All of the other black persons present agreed with the woman and said the spirits appeared at dusk and in the middle of night.
“I see them all the time,” a black man said. “They do not hurt you. They will walk along with you, and some of them have a head and some do not.”
From spirits the interviews progressed to even darker subjects, such as conjure, evil roots, and counter charms. When the writer mentioned these things, all members of the group .glanced slyly at each other. After a long time they volunteered information on the subjects in lowered voices.
“We hear about people ‘rooting” each other all the time,” one member of the group said. “You have to be careful and wear a dime or a penny tied around your ankle. When it turns black you know somebody’s trying to ‘root’ you.”
The interviewers then asked what conjures were made of. “The heaviest root I know,” one woman said, “was a conjure made of some oily stuff in a bottle. The enemy catches the person’s spirit in the bottle. The person becomes ill and has to see a root doctor.”
One member of the group warned that nobody should carry a rake or a hoe through their home, because that was a “bad sign.” But, he explained, it was not bad luck if a person wore a “Lucky Heart.” He said they all carried “Lucky Hearts” and “Lucky Mojoes” to ward off evil spirits.
The interviewers had heard that black persons along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia had harvest festivals. They asked about this practice, and one member of the group confirmed that at harvest time they did have “parties and suppers.” The member said, “We do the Snake Hip, the Buzzard Lope, the Fish Tail, the Fish Bone, and the Camel Walk.” The writers could not persuade any members of the black group to demonstrate the dances.
The writers told the black persons that they wanted to learn about strange things that happened many years before. One woman in the group suggested that they visit an old black man named “Uncle Jonah.” They found him seated in front of his cabin on the Midway River.
Uncle Jonah told the writers that he thought he was about 80 years old. He said he was born on a plantation at Harris Neck, but had lived at Sunbury for the past 60 years. He was asked if he remembered any slaves from Africa. He said he could remember two.
“Their names were Ben and Sally,” he recalled, “and when it thundered they would say it was ‘mauling a bumba.’ I remember hearing about a boatload of black people brought from Africa to Sunbury. There were kept locked up below and when they were taken off the ship, they ‘took wing’ and flew back to Africa.”
The old man said he had heard some strange things about dead people. This is one story he told:
“There were two friends who were brought from Africa to this plantation. One of them died and was buried without the other one knowing about it. When he heard about the burial he made the people dig up the dead man so he could say some words over him. They reburied him after he said goodbye.”
Uncle Jonah was asked about voodoo and hoodoo. He said he did not “mess around” with that sort of thing anymore. He maintained that there was much more “conjuring” around Sunbury when he was a boy than in 1938.
The writers interviewed a black woman at Sunbury on the subject of dead people. She said the only food offered to people “sitting up” with a corpse was bread and coffee. She also said that when she was young “We used to dance all the time to the drums. We would dance around and around in a circle and clap our hands at dances on Saint Catherines Island.” She was asked how people on the mainland knew about a dance on the island.
“They beat the drums on the island,” she explained, “and they were heard at Harris Neck. The people there would tell us about the dance and we would go over in a boat and dance until dawn.”
The interviewers asked the woman about voodoo and hoodoo. She told them about an incident she said happened recently near Sunbury. “I saw it with my own eyes,” she claimed. “There was an old man who was having trouble with his eyes. He found a small doll under his doorsteps with its finger stuck in its eye. He threw the doll in the river and had no more trouble with his eyes.”
The same woman told the writers that it was a common occurrence for “folks to have witches ride them at night.” She said she had had a personal encounter with a witch, but declined to talk about it.
There were old black persons in Liberty County in 1984 who still believed in the power of voodoo and hoodoo. Some of them routinely went through rituals supposed to ward off “evil spirits” and “curses” put on them by their enemies.
Some older residents of Liberty County in 1984 still poured a ring of salt around their home to ward off “evil spirits.” Their theory was that the spirits are without skins and the salt would so irritate the open flesh that they would go away.
It is more than likely that poisonous plants found in coastal Georgia were once secretly used by voodoo and hoodoo people to make a person ill and even die. It is also more than likely that other herbs were used as antidotes after a poisonous plant was dried and put into a target’s food without his knowledge. The voodoo and hoodoo people, therefore, gained a reputation for having the power to make a person ill or die, or cause them to recover from a “spell.”
Items such as “mojoes” and “gopher-dust” to ward off evil spirits, and “potions” to cast evil spells, could be bought from traveling salesmen in Liberty County, and in a store on West Broad Street in Savannah, Georgia, as late as 1970. There is one cemetery in liberty County with a tombstone engraved with voodoo markings.