State News

May 18, 2013

Partnership looks to grow heritage tourism

SAVANNAH (AP) — The temptation is to think that what follows here is the whole story. It’s not, of course. So much happened before the people who later settled in Savannah’s Pin Point community ever reached the shores of Georgia’s barrier islands in the 18th century, so much unfolded even before they were ripped from West Africa, chained and humiliated, and sold in the dusty markets of the new world.

But you have to start somewhere. You have to feel your way along the horizon of history, choose a time and place to pick up the thread and hope it does justice to all that came before.

That is the goal of a unique partnership of three historical sites stretching along the city’s Southside, sites linked not only by geography and purpose, but by their individual and cumulative histories.

In many ways, Ossabaw Island begat Pin Point and Pin Point lent its sea-roughened hands to the evolution of Bethesda Academy from one of the first orphanages in the new American colonies to a school of distinction and a petal in the flowering story of Savannah’s rural life.

“This isn’t just a story,” said Paul Pressly of the Ossabaw Island Education Alliance. “It’s an American story. In some ways, it’s all of our stories.”

Pressly this month joined David Tribble, the president of Bethesda Academy, and Scott Smith of the Coastal Heritage Society at the Pin Point Heritage Museum in the inaugural event of their partnership that seeks to develop heritage and educational tourism in this region.

It seems a natural fit, from the scientific and artistic programs held on Ossabaw, where three tabby slave cabins still stand, to the white-washed splendor of the cozy Pin Point Heritage Museum on the former site of the Varn Oyster Co. along the marshes of the Moon River.

In between, there is the unique story of Bethesda Academy, where generations of Pin Point residents have worked since the Civil War and even attended as students after the school integrated.

The goal, according to those involved in the partnership, is to use their proximity and collective historical connections to develop unique heritage and educational programming at each of the sites that could combine to lure visitors from Savannah and beyond.

“I’m excited by the possibilities the partnership presents,” said Joe Marinelli, president of VisitSavannah. “Savannah’s visitors are generally cultural and heritage-type visitors. Most of that product is in the Historic District, so having this new product develop out on the coast is terrific because it begins to expand the Savannah experience a little bit deeper.

“It gives a little different perspective of the African-American culture and helps tell the more rural history of this area.”

The sites would continue to run independently but would share experiences and expertise in everything from marketing and facilities operation to the use of data bases and online tools.

“The three settings are all very attractive, natural settings,” said Smith, the president and chief executive officer of the Coastal Heritage Society, which oversees the Pin Point Heritage Museum. “They reflect a rural and coastal aspect of Chatham County. There are things relating to the African-American experience at Ossabaw and Pin Point and to another extent, Bethesda. But the story begins in the 1740s in West Africa and from there to Ossabaw.”

Ossabaw Island sits about 20 miles south of downtown Savannah by water or, on a calm day, a 25-minute ride by power boat from Burnside Island. It is roughly 10 miles long and seven miles across at its widest point. It is bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, on the north by the Ogeechee River, St. Catherine’s Sound to the south and the Bear River/Florida Passage of the Intercoastal Waterway to the west.

Now the property of the state of Georgia, it has evolved into an offshore sanctuary for marine scientists and researchers, as well as communal gathering place for writers and artists under the guidance of the Ossabaw Island Foundation and the Ossabaw Island Education Alliance.

The first slaves showed up at Ossabaw in the mid-18th century to work the indigo plantations owned by John Morel Sr.

At the dawn of the Civil War, the approximately 230 slaves on the island moved to the mainland. About 150, now freedmen and women, returned after the war and worked as tenant farmers.

“At the end of the 1890s, a series of hurricanes come through,” Pressly said. “There may have been as much as eight feet of water on the island. They leave and create a descendant community at Pin Point.”

And that ushers in the second chapter of the story, a story told by the exhibits and artifacts in the Pin Point Heritage Museum.

“The people from Pin Point came from Ossabaw and the barrier islands,” said Tania Smith-Jones, site administrator at the Pin Point museum. “Bethesda has a connection to Pin Point as well. It’s amazing that we’re all finally coming together.

It is a tale both novel in its enterprise and common in its American spirit, a tale of a self-sustaining, spiritual, close-knit and free African-American community that carved out its existence not from the land, but from the sea.

“They actually purchased land in Pin Point just after those hurricanes,” said Elizabeth DuBose, director of the Ossabaw Foundation. “When you look at the deed, that’s when they occur, roughly from 1893 to 1896.”

The economic linchpin of the community, and central focus of the museum, is the workings of the Varn Oyster Co. It is through the story of that company and the transition of the Pin Pointers from farmers to watermen that the community’s story — and the Gullah-Geechee story — comes most clearly into focus.

Friday’s event, which will honor the regional Gullah-Geechee heritage, will include remarks by Joseph McGill, a Charleston, S.C.-based Civil War re-enactor and program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Emory Campbell , the former chairman of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Corridor Commission, as well as Hanif Haynes , president of the Pin Point Betterment Association.

Following the program, there will be a tour of the Pin Point museum and a tour of the nearby recently completed Bethesda museum, which tells the history of the school within the context of Savannah’s emergence.

The Bethesda Museum is its own jewel. Housed in the first floor of Burroughs Hall, the collection of multi-media educational tools, artifacts and documents trace the history of the institution that is stretches back to 1740.

“This is a collection of like-organizations that have a real significant role in the history of this little area of Georgia, and it’s really great to come together and share those stories,” Tribble said of the fledgling partnership. “It brings together people who haven’t really worked together. In a way, we’re trying to create our own little bit of magic on Moon River.”

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