Discover Untold Stories Along Tybee’s Black History Trail

The marker for lazaretto creek, Tybee Island.

Discover Untold Stories Along Tybee’s Black History Trail

Tybee is an island that is teeming with rich history, but for quite some time the history of the local Black community has gone untold. In recent years, TybeeMLK — the island’s human rights organization — the Tybee Island Historical Society and Georgia Southern University have come together to change that. The Tybee Black History Trail, first unveiled in spring last year, consists of 13 stops, each highlighting a significant aspect of local Black history, and if you have yet to visit these important and informative sites, Black History Month presents the perfect opportunity to do so. 

Julia Pearce and Pat Leiby of TybeeMLK together with Amy Potter and Joyah Michell of Georgia Southern University and Sarah Jones of Tybee Island Historical Society conducted the meticulous and ongoing research for the trail. It all started back during the pandemic after Pearce and Leiby were invited by the city manager to join the historical society for a local tour.

“They mentioned nothing about black folk on this tour. . . We found that insulting. And so we took the bull by the horns and said we need a Black history trail here on Tybee,” said Pearce.

The two got to work and the historical society and GSU got onboard to begin laying the groundwork for the trail. It was truly a modern-day grassroots effort that found its start online.

“We went on a Facebook page . . . called You Know You Grew Up on Tybee If, and Ella Lewis who was working with us at the time from the historical society posted what we were looking for and asked if anyone would be interested in contacting us and giving interviews. Dr. Potter from Georgia Southern found people. She interviewed the man who organized the first Orange Crush on Tybee. There was Mr. James Adams, a black man who had an oyster house, and that building still stands on private property on Tybee. We were able to contact the owner and have a tour inside the house. That house was included on the Historic Preservation Commission’s Preservation Month tours in 2022. . . It’s just exciting to talk to people and look for old newspaper articles. We found some very interesting articles from the Savannah Morning News from years ago. Just digging and looking and asking,” said Leiby. 

The first person they interviewed for the trail was a local resident named Walter Brown, Jr.

“What’s significant about Brown’s story is that he was born here in ‘40s and his family owned businesses, a cement business and coal business out here. He raised his children here. He had a son who drowned here on Tybee. . . Tybee is the beach of Savannah. And the Black community of Tybee and the Black community of Savannah knew about each other. They knew 

that there are Black people out here on Tybee. They also knew that Tybee was a sundown town, that Black folks who didn’t live on Tybee couldn’t be out here at night. So it was very isolated for Black folk living on Tybee. When we started putting this together, the reaction from the Black community was that it’s time for these stories to be told. It’s been a wonderful process of people coming together to tell the story,” said Pearce.

Of the 13 stops along the trail, there are a few of particular significance for Pearce and Leiby. 

The marker for lazaretto creek, Tybee Island.

“I think the most significant stop on the trail by far is the Lazaretto. . . Everything starts from there. . . A person can live on Tybee for 20 some odd years and not even know what a lazaretto is, that this is actually American history. . . [The Lazaretto] is the first place our ancestors set foot on in North America from the Middle Passage. It’s a very significant place. When you read the history . . . at one point there were 400 black folks here before Georgia became a state. By the time the Civil War came, there were a whole lot of black folks in Georgia, and a lot of those people came through the Lazaretto because we were the port for Savannah. The lighthouses that were built at the time, those lighthouses were to aid people getting into the port . . . and that was for trade, for commerce. The biggest commerce on Tybee was the flesh trade. . . Think about that,” said Pearce. 

Two of Leiby’s favorite stops are about the Wade-Ins, which brought about the desegregation of the beach, and the Middle Passage.

“The Georgia Historical Society marker for the Wade-Ins is down by the pier on the south end. And that’s really important because it’s part of the Georgia Civil Rights Trail. Another important stop on the trail is when you get over in the vicinity of the lighthouse, there are storyboards about the Middle Passage. And if a person can’t look at those storyboards and be moved to tears, then I don’t know what to say because it has an illustration of how those kidnapped people were just stuffed body against body against body. It’s also a UNESCO site of remembrance,” Leiby said.

These organizers felt that it was of utmost importance that Tybee have such a trail to preserve difficult yet significant aspects of local history to ensure that these stories don’t become forgotten.

“It’s history that was being lost. There’s other history that needs to be told too. The Native Americans didn’t live here necessarily but they came here. They had an influence. That story needs to be told. The T.S. Chu family, their story is told in the book Tybee Days. . . Mr. Chu came from China and started a successful business. . . There’s so much. Also in talking with the archivist at the historical society, there’s a whole big history just on the work that was done here by fishermen during the days when Tybee was just a small fishing community. . . None of this history should be lost. It needs to be archived somewhere,” said Leiby. 

This trail ensures that an accurate representation of local history is preserved for locals and tourists alike to reflect upon and remember. From the Lazaretto to Orange Crush and all the events that have taken place in between, the trail provides an opportunity to uncover truths about local Black history, and Pearce and Leiby encourage everyone to journey through time at each stop. 

“The Black history trail is a living trail because there will always be stories added to it. It’s not done. We may have a brochure that’s done for now. We may have a website that’s done for now, but we have a place where we can keep adding stories as we discover them,” said Leiby.

The Tybee Black History Trail is in its third phase of progress with signage and storyboards being installed at the various stops. Anyone interested in traversing the trail can take a self-guided tour to each stop by following the online story map.

The trail is just one of many undertakings TybeeMLK is doing to ensure accurate historical representation and advocate for human rights and social justice causes. Anyone interested in engaging in this important work is welcome to become a member of TybeeMLK.

“If there are people out there, like the wonderful Pat Leiby, who would like to look into the broader picture of social justice work here in our island and in Chatham County, I want them to think about TybeeMLK and become a member to work with us to bring forth this history and make the world more like how Dr. King envisioned it,” said Pearce.

To learn more about TybeeMLK and membership, visit tybeemlk.com/

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