Savannah, Georgia, is a lovely town any time of year. But she really shines in the spring. The foliage, led by the azaleas, transform the old girl into a true southern belle. Close behind comes the jasmine and honeysuckle, their delicate sweetness the perfect fragrance to pair with the pink and white floral ball gown. As the dull, gray, days of winter migrate north, the wind shifts, sweeping in the tart promise of lazy summer days at the beach. A casual stroll – better yet, a horse-drawn carriage ride - through Savannah’s internationally-admired historic district will show you a verdant, even lush, cityscape, the product of decades of careful historic preservation and code enforcement. Follow the guidebook, and you’ll be treated to as picturesque a vista as anyplace this side of a Bierstadt landscape.
But stick around for a while, and you’ll soon learn why Savannah has long been known as the “pretty lady with a dirty face.” There’s an ugliness beneath her welcoming exterior that is less “southern belle,” and more “Detroit hooker;” and I’m not just talking about the excessively high number of locals whose diets seem to be limited to the “extra butter” section of homegrown culinary superstar Paula Deen. Savannah has long been plagued by high crime and poverty rates, and riding shotgun with them is their old accomplice: racism.
This spring, Savannah is enjoying a turn in the spotlight, thanks to a recent mayoral forum from which “white media” was specifically banned from attendance. The Bolton Street Baptist Church played host to what was billed as a strategy session towards “supporting ONE candidate from the African American community for Mayor 2019.” According to a flyer for the event and a sign on the door, the organizers, an outfit calling itself the “Trigon Group,” headed up by a purported clergyman named Clarence Williams, restricted admission to “Black Media ONLY.” And they backed it up, refusing entry to white reporters, while pointedly welcoming in black reporters, and even African-American politicians whose claims of membership in the media are as dubious as “Russian collusion.”
As the fallout from Williams’ and Trigon’s color-restricted confab has heated up, Williams has clammed up, indicating he expects to weather the storm. Local politicos of the “right” hue have either punted on the topic, redirecting questions to Williams, or refused comment entirely. In a development which would doubtless confuse outsiders, but really shouldn’t trip up locals, there is no shortage of people lining up to defend Williams and Trigon from deserved criticism.
Beyond the Bolton Street Baptist Church and the Trigon Group, Savannah contends with racism so ingrained in her culture, it might as well be draped in Spanish moss. A recent mayor proclaimed his admiration for bigoted flamethrower Louis Farrakhan. A recent police chief, whose career through the ranks was aided in no small part by his status as an African-American, is currently doing a stretch in federal prison on a list of corruption charges that sounds more like 1930s Chicago than 2010s Savannah. It took until last year for the city to officially stop calling the Savannah River Bridge after a segregationist. For decades, one of the top tourist draws was the tale of a rich, white, man who got away with murder; as if that’s something to celebrate. The local government schools, with few exceptions, would need more than a few good report cards to get their GPA above “abysmal,” and of course, underprivileged children of color bear the brunt of that disgrace; more than a few of the poorer neighborhood schools rank near the bottom of the state school rankings, one or two are even nationally competitive in the failing finals.
The Trigon forum was a disgrace, albeit not particularly stunning to longtime residents of the area. And it was absolutely racist, albeit no more so than myriad other political incidents over the years. I have no idea if the event’s organizers accomplished their goal. Given the mercurial nature of Savannah’s electorate, it may not even matter; the two candidates may be vying for a chance to lose to the incumbent. But the tale of the racist mayoral forum gained traction from locals through social media, and then went national. What few of those who have shared their opinions seem to understand is that racism is as endemic to Savannah as it is everywhere else these days, perhaps more so, albeit with Savannah’s typically weird twist.