Long Reign the Black Holocaust Memorial
Used to be, when you were cruising down East Broad Street, past the bricked expanse of Southern Pine Company, right across from the unfortunately named Shop and Go #2, you could catch a glimpse of Savannah’s soul.
There the Black Holocaust Memorial rose up out of a vacant lot like a fierce beacon of truth, its chained papier-mache protagonist emitting a hard shine as if cast in bronze. Blood red lettering sat atop an ersatz steeple, a temple to humanity’s unholy treachery. The raw cuts of wood and slight lean of the dais only served to further articulate its uncompromising presence in a city so eager to gloss over the bitter and coarse parts of its history.
Folk artist and beloved neighborhood steward James “Double Dutch” Kimble fashioned this intense testament in 2004, a passionate response to the recently unveiled African American Monument on River Street. Featuring a family in modern dress holding hands, many felt that the city-sanctioned statue failed to evoke the gravity of the site where thousands of enslaved Africans came to be sold in Savannah’s street markets.
(Though Maya Angelou’s poetic quote along its base makes stark mention of the horrors of the Middle Passage, would you believe back then the city council—led by Savannah’s first Black mayor Floyd Adams, Jr.—had the gall to ask her to amend it? Part of the inscription read, “We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others’ excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together." Accurate, but nobody comes to Savannah to know about piss and shit, unless of course, it’s St. Patrick’s Day.
To move the project through, America’s Forever Poet Queen eventually acquiesced to add the last sentence,“Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy,” but I can practically hear her shaking her head.)
Fueled by fury at the monument’s lack of exigency, Mr. James—who many still call “Dutch” after the double-decker bus he Frankensteined out of an old mail truck and a Monte Carlo back in the 90s—put his own hands to work.
“The kids need to know the truth. Then maybe they’ll have more respect for themselves, for their elders, for where they came from,” he says of his inspiration for his landmark effigy.
The poignant installation has served as a stubborn reminder of Savannah’s hidden edges as the city has smoothed itself with $500 a night hotel rooms and influencer-ready photo-ops. Though out of the normal tourist bounds, I made sure it got a mention when I contributed to the most recent edition of the Fodor’s Guide to Savannah. (Yo, do not blame me for the inaccuracies; they hired a bunch of other writers from Atlanta.)
Now, everybody don’t go wigging out—the Black Holocaust Memorial still exists near the corner of Anderson and East Broad, albeit tucked further back into the lane. The artist and sometimes mechanic had to move it after the property it sat on was sold a few months ago, and in spite of being exposed to the elements for almost two decades, it’s still in pretty good shape.
“I touch it up here and there,” he told me a few weeks ago, gently rubbing a repainted section on the pedestal.
I paid Dutch a visit because his neighbor and local acupuncturist Jen MacGregor had seen Code Enforcement poking around, never a good sign. After Dutch confirmed that he’d been issued a court order, we were all concerned that the rising tide of “revitalization” would wash away this longstanding piece of public art. And when I say “concerned,” I mean there are plenty of us ready to knuck and buck with whomever would fuck with the masterpiece of Thomas Square. (OK, technically, it might be in Dixon Park—I leave it to the SAGIS nerds for confirmation.)
“Why is his artwork any different than someone putting a mural on a building? In my mind there is no difference,” wondered Russ Lee, Dutch’s dear friend and owner of Hearse Ghost Tours, who keeps his own fleet of Frankenstein vehicles next to the Shop and Go #2 (tee hee, you’ll never drive by it again without cracking up.)
“Sometimes the city focuses on the negative too much, one neighbor can complain and stay anonymous, yet the city reacts,” adds Russ, calling out the process as “a form of fascism.” (Related case and point: The live music ordinance kerfuffle over at Huc-a-poos, provoked by one cranky party pooper who probably shouldn’t have moved next to Tybee’s most jamming bar in the first place.)
Russ helps sponsor Dutch’s annual Halloween “Spooky House” full of more papier-mache creations for the neighborhood kids, just one of the reasons the 67 year-old former Marine has been revered on this block for decades. He’s also generous with his tools and will teach anyone who asks how to fix a broken bike gear or a flat tire, and keeps a community garden with a tidy picket fence in the front of the sliver of a lot where the memorial now sits in the lane.
Mothers often send over their troubled kids for him to mentor, and as we chatted I noticed a tall young man standing near the fence, keeping his distance and shuffling his feet.
“That one right there is in a gang,” he murmured, giving the visitor a wave. “Be right with you, son.”
For all of the intensity of the memorial and sworn allegiance to the New Black Panther Party, Mr. James is an affable gent as they come, warmly welcoming anyone under the shaded canopy where he tinkers with his projects and listens to the radio.
“Jewish people have come and prayed here,” he informed me with a gap-toothed grin.
I could not abide the thought of this Savannah institution going by the gentrification wayside, and had worked myself up into quite a civic tizzy when I called the Code Compliance Department demanding to know why the fascists were trying to shut down the Black Holocaust Memorial.
Director Cynthia Knight, who called me back immediately with the patient tones of someone all too used to over-reactionaries like myself, was quick to put down the rumors.
“It’s not the monument that was cited, it’s the debris on the property owned by Mr. Kimble,” clarified Ms. Knight, referring to the enormous pile of wood scraps, plastic bottles, broken tools, used buckets, empty paint cans, the remains of a dilapidated shed and other detritus behind the secret storybook door Dutch built between the fence and the garden.
Because there’s no residence on the property, she explained, the heap violates the city’s blight ordinance, and after asking Dutch to remove it several times over the years, the code officer had no choice but to issue a ticket.
“Everyone has to keep their property clean and safe,” Ms. Knight enjoined apologetically, describing Dutch as a “very pleasant person” and the memorial a “vital part of Savannah history.”
She assured that her department has no interest in removing the statue and plans to allow its owner all the time he needs to clear the lot. “As long as he is progressively working on it, we’ll leave it be.”
So that’s a huge relief, and I suppose we can rest easy that at least one of Savannah’s last remaining edges is safe from the bulldozers of progress—for now. Though I can’t help but speculate that eventually the elements and the revitalizers will catch up, and what will happen to the Black Holocaust Memorial when they do.
There are many people who just want to face forward, who are tired of hearing how this is a city built by shackled Africans and only rose to prosperity because of their toil, not just Savannah but America itself (same folks who can’t wrap their small minds around the idea of a Black mermaid.) The rest of us have a soulfelt suspicion that the solution to society’s ills depends on our collective integration of this history—pissy shittiness included—and that its continued erasure from textbooks and polite conversation holds a disastrous reckoning for us all.
There was already a dumpster across from Dutch’s canopy when I dropped by a couple of days ago, and he was there tossing stuff in as the purpling sun slid back through the rain clouds, sending shards of light past the memorial’s shackled figure in its shrine like a divine cloak. I offered to haul a few loads but he waved me away.
“Don’t you worry about me, I got help coming,” he promised, his whole face folding into his funny smile. “The neighborhood’s got my back, and I got theirs.”
For those of us vexed that Savannah is losing its soul, it’s a small comfort to witness his passion and papier-mache holding up to bronze and bulldozers.
Go see for yourself, while there’s still time.
When we do the double dutch, that’s us dancing ~ JLL
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