Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for September, 2020

Lubie Jeter. Say his name.

I’ve said that name for the past 40 years. It’s an unusual name, and all these years, it has stuck with me.

Lubie Jeter and I were contemporaries, both born in 1966. In 1981, I was a freshman at Campbell High in Atlanta’s white suburbs. Lubie was a freshman at J.C. Murphy High; he lived in black East Atlanta.

The winter of 1981, I watched as our high school basketball team ascended to the state championship. Lube Jeter was murdered that winter, one of 28 victims in a string of crimes that came to be known as Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Children.

The murders terrified Atlanta—black Atlanta—for all the victims were black. In our northern suburbs, my friends and I didn’t fear being abducted. We were busy watching basketball. What we feared was finding the body of one of the missing children in the Chattahoochee River where we spent countless summer days tubing and rafting.

Fast forward 39 years. In 2020, I’m still playing on rivers and writing guidebooks to those very rivers. Earlier this summer, I was putting the finishing touches on the Ocmulgee River User’s Guide to be published next spring. Among those finishing touches was settling on a cover photo.

fullsizeoutput_7f78

Atlanta Outdoor Afro on the South River…a rare sighting of black paddlers on a Georgia river.

The publisher, the University of Georgia Press, suggested that the cover feature someone other than an old white guy. “Can we show some diversity?” they asked.

A great idea, I thought, but there’s a problem. People of color rarely paddle our rivers. I called upon one of the few black paddlers I knew: Steven Cousins, an avid outdoor adventurer, veteran of multiple Georgia River Network river trips and former board member with the organization.

We met on an early morning in August at the Yellow River’s Cedar Shoals in Porterdale and got the shot we needed. I’ll venture out on a limb and guess that Steven will be the first African American to grace the cover of a paddling guide.

fullsizeoutput_7f3c

Steven Cousins on the Yellow River in Porterdale. Steven may be among the first black paddlers to grace the cover of a paddling guidebook.

After the shoot, I asked Steven why we don’t see more black paddlers. In short, his answer was that most African Americans don’t consider our rivers “safe space.” Not because of a fear of snakes or gators or the wild (those fears are almost universal), but for fear that they will encounter someone “who doesn’t want me there.”

“So you wouldn’t go on a canoe camping trip by yourself on Georgia river because of the color of your skin?” I asked, somewhat incredulously.

“Yes.”

And, then I recalled all my solo trips down the Flint, Ocmulgee and Oconee. The one thing that is almost as ubiquitous as snakes and gators on those rivers: riverside fish camps flying the Confederate flag.

Every river traveler worries about what or whom they might encounter on the river. The ghosts of Deliverance still haunt us in the “Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjo Music” bumper stickers. But for black men and women, that worry is colored by the color of their skin.

That. Is. Not. Right.

DSC_6273

Riverside fish camps flying the Confederate flag are as ubiquitous on Georgia rivers as are snakes and gators.

Unfortunately, for those that care about rivers–and getting everyone on them–that’s the painful legacy of 200 years of slavery, another three decades of the prison lease system in Georgia-a perhaps more sinister subjugation of black men and women than slavery itself; and another 60 years of Jim Crow. Debt slavery persisted in Georgia into the 1950s. Disproportionate imprisonment of black Americans in our penal system continues to this day.

Rivers, for all their beauty and their siren calls of adventure, have always been a place where bad things happen, especially to black men and women.

In 1921, five black men were chained, weighted and forced off bridges on the South, Yellow and Alcovy rivers by a Jasper County plantation owner in an attempt to cover up the debt slavery in which he was keeping the men.

In 1930, S.S. Mincey, a black leader in the Republican Party and voting rights advocate in Mt. Vernon, was abducted and taken to a landing on the Altamaha River where he was beaten, whipped and left to die.

In 1946, four young African Americans were lynched near Moore’s Ford Bridge over the Aplachee River. One was a veteran of the recent World War; another was seven months pregnant.

In 1964, Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, another World War II veteran, was shot and killed on a bridge over the Broad River by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

And, in 1981 during the Atlanta’s missing and murdered children crisis, the bodies of black children turned up on multiple occasions in the Chattahoochee and South rivers.

DSC_3106

Mann’s Bridge on the South River in Newton County: In 1921, Harry Price, a black man kept in debt slavery by Jasper County plantation owner John Williams was chained, weighted and forced off this bridge to his death. Williams was later convicted of the murder as well as the murders of 10 other black me he was holding in debt slavery.

One need not wonder why we don’t see many black paddlers, and one need not wonder why the field of river advocacy is…well, white water. The largest river protection movement in the country—the Waterkeeper Alliance—boasts of 180 local riverkeepers. Only one is black.

A few weeks after my photo shoot with Steven, Georgia River Network partnered with Outdoor Afro Atlanta on a paddle trip on Atlanta’s South River. Outdoor Afro is an organization that gets African Americans in the woods and on rivers. Their tagline: “Where Black People and Nature Meet.”

In coordinating logistics for the trip, Outdoor Afro’s Janina Edwards fretted over the use of undeveloped access points on the South River and phoned me to explain her worries: “I don’t want an encounter with the police.”

She was worried about police; I was worried about broken ankles descending steep river banks. Had any police officers shown up I would have given them a lesson in the right of passage on navigable rivers. And, yet again the white and black experience of rivers diverges.

We cannot erase our history that shades the black experience so differently than the white experience, but we can acknowledge that history. And in acknowledging it, we may find some empathy.

Empathy that might lead to change.

At Georgia River Network, we work to improve access to the state’s rivers for everyone, but for a portion of our population, shiny, new boat launches aren’t enough. There’s nagging, deep-seated, systemic cultural barriers that we’ve yet to overcome.

It will take a continuing cultural shift to overcome those barriers. First steps? Inviting a friend of color to paddle a river is simple enough. Bringing down that Confederate flag flying at the fish camp wouldn’t hurt either.

In 1981, as a 14-year-old I floated the Chattahoochee and dreamed of following it to its end, Lubie Jeter feared he would end up dead in that same river. He never reached adulthood. By age 30, I’d followed the Chattahoochee all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. That adventure has colored the rest of my very blessed life.

In my perfect world, the dream of following a river to seek its end will equally stir the imagination of black and white children. I doubt I will see that world in my lifetime, but if, indeed, we work to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice, perhaps my daughter will.

Joe Cook

Sept. 1, 2020

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: