Praying for Sheetrock

A Work of Nonfiction


By Melissa Fay Greene

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Finalist for the 1991 National Book Award and a New York Times Notable book, Praying for Sheetrock is the story of McIntosh County, a small, isolated, and lovely place on the flowery coast of Georgia–and a county where, in the 1970s, the white sheriff still wielded all the power, controlling everything and everybody. Somehow the sweeping changes of the civil rights movement managed to bypass McIntosh entirely. It took one uneducated, unemployed black man, Thurnell Alston, to challenge the sheriff and his courthouse gang–and to change the way of life in this community forever. “An inspiring and absorbing account of the struggle for human dignity and racial equality” (Coretta Scott King)


Part OnePart One

You can’t learn anything riding down 1-95 with the Yankees. You’ve got to go the old way, 17, what we call the old way.

—Sonny Seiler, Savannah attorney


The Old WayThe Old Way


U.S. 17 was an old blacktop two-lane running down the Georgia coast at sea level, never straying far from the edge of the continent.

In Savannah it was a dirty liquor street swelling at dusk with honking cars double-parked outside the package stores. Pawnshops closed for the night, dropping latticed chains over their windows, and bail bondsmen opened for business: shirtsleeved men half-seated on desktops waited with crossed arms for the black rotary-dial phones to start ringing. On their walls hung hand-printed signs like, “It’s always SPRINGtime at Bulldog Bonding.”

Further south, on the outskirts of Savannah, the old highway was lined by mobile-home dealerships. Further south still, people lived in the mobile homes, set back from the road with chickens and rusty swingsets in the yards, and the nearby businesses were auto junkyards. Further south, used merchandise was sold out of abandoned barns the people called “flea markets.” Miss Nellie’s Hidden Treasures displayed, at roadside, Mexican vases, shoe boxes of old vacuum cleaner attachments, gold-framed paintings of bullfights or of Elvis on black velvet, dilapidated playpens, and cast-iron black-faced jockeys in their simpering crouch.

In Byran County and Liberty County, commerce dwindled to the occasional peach or Vidalia onion stand. In midsummer, corn filled the fields and laundered sheets and overalls stiffened on clotheslines outside the sharecropper shacks. One last bit of trade before the road rolled south into the deep country was Mama Harris, Palm Reader. Then Highway 17 dove into the great dark pine forests of McIntosh County.

Wild turkeys, foxes, quail, and deer crunched across a pine needle floor for a hundred miles. Woodpeckers darted among the upper branches like small red arrows in the green light. The old highway lay peacefully abandoned, soft and yellow as a footbridge baking in the summer heat while box turtles scraped across it. Vultures stood on it in a circle like gaunt old card players: tall, cackling cronies with bony shoulders, divvying up the pot.

Occasionally a brontosaurlike lumber truck erupted from a side road, spraying gravel, belching smoke, and brainlessly sashaying down the center line. It drove the felled slash pine north to the port and to the pulp and paper mills of Savannah—Union Camp was the largest paper mill in the world—or south to the turpentine and paper plants of Brunswick. In both cities a sulfurous haze, the industrial rotten-egg odor of jobs, clouded the in-town neighborhoods; but in McIntosh County, where the forests grew, the water tasted like cold stones and the air was clean and piney.

Gradually, to the east, the forest broke open, then disappeared, replaced by vast soft acres of salt marsh. Four hundred thousand acres of marsh stretched between the dry land and the barrier islands of McIntosh County—at some places, a mile wide; at others, ten miles wide. The primeval home of every shy and ticklish, tentacle-waving form of sea life and mud life, the coastal Georgia salt marsh is one of Earth’s rare moist and sunny places where life loves to experiment. Because it is flushed out twice daily by the systole of saltwater tide and diastole of alluvial tide, the marsh looks new, as if still wet from creation.

The wetland has been claimed in various epochs by prehistoric Indians, Spanish missionaries, Blackbeard the pirate, French and English explorers, Sir Francis Drake, slaveholders and slaves, Confederates and Yankees, the victorious General Sherman, freed slaves, and unreconstructed Rebels. Citizens at the edge of the dry land have addressed one another as Monsignor, Excellency, Governor, General, Mistress, Master, Nigger. Furies inspiring men to violence have occurred at the marsh’s edge, while in its midst the frogs simply continued to blow their round bass notes. Mastodons once claimed the coast, too, and gigantic pigs and ground sloths the size of elephants; and they all have gone.

Once or twice a century, men stood up on their hind legs beside the swamp and waved their arms—the crown of the evolution of the shy tentacled sea creatures—and swelled with the thought of their own self-importance. A shouted word flew for miles, out to sea, and a gunshot echoed farther than that. The men who raised their voices, flashed their whips, fired their muskets or their revolvers, and imposed their own sense of order on their neighbors found it remarkably easy to do so. Just after the shout or the gunshot, there was silence; then the clicking of the fiddler crabs began again, and the people in their houses scraped their dishes clean and buttoned up their children and chopped wood into logs in their backyards and fed their dogs. So the strong men raised their voices again, fired their weapons, and again, rising to fill the vacuum of silence were not voices of protest or discontent but the sound of clicking, scraping, chopping. Thus, through minor heroics, brashness, and noise on one side, everyday life on the other, local heroes and strongmen arose.

In modern times Sheriff Poppell was the neighborhood headman who exerted his will and shaped the county, and the people acquiesced as people do when they are not, themselves, hungry for power and when they are permitted to make a nice living far from the rumpus. With Poppell as sheriff, McIntosh County was not the sleepy backwater it ought to have been, nor Darien the homey one-horse town it richly deserved to be. Darien—population 1,800—consisted in 1971 of a few public office buildings, a few All-U-Can-Eat catfish restaurants, the county courthouse, a library, some hardware stores, an eighteenth-century British fort, a car wash, and a wide, hot main street—U.S. 17. But the place was jumping. Expensive cars with unsavory drivers roared through town, jeweled rings sparkled on men’s hands as they cracked open their boiled crabs at lunch; gunfire rang out; and one sensed, in sheds off the road, the late-night shuffle of fifty-dollar bills. From the late 1940s through the late 1970s, McIntosh County was a mini–Las Vegas, a mini–Atlantic City, a southern Hong Kong or Bangkok where white men came looking for, and found, women, gambling, liquor, drugs, guns, sanctuary from the law, and boats available for smuggling.

Next door to these fearsome enterprises, just down the road from them, a straight-thinking, churchgoing white community attended to its civic needs in Darien; and a watchful, churchgoing black community made do in nameless hamlets in the pine woods. Sheriff Poppell amiably kept the peace between the black and white communities and between the law-abiding world and the criminals. From his illegal businesses and the looting of trucks, he tossed the occasional bonus to the law-abiding Darien whites and rural blacks. For most of this century, there was a strange racial calm in the county, consisting in part of good manners, in part of intimidation, and in part because the Sheriff cared less about the colors black and white than he did about the color green, and the sound it made shuffled, dealt out and redealt, folded and pocketed beside the wrecked trucks and inside the local truckstop, prostitution houses, clip joints, and warehouse sheds after hours.

Half the population of McIntosh was white and most of the whites lived in Darien. They lived in soft blue, pale green, or yellow wooden houses, with birdbaths and day lilies in the yard. The aluminum of their screen doors was cut in the shape of marsh birds and tall grasses. “People grew up together on these dirt streets fishing and hunting,” said Archie Davis. “This was just small-town America. Four or five kids come playing down the street; the grownups knew all of them, knew their daddies.”

Emily Varnedoe, a white woman of ninety, had lived in a little house beside the salt marsh most of her life. In the silences after a raised voice or a gunshot flew over the county—as strong men took over McIntosh and steered it this way rather than that—it was such as Emily Varnedoe who shrugged and continued to stir the greens in the saucepan, to repot the geraniums, to tuck in the child, and to settle herself under an afghan in front of the TV, knowing nothing of bullies and race and shoot-em-ups.

She lived quietly and cheerfully, hands crossed in her lap, looking through her windows across the yellow grass sloping toward the water. As she grew old, Emily mused more and more often on one or two things, an old fact and a recent fact, and it consumed a good deal of her day—seated in a chair, clinging to its arms with all her might—just to consider and reconsider these one or two things, not analyze them in their different aspects or wish they had been done differently; no, just bring them to the forefront of thought and make sure that the facts of each case were still arranged correctly.

Mrs. Varnedoe’s son, Jesse, went to North Georgia College where he met his wife, Glenda. This was one of the facts of Emily’s life which ceaselessly occupied her thoughts. “He went to North Georgia College, he and his wife, but they both told us they would never marry until they graduated,” she said. “And so they both graduated before they married. They live in Tampa now. He sells insurance and she worked in the insurance office, and then she left and now she is working in a real estate office. And she says there are forty people working in that office and that’s a lot! But they waited to marry, don’t you know, until after they could graduate.”

When Mrs. Varnedoe finished a statement her jaws moved for a moment more, thoughtfully and silently, and then she looked at you to see what you made of it, offering, in case there had been any misunderstanding: “I sent him. I paid for him to go to North Georgia College. He went there and finished up there, he and the girl he married. And he said they would not marry until they both graduated.” A framed photograph of the crewcut college boy leaned backward on the mother’s small television, and one would have thought the happy twin events, graduation and marriage (they didn’t marry until after they graduated) had just taken place, but Jesse (North Georgia College, 1957) was fifty-four.

Emily Varnedoe’s face was like a cream-colored, stained velvet bag, with a drawstring at the pursed lips. Her lips pushed out even in repose, as if to show that this was a garrulous woman who had learned to be silent—had learned that no one out there was available to listen to all her opinions.

“It’s quiet over here except for the hummingbird season,” she said. What great stillness is possible in a life when a person is distracted from her thoughts by hummingbirds in the yard! Does she lean forward and pound on the glass: “Hey, pipe down out there fellas!”? She sat, lips pursed, hands folded, looking toward the marsh, waiting for the hummingbirds.

There were white people in Darien who knew from which antebellum plantation family they were descended and black people who knew the location of the plantations that had owned their great-grandparents; there were close and long-time connections between the two communities unlike anything in the North. All political discourse and confrontations in McIntosh County would take place between acquaintances: when angry groups of blacks and whites faced each other, everyone would know everyone else’s names and addresses, and know their mamas.

Because the whites got to McIntosh first, or “first” in relation to the McIntosh blacks, history itself was laid claim to, as if it were acreage of good bottom land. There were Native Americans all along the tangled coast in the sixteenth century when the wooden sailing ships first appeared, but the Europeans killed or converted the local tribes and pushed their way into town long before sending for the Africans.

Permanent settlement first was established along the Altamaha River in 1736 by a troop of Scottish Highland warriors who built a British outpost against the Spaniards in Florida. A second embarkation from Scotland landed in 1742. The name McIntosh derived from the leading clan of pioneers.

The colonial history is treasured in Darien. The history of the conquest and settlement of McIntosh is as full of nobility, strife, malaria, starvation, alligators, true love, and Indian wars as any student of history could wish. History, in fact, is what Darien has the way other communities have rich topsoil or a wealth of hidden talent or fine high school athletics. Coastal people understand history personally, the way religious people do, the way ancient people did. They own history in a way lost to most Americans except in a generic, national sort of way, because the rest of us move around so much, intermarry, adopt new local loyalties, and blur the simple narrative line.

Hundreds of direct descendants of the early Scottish settlers of McIntosh still live on the very tracts of land given their families by King George II at the first embarkation in 1736 or at the second in 1742. “We’ve always known where we were from,” said Gay Jacobs, a strong and pretty, black-eyed and amiable liberal Democrat who lived at the waterfront and ran a shrimp business. “I mean this is still part of the original land grant that my—I don’t know what, how many greats back—was given. I think my family has always felt a certain responsibility to do right. About politics, about racial issues, to do right and to be right.”

The Direct Descendants, as they are actually known, periodically hold reunions at the public library or in one another’s homes. They wear corsages and name tags, sip punch, and listen to edifying lectures by speakers dispatched from the Savannah Historical Society. One-hundred-eighty descendants of the two McIntosh clans who landed in 1736 and founded Darien still are living. “One-hundred-eighty if no one was born or died in the last three weeks,” piped up Lillian Schaitberger, a sixty-nine-year-old descendant of Donald McIntosh. She is both the treasurer of the Lower Altamaha Historical Society and the person responsible for periodically updating the list of the true and living Direct Descendants from the first, not the second, embarkation. “I have had people to get upset,” said Schaitberger: “‘If you’re going to do it, why not do everybody?’ one woman told me. She was a descendant, you see, of the second landing in 1742. I told her, ‘If you’d read the booklet closely, you’d have seen it listed the descendants of the first landing only.’”

It was a fine and difficult thing the Highland settlers did, living alert and armed against a Spanish enemy mounted on heavy horses (wearing feathers, high boots, and sashes in military gaiety) who charged up the coast toward the Scottish cornfields and cabins, their muskets leveled and the hooves of the horses smashing along the surf. It required physical courage for the Scots to remain on the land, to hoe, to plant, to carry water, to bear children, to believe in the community while, in the distance, there were horses.

It is quite another thing to survive into modern times when a new definition of community is required, to admit that within your town there are households that define themselves—that you define—as outsider, alien. Does Darien belong to the Direct Descendants alone (even generously counting the descendants of the second embarkation as bona fide DDs)? Does it belong to the Direct Descendants and their kind (for some had great-great-grandfathers planting fields in Virginia and the Carolinas, after all)? Or does it belong to more people—to more kinds of people—than that? To ask this question requires a moral courage.

But the Direct Descendants and their fellow white citizens prefer to muse on an older and clearer time, a time of wood forts and musketry, of tall ships and cannons, of kilts and bagpipes, of enemies fleeing pell-mell out of the marsh. Contrary to stereotype, they are not nostalgic for the plantation era, though Darien was one of the jewels in the crown of the Confederacy and its planters among the richest and most refined gentlemen in the world. They do not honor slavery or mourn its passing. They honor the time before slavery, before Africans touched foot on the land beside the Altamaha River. They wish the question had never come up.


Off the Road and Far From MoneyOff the Road and Far From Money


Half the population of McIntosh was black, and most of the blacks inhabited the semitamed land between the shoreline of salt marsh and the fringes of the great southern pine forests. They still lived in slave or sharecropper shacks—“made out of wood and wind,” the people said—or in trailers on dirt roads that disappeared into the pine woods or in simple cinder-block houses, like Thurnell Alston’s, facing U.S. 17.

The historic black community of McIntosh lived in a sort of pale outside a century of American progress and success. They survived by raising vegetables and keeping chickens and pigs, by working menial jobs in Darien, and by fishing the network of tidewater rivers and blackwater swamps. They lived without plumbing, telephones, hot water, paved roads, electricity, gas heat, or air-conditioning into the 1970s. Their tiny hamlets (Darien was the county’s only town) offered no goods and services other than a nailed-together church, a rundown laundromat, a juke joint, a beautician working out of her side porch, a palm reader, and maybe a “shine house.”

The white people owned and managed all the businesses in Darien—all the restaurants, motels, antique stores, grocery and hardware stores, and docks, as well as nearly all the boats and all but one gas station. And they filled every elected, appointed, salaried, and professional office and position. (Sheriff Tom Poppell, however, for reasons of his own, had employed black deputies since the forties.)

By daylight, during work hours, black people traveled south on U.S. 17 into Darien: they swept sidewalks, mopped floors, mowed lawns, diapered babies, cooked home meals, cooked restaurant meals, cooked school cafeteria lunches, cleaned motel rooms, pumped gas, raised children, washed and ironed clothing, collected garbage, caught and processed seafood, cut pulpwood, taught black children, and prepared black dead for burial. At the end of the day in a soft migration like birds lifting off a lawn at dusk, they drove or walked home to their distant wooded lots.

“You know there was fear,” said Sammie Pinkney, a local black man and friend of Thurnell Alston. “You can’t get a dog to go up against a tiger. Nineteen-forties, -fifties, and -sixties, it was nothing for them to take a man out and beat him half to death. Or beat him to death. Or hang him. And nothing was ever said.”

In 1971 the epic of the civil rights movement was still a fabulous tale about distant places to the black people of McIntosh. The small black community followed the career of Martin Luther King, Jr., but no one among them had ever met him or seen him in person. An elderly black couple, Danny and Belle Thorpe, recalled feeling fearful when King and his civil rights movement began stirring things up: “We hear the people telling about it and all,” the old couple said, “and we didn’t know how things was coming out. Far away it seemed, not like something happening here. And he never have come here. He come there to Atlanta and as far south as South Carolina but never have come here.” And then King was assassinated and was mourned by scarlet-robed rural church choirs swaying and weeping and clapping in unison on their wood podiums. In mourning him from their great distance, the black people of McIntosh helped to bury him. A funeral was a thing they understood; dissent was something they did not.

In the era of the shoe truck, the faces of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy adorned the cardboard fans that waved like marsh grasses in the stifling clapboard churches in the summer heat; on the flip side of the fans were portraits of Jesus. In their homes, the black people nailed pen-and-ink drawings of King and the Kennedys to their walls, usually flanking a large framed painting of the Last Supper. Ministers preached about “Martin, Robert, and John,” who might as well have been the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth Apostles, respectively. They were martyrs, saints. Martin Luther King might have delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech dressed in flowing white robes, so hallowed and remote did his life appear to McIntosh County. The people felt about Montgomery and Selma roughly the way they felt about Mount Sinai and Gethsemane. The stories of heroes were stirring, but it seemed unlikely that such miracles would occur again, much less locally.

The black community of McIntosh was so isolated that, like a few others on America’s southern coast, its language was distinctive and was called Gullah, a unique blend of eighteenth-century English, Scottish, and African tongues with modern Black English. The old people in particular spoke this rich brogue. Because the people lived far from any city, and because the old people and the middle-aged people had grown up without television and had as their chief form of entertainment the bombastic and vividly euphemistic preachings of the local home-schooled ministers, their speech was full of original and biblical-sounding constructions.

A Georgia peach, a real Georgia peach, a backyard great-grandmother’s-orchard peach, is as thickly furred as a sweater, and so fluent and sweet that once you bite through the flannel, it brings tears to your eyes. The voices of the coastal people were like half-wild and lovely local peaches, compared to the bald, dry, homogeneous peaches displayed at a slant in the national chain supermarkets.

“Come in! Come in! Let’s have some gossip and slander!” cried an old man living near the sea, whenever a passerby roamed within sight of his porch. “I believe these young ladies of today might clothe themselves more modestly,” he said. “Of course, I am getting on and it has been many years since I was conversant with the wherewithal and nomenclature of the female.”

For most of this century the McIntosh County black people lived much as they had since emancipation. They relied on the Lord, the sheriff, and the neighbors. “In Grandfather’s day,” said Henry Curry, a gentle and elegant man in his nineties, the patriarch of the black community and a church deacon, “they didn’t have the education, but here what ’tis: If you had any trouble, your trouble is my trouble. Someone get down sick, it be a crowd to that house twenty-four hours, bring food and stay there, look to the welfare of that individual. A few of them work the river, but the majority live off that farm. If I get a little bit back and yours is ahead, you come over and help me bring mine on up. If you didn’t have a place to live, you could sleep out there in the woods.” Curry remembered the assassination of President McKinley from his boyhood because a black man had caught the killer and the people had felt proud.

“Back then,” he said in a deep, slow, rich, and patient voice, “Tuesday night, be a crowd to the church. Thursday night, sexton ring that bell, be a crowd to the church. Sunday morning, be a crowd. Those folks had something to thank the Lord for. Back then, not fancy, one person could live off a dollar and a half a week. You could get sugar for six cents a pound, bacon for five cents, grits you get a big sack, nine cents a sack. All the way from one end of the year to another, you could kill four or five hogs, get bacon year-round, three or four them big cans of lard. Rice, when time to harvest rice, had to move the old rice out of the way. You could get on fine. Folks was happy, didn’t cost so much to live.”

“We were raised not to mix,” said Belle Thorpe in 1990, a grandmotherly, bewigged, perfumed, and powdered church woman who lived in the part of the black county called Crescent.

“As a boy, I felt that as a race we should stay in our place,” said Danny Thorpe, her husband, an elderly shrimp fisherman and deacon of his church, a once tall and loose-limbed man.

The two delicate beige-skinned elderly people moved slowly and gingerly, fearful of falling, through the crowded rooms of their tiny, hot house, with its exterior siding of roof shingles and its hard, cool dirt yard where clumps of wildflowers bloomed. Belle had a high, whiny voice and a way of saying yes when she meant no, dragging the word out, as in, “Well, Yeeeeessss,” her voice dipping down and back up, describing a large U of sound. She fussed with her appearance for many hours before leaving the house, adjusting the smooth black wig, the lacy blouse, the satin slip, the broad expanse of elastic-waisted flowered skirt, hoping, by her pleasing and modest appearance, not to give offense, not to presume.

He had a long, misshapen, grizzled, and unshaved head, a low soft voice, and a demeanor as humble as his wife’s. Kindly, sweetly, gently, and in great poverty, they had lived together for fifty years.

“I don’t see much difference in him,” said Belle Thorpe. “He was always industrious. He was a deacon and I was singing in the choir. He just say, well, he wanted a Christian woman, so we just fell in love. So we always be thinking one thing.”


On Sale
Sep 15, 2015
Page Count
368 pages
Da Capo Press

Melissa Fay Greene

About the Author

Melissa Fay Greene is an award-winning author and journalist whose writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsweek. She is also the author of Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster and There Is No Me Without You (Bloomsbury Press). She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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