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Can't keep Pin Point down

Gullah Geechee museum celebrates five years: 'What mattered most was faith, the tides, the weather and one another'

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HURRICANE MATTHEW did a real number on a lot of places around here, but the community of Pin Point was among the worst hit last month.

The tiny historic African American village on the marsh suffered tremendous damage, and fallen trees across its single road trapped residents for days. Volunteers from the nearby Landings and other neighborhoods brought food, water and chainsaws to the Sweetfield of Eden Baptist Church, where community leaders hosted a shelter and distributed supplies.

Six weeks later, sections of massive oak trunks have been piled neatly to the side, and rebuilding efforts are underway. FEMA reps have set up shop for federal assistance, and the usually-sleepy main drag bustles with bulldozers and pick-up trucks.

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Lifelong Pin Point resident Robert Lee Martin sits near a small fire pit in his yard, watching crews repair the roof that was torn from his 1920s blue bungalow by the storm. He confesses he’s never seen such terrible weather in his 67 years, but he takes the destruction in stride.

“Could’ve been worse,” he muses, eyeing an airborne piece of plywood as two workers guide it carefully in place. “At least I still got a house, praise God.”

That kind of steadfastness and faith has characterized the people of Pin Point for over 130 years, and it would take a whole lot more than some big winds to bring it down.

After all, it is another treacherous hurricane season that brought many of their ancestors to this spot in the first place. In the early 1890s, a series of monster storms forced hundreds of formerly enslaved Africans and their families from Ossabaw, Green and other Sea Islands to this lush, seafood-filled spot. Even if Gen. Sherman’s “40 Acres and a Mule” edict never came to pass, here they could own property and freely work the land and water, close enough to trade with white enclaves up the river yet isolated enough to maintain the distinct West African-influenced traditions, language and heritage known as Gullah Geechee.

“They washed out and came here to make a new beginning, and we’ve been here ever since,” says Tania Smith-Jones, the site director of the Pin Point Heritage Museum, open Thurs.-Sat. and celebrating its fifth anniversary this Saturday, Nov. 19.

“Denim and Bling: A Pin Point Thing” invites the public to don their fancy tops and favorite jeans for an evening of Lowcountry Boil, cocktails (careful now, that Pin Point Punch packs a whallop) and soulful sunset entertainment from the Sweetfield of Eden choir. Tickets are $25 and include a tour of the museum, independently founded in 2011 and adopted in 2012 as a top-rated jewel in the Coastal Heritage Society’s six-spired crown of local history attractions, including Old Fort Jackson, Tricentennial Park and the Savannah Children’s Museum.

“We’ve been touched by all of the support and positive feedback we’ve received about our site, which truly aims to bring a living history of family ties, perseverance and cultural understanding to each visitor,” says Smith-Jones. “We want to say thank you for helping us build the foundation for a great future.”

Housed in the former A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory, the Pin Point Heritage Museum chronicles the early history of the predominately African American coastal community and the simple bounties that sustained it through much of the 20th century. When white entrepreneur Algernon Varn bought the property on the point and opened his small factory after WWII, he wasn’t seen as an interloper but a welcome partner, employing his neighbors and sharing the profits.

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“The effects and upheavals of the Great Depression, World War II food rationing and civil rights turmoil were largely unfelt here,” recalls the installation posted inside the old picking and cooling house.

“What mattered most was faith, the tides, the weather and one another.”

Smith-Jones spent her summers at Pin Point through her teen years, when the robust micro-economy allowed Pin Point’s population to blossom to around 400. It dropped significantly after the canning factory closed in 1985 and younger generations moved away to pursue successful careers in medicine, education and law. (Pin Point’s most famous son is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.)

The burgh tops out at around 125 permanent residents these days, though Smith-Thomas says it is increasing with the return of many with whom she shared afternoons shelling oysters and playing with the fiddler crabs in the spartina grass.

“A lot of the baby boomers are retiring and coming back to their family properties,” she says, adding that lineage protects the area’s valuable waterfront lots from outsiders and real estate developers.

“Most of the properties are owned by multiple heirs, so they’re not so easy to sell. You’d have to get everyone to agree, and thankfully, most understand the true value of this place.”

That value is not only in the fascinating story that upholds Gullah Geechee heritage as part of Savannah’s historical metanarrative and the unspoiled views of the Moon River, but in the unshakeable character of the community itself.

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The Sweetfield of Eden Church founded by Pin Point’s original families remains the hamlet’s spiritual center, where the elderly come for company every day of the week and children still learn that “manners will take you further than money ever will.”

“People should know that a place like this still exists,” says Smith-Jones as she strolls down the main road, giving a wave or a nod to every truck that passes. “The story in the museum is told by people who actually lived it.”

As we round the corner towards the old oyster factory, a neighbor shouts, “Come and look at this fish my grandson brought!” A young man in his 20s shyly holds up two fat trout he hooked just around the river’s bend. He generously offers to share, but Smith-Jones demurs with a wink, saying she’ll hold out for shrimp and grits.

The roar of Landings traffic across the concrete arch of the Diamond Causeway doesn’t diminish the sense that no matter how stormy it gets, life in Pin Point will continue to revolve around family, faith and the day’s catch.

Just ask Mr. Martin, who isn’t too worried whether another hundred-year storm could sweep through again in his lifetime.

“Oh, it will be fine because we always help each other out,” he shrugs with a smile.

“When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.”

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