Vintage grainy early artist rendition of Hitch Village housing project published in Savannah Morning News circa 1964.
As a home to more than 200 families, Robert M. Hitch Village is the largest government housing project in Savannah, Georgia, and just happens to be the place where this particular author grew up until the age of twelve. Growing up there as a black youth in the 1960s, I never imagined that one day an African-American president, several years younger than me, would provide the economic push that would make it possible for local leaders to schedule the demolition and reconstruction of my old neighborhood. Just as I had never imagined a day could ever come when such a course of action would be necessary. Nevertheless, more than half the project’s 337 units are presently unoccupied and boarded windows are a traumatic sight for both current and past resideents.
While a number of President Barack Obama’s critics like to claim he is more showmanship than action, the residents of Hitch Village surely beg to differ as they prepare for a temporary exodus that will demonstrate the hardcore reality behind the idea of "change" booming from one American city to another. Of the $787 billion committed to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, some $5.3 million has been pinched off for the Housing Authority of Savannah; and out of that, $2 million set aside to demolish and then resurrect my boyhood home.
In a poem titled Return to Savannah the narrator describes himself as:
"…a stupid little Hitch Village boy
feet covered with red dirt
and blackberry stains,
snot flowing like panic and river water.."
It is included with other Savannahcana in my book The American Poet Who Went Home Again which as far as I know contains the only attempted history of the project and its people. The following excerpt is my salute to the community’s exceptional past and its now promising future.
My community, Robert M. Hitch Village–known simply as Hitch Village or "The Village" to those who lived there–was built during the early 1950s and started welcoming poverty-stricken families like mine into its concrete bosom in 1959. It was comprised of courts containing long rectangular apartment blocks. These courts were named after biblical figures like Paul, Cain, Ham, and Ruth. Nestled toward its center were two churches: the Central Missionary Baptist Church on Hitch Drive; and the Second Ebenezer Baptist Church on the Corner of McAllister and Colbert Streets.
Before becoming the model government project it was at the time, the area was something very different known as the Old Fort. Located in the northeast section of the city, the Old Fort was a segregated community in which Whites lived in one section and Blacks in the other. Most, regardless of color, lived in bare-wood single-story frame houses lined along the sides of lanes. Most, regardless of color, were poor.
Drums and Shadows a book published in 1940 by the Georgia Writers’ Project and the University of Georgia, provides revealing insight into the spiritual, economic, and social practices of the black people living in the Old Fort. It was a place in an era when African Americans still frequently referred to grandparents, and even parents, who had actually been slaves. It was also a place where the black residents commonly practiced the kind of Hoodoo and conjuring described in Zora Neale Hurston’s classic of black folklore and anthropology, Mules and Men. They not only very much believed, back in those days, in the prophetic powers of dreams but lived by them. They took guard against the malicious wizardry of witches said to steal one’s youth to restore their own, and they studied with care the healing properties of sacred herbs. At the same time, many also lent support to the charismatic spiritual leader known as Father Divine of the Peace Mission Ministry and practiced industriousness as a way of life. They often grew their own food, made their own clothes, got drunk and fought on Saturday nights, got sober and went to church on Sunday mornings. Some might describe the Old Fort as close to "primitive" but the community was, in fact, one that gave Savannah such exceptional citizens as the future civil rights leader and president of Savannah State College, Prince Jackson, and the gifted jazz pianist James Willis.
Although the physical make-up of the Old Fort evolved dramatically with the establishment of Robert M. Hitch Village, many of the old folk beliefs and practices lingered on. So did the separation of the races, with the economically challenged Whites who had lived in the Old Fort resettling in a second project called Fred Wessels located adjacent to Hitch Village, literally just across Randolph Street, which marked Hitch Village’s western boundary. It may have been while walking through Fred Wessels to reach the grocery store or downtown shops on the opposite side of the project that I perfected the practice of keeping my head down to avoid the stare of certain poor Whites who seemed to need little provocation to yell threats, throw stones, or aim guns.
The first time, however, someone felt it necessary to call me "nigger" was when I made the mistake of journeying beyond both Hitch Village and Fred Wessels to get a haircut. I was about eight years old and my mother had sent me with my nephew Kenneth, who could not have been more than four, to the barber shop. For some reason, the shop on Wheaton Street, on the southern border of Hitch Village, was closed that day. Why we were not with one of my older brothers I don’t recall, but black children of that time and place rarely stayed children for very long and it may be that this was one of my first outings to indicate that I was growing into a "big boy" whose turn it now was to look after others rather than expect others to look after me. It was something I would do throughout my adolescence and again, later, as an adult offspring.