On May 22nd, I stood along with about 20 other Episcopal deacons and priests near the banks of the Savannah River in the center of Savannah, Georgia. There was an embankment in front of us, and we were standing in front of four archways, which led into four unlit chambers – a little smaller than living rooms, that had been cut into the embankment. These chambers are known as the Cluskey Vaults, and their historical purpose in the nineteenth continues to be debated, and historians have no definitive answer. Still, our tour guide gave us a few compelling reasons which suggest that enslaved people were held in the vaults, prior to being sold – and our guide added that upcoming DNA testing may prove this.
Given that these vaults may very well have been used for this purpose, I was struck at some words I read on an explanatory sign outside of one of the vaults. According to the sign, the theory that enslaved people were held in the vaults is an “urban legend.”
My encounter with the Cluskey Vaults was part of a Justice Pilgrimage put on by the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta. Catherine Meeks, the director of the Center, took the lead in organizing the pilgrimage, which hosted deacons and priests from throughout the southeast. We spent time in Atlanta, Savannah, and Charleston, seeking to better understand the history of racism in America and where opportunities for healing might lie. One reality we encountered several times was the widespread lack of acknowledgement of racism past and present, exemplified by the dismissal of the theory that enslaved people were held in the Cluskey Vaults as an “urban legend.”
All of us who attended the pilgrimage are charged with taking a part in this work in the future, and I am looking forward to working with people to seek ways forward for racial healing in East Tennessee and at Grace Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, where I will soon be an assistant priest. This is difficult work, but it is also deeply life-giving; as Catherine Meeks says, when we carry on the work of racial healing, we live into the identities that God gave us.