In 1858, around the time the U.S. Congress outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, the Wanderer, a New York pleasure ship, illegally carried a group of 488 Congolese from Africa to the coast of Jekyll Island, Ga.
The yacht, originally intended as one of the most beautiful and luxurious crafts ever built, was bought by southern planters, loaded with zinc tanks and retrofitted with new decks so that nearly 500 enslaved people could be “tight packed” into a craft meant to hold no more than 140.
The stories of these people and their subsequent lives on southern plantations will be highlighted in “‘Where I Come From . . .’: The Wanderer Enslaved and Their Descendants,” an all-day symposium organized by Valerie Babb, director of the Institute for African American Studies and professor of English and of African American studies. The symposium will take place on May 15 at the Georgia Museum of Art and is free and open to the public. The event will conclude with a tour of the exhibition “Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina” led by Dale Couch, curator of decorative arts, and a reception. For more information, please contact the Institute for African American Studies at 706.542.5197.
“A lot of people know about the history of the yacht and how it was part of the New York Yacht Club, how it was built, how it was commissioned,” Babb says. “Not so many know about the people that yacht brought over here. So I’m hoping that history becomes highlighted.”
When photographer, graphic designer and researcher April Hynes discovered a face jug that her grandfather had unearthed in Philadelphia in 1950, she contacted archaeologist Mark Newell, who discovered more of the jugs and linked them to the Congolese who came on the Wanderer.
“It’s kind of just serendipity, in a way, that she happened to contact him and he happened to tell her, ‘oh no, they’re created by Congolese slaves, who had been brought here and their descendants just kept on doing this,’” Babb says.
The jugs were meant to keep away evil and were sometimes used as funeral grave markers.
Babb says, “They became items that were treasured by families. Luckily, the Georgia Museum of Art decided to have this exhibition, and it dovetailed very nicely with the symposium.”
Besides illuminating the story of the Wanderer, Babb hopes the symposium will begin a series of collaborations among the Institute for African American Studies, the larger University of Georgia and Jekyll Island, which currently has a memorial where the ship landed that it aims to expand.
Babb would also like to collaborate with Brunswick public schools so that students can be involved in expanding the archive for the ship, and a member of the Jekyll Island authority hopes to produce an annual Heritage Day festival on the island inspired by the story.
“I think it is a really good balance of audiences,” Babb says. “It’s a nice blend between the academic, the artistic and actual life.”