Next in our student series is a review of the documentary Reconstructing Hawthorne by Lisa Powell.
Last Wednesday, February 15th, 2017, Armstrong State University was privileged to be both the second and the third groups of people to see the latest film from the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, entitled Reconstructing Hawthorne. My friend, George “Buddy” Wingard, was kind enough to let us be his “guinea pigs”, while he tried out his new presentation about the Savannah River site’s historical archaeology, and how it pertained to the town Hawthorne. My Historical Archaeology class screened it first, then we had a great turn out that evening for a second screening open to the public.
The film literally starts out with a bang! Actually, to be more historically accurate, it was an H-bomb explosion. This definitely grabs your attention. From there we get a very brief, but very poignant history of the “Cold War”, which has an eerie déjà vu effect on the audience. Given our current situation with Russia, this film may turn into the poster child for our present political climate. However, that was NOT its intention! At its very heart, this film is a story about two men, Mr. George Heath and Mr. Henry Brown. It is the story of two best friends, one white and one black, who grew up together in rural South Carolina in a time when there was still a lot of civil and political unrest. Despite this, these two grew up together on a farm in Hawthorne, South Carolina. That is until they reached their teens, and then their worlds were turned upside down, and they lost track of one another for almost sixty years.
On November 28th, 1950, the Atomic Energy Commission chose an approximately three-hundred square mile area, south of Aiken, SC and east of Augusta, GA along the Savannah River, to house a hydrogen bomb materials facility, the Savannah River Plant. This area was chosen for many reasons, scarcity of population (around 6,000 people), the ability to continue to build year-round (due to its mild annual temperatures), and the fact that such a huge area was readily available. People had between three to eighteen months to move. By move, I mean move everything you want, including your house, your out-house, your chicken coops, barns, and even your deceased loved ones (there were around 12,000 graves exhumed during this time).
Many people affected did not own property, for they were tenant farmers or share croppers. They had to leave with only what had on their backs and perhaps the small number of personal belongings they owned. This is what happened to Mr. Henry Brown and his family. They moved to Jackson, SC. Mr. George Heath’s family took most of the money that was offered, but took a deduction to move their home to a new location.
The Savannah River Archaeological Research Program began on the site in 1973. They collected oral and written historical accounts of the towns of Ellenton and Dunbarton. They got plenty of questionnaires back about both Ellenton and Dunbarton, but none about Hawthorne. It wasn’t until many years later when Mr. Heath called to ask if he could visit his old homestead, that they found out he was from Hawthorne.
Later, he introduced them to his friend Mr. Henry Brown, with whom he was recently reunited. The staff took them both back to the place they grew up and worked on the farm. Of course, not much was left, just some rubble and bricks from the old foundation. Yet it was then that a certain kind of magic started to happen, and you could see and honestly almost feel the memories come flooding back as those two walked together (sometimes hand in hand), helping one another over the overgrown environment. It was very heartwarming to bear witness to this reunion.
This is just a small part of what the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program does. They are also responsible for the cultural resource management of the entire site, research (each employee has their own research project), and education (public outreach). They are a part of the University of South Carolina’s South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. They are the stewards of a great resource of diverse archaeology, and they are doing their part to reach out and share that research and information with the public in many different ways. We at Armstrong have been lucky enough to host two such events now. First a couple of years ago, we were able to screen Discovering Dave: Spirit Captured in Clay, about Dave Drake, a slave potter with a fascinating story. Now we have been privileged to have them back a second time to bring us Reconstructing Hawthorne, another fantastic film. My hope is that Armstrong State University (even through its upcoming transition) will hold onto and continue to foster this relationship with the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, for the enrichment of both our students and the public in the years to come.
There are many books about the Savannah River Site historical archaeology are available to download for free on their website.For more information about the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program, please check out their website. You can also check out the Reconstructing Hawthorne Facebook page.