For historian and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Tiya Miles, the ghost story of an enslaved Black woman told during a house tour in Savannah triggered a series of unexpected questions and emotions. Miles reaction to that experience led her historic research in a new direction, examining “slave ghost” narratives and their increasing presence in tourism in the South.
Miles will present some of her findings in a lecture, “The Ghosts of Dunbar Creek: Slave Narratives, Dark Tourism, and the Meaning of Water” on Friday, February 19 at the Coastal Georgia Center in downtown Savannah. Her lecture is part of Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast. A symposium. The 45-minute talk focuses on a historic event of 1803, the Ibo slave revolt on Dunbar Creek, St. Simons Island, and how it has been adopted into the cultural consciousness of Gullah-Geechee and broader African American culture.
As a self-described passionate fan of old houses, Miles toured a Savannah house museum in 2012. “I thought I would learn about the house and about slavery, because of the [historical] marker outside the house,” said Miles. “What surprised me was that it was a ghost story. What upset me was that it was about Molly, an [enslaved Black woman] said to have been murdered in the carriage house. It was very gruesome, and it was sensationalized. It romanticized the relationships between White women and the Black women they owned. Those relationships were most often violent and coerced.”
Miles has received numerous awards and grants for her research and writing on the historic and contemporary relationships between Native Americans and African Americans. After hearing the story of Molly, Miles turned her professional attention toward ghost legends that focused on slavery, beginning with a search for the historic person of Molly. “I started looking for records, letters, notices in newspapers from the time that [the owners] lived in that house and Molly supposedly lived in the house.
“I tried to see in the category of ‘slave ghosts’ what the patterns were,” said Miles. “That led me to the Ibo Landing and ghosts of Dunbar Creek.”