Pin Point: A Small Community, A Huge Story

 Painting on the walls of the Pin Point Cannery 

Painting on the walls of the Pin Point Cannery 

One of the highlights of my most recent reporting trip for my book, "The High Low Tide," about the past, present and future of Georgia oystermen, was visiting Pin Point, a community of about 200 Gullah/Geechee people about 11 miles south of Savannah in Chatham County.

While there, I toured the Pin Point Heritage Museum, which pays homage to the oyster industry that employed one or two generations of residents. (It should be noted that oystering, outside of any formal industry, was a staple to the foraged Pin Point diet for years.)

 Painting of a Pin Point Fisherman on the cannery wall.

Painting of a Pin Point Fisherman on the cannery wall.

I talked with a few residents, including Algernon Varn III, the grandson of A.S. Varn, who operated the Pin Point Cannery, which closed in 1985. The cannery employed dozens of local women in its factory, and many dozens more men as oyster and crab harvesters out in the marsh. Varn III acquired the land in the 1990s with the passing of his father, he told me, and he and his wife then moved back to Pin Point. In 2009, he sold the then derelict cannery buildings to a Dallas "philanthropist," who paid millions to create the museum, which opened officially in 2011.

 Algernon Varn III poses for a portrait on a mound of oyster shells near the cannery his grandfather operated on Shipyard Creek, a place he worked whenever possible as a teenager and college student. 

Algernon Varn III poses for a portrait on a mound of oyster shells near the cannery his grandfather operated on Shipyard Creek, a place he worked whenever possible as a teenager and college student. 

But when we talk about Pin Point we have to talk about its most famous resident, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. While he is a native son of Pin Point - his mother and father worked in the cannery - he is not quite "of" the community, having been raised in Savannah from age 6. 

And here is where the story goes from quaint and cultural to political. I'll let the D.C. beat writers who've shed light on Pin Point's less finer qualities in recent years do the explaining.

Washington Post writers, and authors of "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas," looked into the Pin Point's drug-addled present (albeit from the vision of 2007, before Thomas influenced the creation of the heritage museum). Some of the arguments made about Thomas' lack of connection to Pin Point are now largely useless, as the Justice has made many efforts to show his face in the community in the years following the publishing of this account. But the story about his nephew's drug business problems are still relevant in talking about Pin Point's present.

One of the local dealers was Clarence Thomas's nephew. Until his 30-year prison sentence began in 1999, Mark Elliot Martin, the son of Thomas's sister, had been part of Pin Point's drug problem. He had been in and out of trouble, and in and out of jail -- at least 12 arrests, according to court records. In 1997, the year Martin was convicted of pointing a pistol at another person, Thomas assumed custody of his nephew's son, with the nephew's permission. Mark Elliot Martin Jr. -- "Marky," they called him -- was a precocious, curly-haired 6-year-old. The justice promised to give Mark what Thomas's grandfather had given him at the same age -- opportunities to succeed beyond what the boy had in Pin Point...

Thomas's intervention in this family crisis reflects a side of him not widely known. As arguably the most powerful African American in public life, he labors under expectations that none of his fellow justices face. Even as Thomas goes about his work, perhaps the purest conservative on the high court, it is his racial identity that shadows him. For 16 years, there have been questions: Would he be on the court if he were not black? Would his silence at oral arguments cast doubt on his intellect if he were not black? Would he be the subject of such public scrutiny if he were not a black conservative?

Ever since Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall in 1991, many have struggled to reconcile who he is today with where he began -- as the Jim Crow-era child of deprivation in Pin Point, a boy whose family insulated its shack with newspapers and shared an outhouse with neighbors.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former clerk for Justice Stephen G. Breyer, remembers sitting across from Thomas at lunch once with a quizzical expression on her face. Jackson, who is black, said Thomas "spoke the language," meaning he reminded her of the black men she knew. "But I just sat there the whole time thinking: 'I don't understand you. You sound like my parents. You sound like the people I grew up with.' But the lessons he tended to draw from the experiences of the segregated South seemed to be different than those of everybody I know."

For Thomas, those experiences begin in Pin Point with a family that has faced society's most difficult social challenges: poverty, illiteracy, divorce, child abandonment, drugs, crime, imprisonment. At times, Thomas has found these problems almost too much to bear.

The Heritage Museum is the subject of a scandal, or at least raises questions of a scandal, that's about ethical impropriety for a Supreme Court Justice. Of course, any possibility of one wasn't mentioned to me in my visit, though the players in said scandal were definitely mentioned.

The New York Times sent a reporter to Pin Point in 2011 to dig up dirt on the relationship between Justice Thomas and one Harlan Crow, the developer of the museum who also happens to be a regular contributor to conservative causes. The reporters dug for improper financial ties between Thomas and Crow, and found a few "coincidences" that needed explaining, but never were answered for. Our friend Varn III, who is quoted in the story, says that it's all good, at least as far as the museum goes. Thomas initiated a meeting between Varn and Crow that led to the selling of the property and the creation of the museum. Read the article for all the ties between Crow and Thomas that the Times dug up. But here's what Varn, a lifelong crabber, had to say back then and check out the old photo of Mr. Varn III in front of the cannery before its renovation into a museum:

For Algernon and Sharon Varn, who said they were thrilled to see a cherished piece of local history being restored, the museum is a gift to the community. While it is about more than Justice Thomas, they said, he deserves credit for putting them together with someone who had the money and the interest to make the project a reality.

“He was instrumental in getting the process started, because he wanted it preserved to show that no matter where you came from, you can go where you want,” Mr. Varn said. “He had a meager existence, and yet look where he is today. It’s a great American story.”

  Stephen Morton for The New York Times

Stephen Morton for The New York Times

However any of this shakes out, what we do have, whether or not its funded by a conservative activist, is an amazing museum that has become a real anchor for a community beset by development on all sides. One can't help feel that in 10 years or so, the museum could be all that's left of Pin Point, a piece of heritage engulfed by condominiums.