In 1526 a group of African slaves, with Native American help, revolted and escaped from a short-lived Spanish colony near the Pee Dee River on the South Carolina coast. Further south, on the Sea Island of St. Helena off the same coast, between Charleston and Savannah, Sam Doyle was born in 1906. The area had been inhabited by slaves and descendants of slaves for more than three centuries. Many of them formed the Gullah culture, the term Gullah apparently having been derived from the West African word Gola or Gala, which refers to groups from the Sierra Leone-Liberia coastal area of West Africa. St. Helena was almost entirely populated by African Americans, and even the earliest white slave owners generally lived on the mainland. During the Civil War, Union troops occupied the area around Beaufort, across the channel from St. Helena, and the island became a refuge for freed and escaped slaves. There was no literacy among blacks on St. Helena until mid-way through the Civil War, when Quakers from the North created a school for freed slaves, the Penn School, the first such institution in the United States.
Sam Doyle was born Thomas Samuel Doyle (the nickname "Sam" was attached to him by a white employer). He grew up within a Gullah culture that developed in a state of virtual isolation from mainland American life. Until Doyle was twenty years old, the only access to St. Helena was by boat. African traditions and speech patterns survived in the island group, protected by the separation from, and the indifference of, the white society nearby.
Every community needs information. Most American communities have resident writers and journalists and daily or weekly periodicals to provide it. The dissemination of public information serves a variety of purposes: it can educate or titillate, inspire or amuse. It can unify a group of diverse individuals by instilling a sense of collective pride; it can play a role in preserving a cultural heritage; it can identify and explain heroes and role models, local and national. Information can be spread by methods other than those to which modern Americans are accustomed, that is, the print and electronic media. Throughout history in most civilizations information has been successfully communicated through the visual arts.
Frogmore, the settlement on St. Helena, had a very limited flow of public information even by the mid-twentieth century. But Frogmore had Sam Doyle, a ninth-grade dropout of the Penn School, who did odd jobs in the community, in the general store of Beaufort, and in the laundry at the Marine Corps base on neighboring Parris Island. Doyle had shown some artistic talent as a young schoolboy and had even been encouraged to study art by a teacher at the Penn School. He began to paint, he recalls, around 1944, and from that point on, he worked toward refining his artistic talent and broadening the scope of his content. After his retirement in the 1970s, Doyle became a prolific and dedicated artist who understood his role as scribe, chronicler, and entertainer for the inhabitants of the island.
Doyle covered the outside of his house and studio—an abandoned cafe once operated by a wife who had deserted him—with paintings covering a range of subjects. His initial audience was the local populace, Doyle's contemporaries and their children and grandchildren. They often had no access to information on their community and culture, and their nation and its history, other than word of mouth—and Doyle's portraits and narrative paintings.
Doyle's primary focus was on the island itself. He documented the residents of the island, the legendary folk characters, and their myths and superstitions, and in that role, he transformed people into myths and became a mythmaker himself. He balanced his presentation, showing us at once the strengths and weaknesses of his friends and acquaintances: their most gallant actions, mystical powers, eccentricities, and sexual foibles. His paintings, which at first seem uncomplicated and naive, turn out to be a complex layering of encoded meanings and social commentary. He looked inside houses and inside heads, for both insight and gossip. He observed and was proud of the social changes for African Americans on St. Helena, in the South, and across America. When a black (on the island) became the first of his or her race to practice a profession on the island, Doyle created a portrait to commemorate the progress of his people, among them the first black doctor, barber, midwife, laundryman, embalmer, postman, and policeman. Doyle also needed to keep the islanders informed about the progress being made by blacks in the American mainstream. He painted Joe Louis, Ray Charles, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., and various basketball players, entertainers, and other notables.
Doyle had an inevitable interest in folk medicine: it served as the primary source of cures and remedies for most of the island's residents. Its most noteworthy practitioners, the region's root doctors, Dr. Buzzard, Dr. Eagle, and Dr. Hawk, among others, were regularly pictured by Doyle. The most famous of them, nicknamed Dr. Buz, is usually shown with an actual seashell attached to the painting at the healer's ear as if he is listening to nature's telephoning voice providing him with mystical secrets. According to Doyle,
Dr. Eagle was a man named McTeer; who learned from Dr. Buz. He was the sheriff, a witch doctor; a white man. Long time ago there was a few of them. See, those doctors they deal from the roots in the woods. When I was a boy they doctor around here until Dr. Billy came along, the first black doctor on the island. Didn't have no doctor hospital, like that. If you get cut or something your parent put some sand and tie it up.
Did it work? "It had to work," he says. "There weren't anything else that did work."
Some of Doyle's earliest pieces of art were accumulative sculptures of animals, birds, and reptiles. They were made of roots covered with materials such as tar, glass, nails, and bird feathers, indicating that Doyle was familiar with conjuring practices. He was also a transmitter of West African traditions from the Guinea Coast which were alive and faring well in these remote islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
Doyle found a rich source of subject material in the sexual characteristics, activities, and proclivities of the islanders. No doubt Doyle's "readers," his local audience, made frequent return visits to his house to see which new revelations Doyle would choose to present. Would it be Bull Dagger ("that's two in one, a man and a woman, oh yes, a natural, just half and half"). Or LeBe, two women in an embrace. Or men, similarly inclined ("them two lovers but they mens. We got plenty around here").
Frip, a farmer who came from neighboring Fripp Island, had "St. Helena's longest" (penis, that is), and is "St. Helena's best" (farmer?). And paintings of Frank Capers, the first barber, were often nuanced with intimations of homosexuality. Once when Doyle complained to a female visitor that he was suffering from a long sexual abstinence, she supposedly suggested, "Why don't you try me?" "Try Me" then became a stock character in the Doyle repertory.
St. Helena's women, real and imaginary, provided a variety of enjoyable subjects for Doyle. There was Rocking Mary, a barefoot, cigar-smoking, free spirit; WeWe, or LeBit, the smallest woman on the island; Rambling Rose, the good-time girl depicted with a real beer can nailed to her hand; Old Hag, a common figure in black folk tales who reputedly sat on men's faces as they slept; and the lamented leer, whose husband constantly beat her with a whip, leaving her dripping with blood.
Doyle's last official job was as custodian at Frogmore's Chapel of Ease, a two-hundred-year-old church in ruins; perhaps that brought him closer to the spirits that protect, haunt, and empower the residents of St. Helena. Doyle liked to talk about the supernatural and portray it. A well-known legend told of a young slave whose master had him ceremonially executed (by decapitation) and his body buried to protect a hidden treasure. Every seven years some claimed to hear and see him running through the woods and streets, whooping loudly and carrying his head under his arm. After the introduction of automobiles on St. Helena, the Whooping Boy ghost disappeared and apparently has not returned.
What the viewer gets from one of Doyle's artworks is not always what the viewer at first sees. A piece that appears to be a straightforward tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, may well contain veiled messages. Above the head of Dr. King is a table around which are seated people of four skin colors, yellow, white, red, and brown. Above them are the words "A Dream." So the message—that Dr. King has a dream of peaceful co-existence among all races-is clear. Or is it? Is King's dream a vision, or is it a fantasy, illusionary? Or does Doyle have something else in mind? The word Dream is broken down to read "DR E AM." Dr. E is the nickname of Dr. Eagle. Could "AM" be read as "IS"? Dr. Eagle IS! Doyle may have seen King as the ultimate conjureman-healer, performing his magic in an area where no black man had succeeded before. If this is Doyle's intention, he completes the analogy by painting Dr. King and his vision/illusion on the interior of an old medicine cabinet. But wait. Dr. Eagle is a white root doctor, and can conjure whites, too. Can King do the same? And consider the four cartoonlike figures who form King's "dream": the black participant, at one end of the table, is pure caricature; the yellow man faces the viewer with his cliched inscrutable smile; the white man, at the end of the table opposite the black man, has his mouth turned downward—no friend he; and the red man sits with his back to a world that has no idea how he looks or what he is thinking. Whatever these diners are eating, the white man clearly has the most on his plate, the black the least.
Many studies have been made of the Gullahs. It is probably the most scrutinized folk culture of black America. Numerous books, articles, photographic essays, and films document the sea island's civilization. Certainly one of the most insightful and informative chronicles of Gullah life is the body of paintings produced by Sam Doyle. He felt a responsibility to record what he saw and knew. One week before his death at age seventy-nine, he explained, "These are some things that happen a long time ago. They want me to get the history the first thing. Well, I go from seventy years ago. Get the history of this island or the things that happened when I was a kid. What I paint is history."
The quotations in this essay are taken from an interview with Barbara Archer at Frogmore in 1985.