BRUNSWICK – The Brunswick High School Pirates football team lined up just behind the north end zone last Friday after a stormy day and a tempestuous year.
A straight line of teen athletes stood silent, a row of blue-and-gold jerseys, shorts and sneakers, uniforms that partially masked the various colors of their skin. Together with their head coach, Sean Pender, and assistant offensive line coach, Jason Vaughn, the players moved yard by yard, in lockstep 100 yards down field.
The Unity March is a new Pirates tradition this fall commemorating the Feb. 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a friend and neighbor who used to play on this field. It offered a rare moment of cohesion for the teenagers of Brunswick and Glynn County after a battering year. First, the vigilantism that led to Arbery’s death. Next, the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Lately, watching their community become a grim center of trauma tourism, a waystation for out-of-towners looking to pay respects to the young man who has become a symbol of racial violence while Brunswick grapples with its own racist past.
In the seven months since Arbery’s death, the legal process continues to play out. And the authorities of Brunswick and Glynn County have yet to adequately address the deep disquiet within the town’s majority Black population. Vaughn, a man who once coached Arbery when he was a high schooler and teaches African American History at Brunswick High, has become the best solution available for many of Brunswick’s Black teenagers.
As someone who has grown up like them, someone who has felt unwelcome in certain parts of town and a prickle of fear when a police car approaches, Vaughn has embraced the immense duty of binding his students’ emotional wounds and building resilience. He can’t change society, but he can offer succor for the whole town on a Friday night.
“These kids need this mentally,” said Vaughn, while watching pregame warmups before the evening match. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that this is eight hours of family. Before the game we eat together, we sit down and break bread. We sit there as brothers, literally shoulder to shoulder. It’s family.”
Signs of the times
“All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that in the 19th century.
It could equally apply to Brunswick today.
Take the billboard located a couple hundred feet from the front steps of Brunswick High School, the largest public school in the county. It rests high above Altama Avenue, a multi-lane main drag that cuts through town. The black backdrop with red and white lettering in all caps reads UNITED METHODISTS STAND AGAINST RACISM.
Despite that message, Brunswick residents wake up daily with the knowledge that their town has become synonymous with America’s reckoning with racial justice.
The television, radio and media storm that erupted this summer, after the arrest and indictment of Arbery’s alleged killers, put the normally sleepy town in the path of a hurricane of news and national politics. Many of the journalists who parachuted in to describe alleged inequities and problems rarely stayed long enough to comprehend the lives of the 56% of Brunswick’s population who are Black.
Many of those residents barely register the billboard on Altama Avenue. Instead they focus on the truth they see embedded in the mural located 2½ miles away painted by Brunswick native Marvin Weeks to honor Arbery.
Art meets life
Weeks, 66, believes he understands Arbery’s final minutes on Earth better than most.
As a youngster, he felt the town didn’t recognize his right to equal existence. Arbery’s death triggered his own painful memory, when, as a teen, Weeks and a friend were chased and heckled by white men in pickup trucks while walking home from a trip scavenging art materials at the city dump..
“It’s amazing that my brothers and I are still here,” Weeks said.
Week’s mural now dominates the side of a vacant building on Albany Street, not far from the county courthouse. In it he has memorialized a smiling visage of Ahmaud, his face framed by a black tuxedo jacket and white dress shirt. It has become the brand image for the planned Brunswick African American Cultural Center (BAACC), a project recently conceived by the community.
For years leaders of the Black community have sought public spaces and funding to document and showcase their historic ties to Coastal Georgia, roots that run as deep as America’s own founding. For now, the only spot that references this fact is a historical marker in Dunbar Creek on St. Simons Island. The land, since consecrated by tribal leaders from Nigeria in 2017, shows the place where the Igbo (pronounced “E-bo”) slaves, at least a dozen, drowned themselves rather than accept a life of servitude in a foreign land.
The BAACC hopes to change that, by turning a dormant building into a living showcase of Black cultural life in and around Glynn County. Aundra Fuller, the center’s Director, who also teaches middle school in Brunswick, says she hopes the center, like the mural, will create a small, positive change after Ahmaud’s death.
While the group has moral support from city leaders, the funding mechanism is a GoFundMe page on Facebook, not city funds, said Fuller. “We have the support of [Brunswick] Mayor Cornell Harvey, and Brunswick chief of police, Kevin Jones, and like-minded community civic groups, but there should be more support from city government,” she said. “This center will also be a point for discussion, coming together, and a place for people to figure out where to start a conversation and express their voices about division between the races, police and government accountability.”
Forging a path forward
In the meantime, Black residents in Brunswick have turned to pillars of their community.
Coach Vaughn, a native of Brunswick, spent his life quietly mentoring young people — just as he has quietly processed his own experiences as a Black man in Brunswick. After February, however, he and the rest of the coaches at Brunswick High, the largest of two public high schools in town, started getting louder about what needs to be done to erase inequality.
A 1999 graduate of Brunswick High School, Vaughn, 39, was born and raised in the city and understands what being a Black male student-athlete, a Pirate, means in this community.
He played football and wrestled at BHS before matriculating north to Statesboro to attend Georgia Southern University, where he earned a Bachelors of Arts degree in History while minoring in Sociology. Following graduation he moved to Atlanta, and after a few years came home to Brunswick.
He’s been an educator and coach ever since. “I never wanted to be a teacher,” said Vaughn. “I started mentoring kids when I was in Atlanta and I just fell in love with seeing the change take place in them.”
Along with his football duties, Vaughn teaches U.S. History and African-American Studies, a class so popular that he has a waiting list for those wanting to enroll. In both roles, he has long been a magnet for teenagers dealing with angst, routine questions about romances, or more serious ones, like how to handle the fear and humiliation of being confronted unjustly by a hostile armed police officer.
Yet the events of 2020 have taken a steep toll on the coach who still looks like he can play the game. Talking about Arbery is like discussing a family member who was murdered, he says.
Vaughn has found his own support group among the football coaching staff, men who like him have spent hours with their majority Black students, watching them grow and thrive. They all see the fear and anger in their students’ faces and they all are trying to help.
Pirates head coach Sean Pender, who grew up in Miami and is white, is deeply attuned to the different realities he and his players face, especially now.
On Sept. 10, the evening before the team’s second game of the season, Pender had the offensive unit over to his house for a meeting, followed by dinner and a party at his pool. The young men, all Black, needed to relax before their game he thought. During the evening, some thought it would be fun to joyride behind the subdivision where the Penders live, an undeveloped tract of land.
Neighbors dialed 911. Pender’s wife talked to the cops who came to the coach’s front door, intervening before her sometimes hotheaded husband could make an uncomfortable situation worse. The cops went away, but Pender didn’t want to let his players go home without some cautionary advice. “Don’t speed and if you are pulled over, keep cool,” he remembers telling them. Put your hands on the steering wheel in plain sight and call Coach when you get home, so I know you are all right.”
Pender and Vaughn know they can’t end racism. Instead, they deal with the trauma with honesty and inspiration.
“I speak to these players all the time and I tell them, look, our next mayor is here, injustice will not happen because y’all are going to be great leaders,” said Vaughn. “Our next sheriff is right here, our lieutenants are right here, our sergeants are right here. I remind them that the same brotherhood you feel right now, it must go into the community.”
Football as a unifying force
Both America and Brunswick are reckoning with difficult discussions about racial justice. Yet at Glynn County Stadium on Sept. 18, students and local activists steering that conversation locally took a time-out from the struggle, eager for a refuge.
Two hours before kick-off, Randall Whitten, a 16-year old Brunswick High School student and game day parking lot attendant had arrived early for work. He sat on the ground listening to music with his blue BHS polo shirt over his head waiting for the crowds. He came early because he was excited about returning to a Friday night routine. “We’re worrying about staying safe from COVID-19, school stuff, and all this other stuff going on, so on Fridays I like to come and chill out with my friends,” he said.
A couple of feet away 15-year old Moises Gutierrez sat under a carport charging his cell phone. His pink t-shirt was spotted from rain earlier in the day. “Really football games are a getaway for everyone,” he said. Football games are a way for everyone to bond while there’s all this chaos around us.”
When the Pirates completed their Unity March and the referee blew the opening whistle, the nearly 200 fans in the stands and the players on the field wrapped themselves in the familiarity of a game where rules are the same no matter the color of one’s skin and where teams, not matter who win or lose, congratulate each other at the end of the match.
The student section was packed. Masks were required, yet dozens of students were not nearly as socially-distant as the Center for Disease Control would recommend. White and Black fans talked with one another in the stands about the game on the field.
The game against Savannah’s Benedictine Military School Cadets was dramatic. The Cadets went ahead early, taking a 14-0 lead after the first quarter. The Pirates scored to start the second quarter before falling further behind.
When the final whistle blew, the scoreboard read 21-16, a Pirates loss. But for many, the fact that a football Friday under the lights brought people from all backgrounds together for a brief time.
“We are creating brothers who in other circumstances their worlds would have never touched,” said Vaughn. “These families would have never met each other in any other circumstance, but they’re traveling together, working together.
“When people ask us why the coaches are kind of being political, we just say we’re not being political, we’re just doing what we always do,” said Vaughn. “We bring the community together, y’all just noticing it now. For four years every single political difference, every single injustice has been put aside for this right here to happen.”