Hogan and the Preacher Poet Fisherwoman

by Tim Gilmore, 9/10/2022

1. The Callings of Generations

I’m in the back seat of Clara Murray’s Chevy Impala and even if we weren’t speeding down Saxon Boulevard in Deltona, I couldn’t get out because the door only opens from outside.

Evangelist Savannah Anna Sparks, Reverend Clara Murray’s great aunt

Clara, 92 years old next week, who comes from generations of ministers, has spent more than half her life preaching. Her father, Reverend D.V. Miller, whom she describes as “a cruel man,” founded Hopewell Baptist Church down in Pompano Beach in 1946.

For decades Clara traveled from church to church, preaching across the South – Florida and Georgia and up through the Carolinas and into D.C. and even Maryland – for the Church of the Kingdom of God, founded by Bishop Noah Nothing, birth name William Bryant, Sr., at a Pentecostal Conference in Albany, Georgia in 1945.

Bishop Noah Nothing, courtesy Church of the Kingdom of God

Like Malcolm X, the bishop chose to eliminate his last name. It worked on several levels. Whereas Malcolm Little excised his “slave name,” Clara says, “The bishop was so humble, he knew he had the Gospel, but wanted only to be known as Bishop Nothing.” That humility extended into the wordplay of Noah Nothing’s “knowing nothing,” being but an empty vessel through which God moved, though the bishop play the part of Noah and pilot God’s chosen across the destruction of the world.

Clara believes in “making a joyful noise unto the Lord” and “moving when the Spirit moves you.” There’s only one God, she says, and all the churches are nothing but different languages. There are 3,000 languages on earth, or maybe it’s three million, she says, but each of us speaks the language of the place we’re born, and it’s the same with worshiping God.

a house, more than a century old, near where Clara Murray visited her great aunt as child

When Clara was in her 60s, she founded her own Church of the Kingdom of God congregation in Miami. The white Jewish retirement center where she’d been holding Bible Study meetings had decided she needed to move and it broke her heart and almost crushed her spirit. And then a form came to her as she lay crying in her bed in the middle of the night, and the form was the Lord, and the Lord said, “Build me a church,” and she did.

She’s been in Deltona now, 250 miles north, for 21 years now and though sometimes she preaches in the nearby Holiness church, the Miami church is her own child, her only child, and she talks to congregants there every day.

Evangelist Savannah Anna Sparks, Reverend Clara Murray’s great aunt

Clara loved visiting her Auntie S.A. when she was a little girl. She lived in Jacksonville until she was eight and her preacherwoman auntie lived “out toward the beach” in a miniscule black settlement called Hogan. She wishes she could remember just where it was. Like so many other black communities, like Cosmo and Lone Star, like Chaseville and Old Fulton Town, Hogan has long since disappeared beneath Jacksonville’s suburban seep and creep and spread.

the flatiron building at Beach Boulevard and Hogan Road

2. Place Before Place and After

Down in the saw palmetto and vines of leather-skin grapes called scuppernong, these waters heavy and mucilaginous can’t sink, for the earth festers saturated with the tides and the daily hours and hours of Old Testament rains. The wrinkled fisherman, face brown and leathered and burnt dark, down beneath the new suburban houses, says here’s where the alligators mate. He’s seen them, dozens at a time. It’s the season, he says, but not the hour and he knows something about time.

He’s heard of a place called Hogan that disappeared beneath the maps. He knows where it went. Boundaries were fluid in those old settlements coagulated during and after the Civil War, communities like Philips and Spring Glen and Pine Forest. The fisherman knows where Hogan went because Hogan went where the people of Hogan went.

If a man from Hogan put up a house where he’d put up a lean-to where he’d camped down from where he’d spent last winter, Hogan went too, and the place that was and the place that went with him were one and the same and were Hogan.

Dirt roads overgrown behind mini-storage units, a woodframe house leans hard on its northwest leg, a tilt slowly accelerating over the last 75 years. “No Trespassing” signs dot the woods between the abandoned Salaam Club, visible from Beach Boulevard, and the orphanage, just shy of the battered horseshoe of apartments and double row of weathered condos and swimming pools and La Dominicanita Bakery.

Hogan’s still here, though Hogan’s gone. And Hogan was always here, though it seemed just to show up one day, a vagabond dreamy-eyed and dogleg and swayback, must’ve been born old, sprung forth complete without a childhood, never born just always been, un-time-touched, and thus undying.

map of the Florida East Coast Railway, showing Hogan as a stop

Hogan wasn’t much “toward the beach,” as Sister Clara remembered it. It was a flag stop, just before Pottsburg Creek, on the Florida East Coast Railway, just out from Jax to the beaches. The route of that vanished rail line is now Beach Boulevard. Hogan abutted a settlement called Skinner and the Duval County Prison Farm, which became the Old Parental Home for Girls. A lumber tram road jutted south.

Alongside Hogan and what’s now Parental Home Road, prisoners who worked the farm included immigrants from England, Ireland, France, Sweden and Denmark. Vagrancy, loosely defined as being someone in a public place that some particular someone in power didn’t feel you should be, was a good way to end up at the prison farm.

Ryar Road, near where Clara’s great aunt lived

On February 17, 1922, the Associated Press reported, “Carl E. Smith, residing near Hogan, is now in the county jail on the charge of forgery as a result of an investigation requested by several friends of John Lorain, who died at Smith’s home on last Tuesday afternoon.”

Hogan Annex plat, courtesy City of Jacksonville

Except that Smith’s home wasn’t Smith’s at all, but that of the elderly Lorain. So comes the twist. The Smiths moved into Lorain’s home four days before he supposedly made his will another four days before his death. Wherever the Smiths came from, friends and neighbors of John Lorain said he’d made his will a year ago, leaving his entire estate, valued at a considerable $25,000, to his sister Rose back home in Ireland.

Ridgeland Gardens plat, courtesy City of Jacksonville

I ask the old fisherman his name and he asks me if I’d believe him if he told me his name was Hogan. I don’t, but then I decide I will. Besides, a subdivision called Hogan Heights lies further down Beach Boulevard, and before that, Hogan Annex was intended southeast of Beach and Southside Boulevards, its avenues named for presidents. Even now a City of Jacksonville satellite map shows a line for Hayes Avenue crossing like a ghost road through the woods in what’s now Beach and Peach Urban Park. So why shouldn’t I believe Hogan’s name is Hogan if he wants me to believe it?

house on East Road, near where Clara visited her great aunt as a child

Up and down East Street and West Street of Ridgeland Gardens, platted atop part of Hogan in 1928, I find houses as old as the plat and older. Here’s a great wide farmhouse grown over with vines. (All things on earth are the earth and the earth reclaims all things.) Here’s a small cottage with wide gables, wide porches, wide wings. (The earth resorbs all history, all religion, all politics. All things from and on the earth are still the earth and return.)

Tom’s Asphalt Repairs, headquartered in a century-old house near where Clara visited her great aunt

Across Beach Boulevard from Tom’s Asphalt Repairs, based in a 1920s woodframe house, Hogan Road launches from a triangle with Beach Boulevard and a one-story flatiron building, its brick painted white, that houses Arise and Walk Ministries, then shoots at an acute angle away from Beach Boulevard, away from Pottsburg Creek, up through the widening wingspan of radiating gone ghost Hogan.

the flatiron building at Beach Boulevard and Hogan Road

3. Up From / Down Before /  Slavery

Despite the circular assertions of Hogan the fisherman, no one living but Clara Murray directly remembers Hogan.

time schedule, showing Florida East Coast Railway stops, including Hogan

No one else recalls Savannah Anna Sparks, whom Clara calls “a traveling preacher and a poet and a fisherwoman. She went down to the branch every day and fished and that’s what she ate and she took her shotgun everywhere she went.”

Born in 1871 in Bronwood, Georgia, Sister S.A. was the 12th of 14 children. Clara can’t remember Auntie S.A.’s house near the water in Hogan, but she can see the pear tree and the sassafras tree and her auntie chopping up the roots and making sassafras tea.

Sassafras illustration, from Sassafrasbaum, auch Fenchelholzbaum oder Nelkenzimtbaum Genannt, 1780

She remembers part of one of Savannah Sparks’s poems and recites it: “Hell is a dry town. Don’t go there. In Hell the rich man couldn’t get no water.” She says her auntie didn’t mean Hell didn’t serve liquor.

Sister S.A. came down to Hogan from Bronwood in 1910. It was around the time all rural Georgia started coming down to Jacksonville and the city changed from the Northeast in exile to the capital of South Georgia. However many people once populated Hogan, 465 people called Bronwood, 21 miles from Americus, home when Clara’s aunt left it. Today the population’s just over 300.

Downtown Bronwood, before demolition, courtesy Vanishing Georgia

A few years ago, Bronwood had a row of five or six handsome but abandoned brick storefronts on its main street downtown, punctuated by an empty filling station. Old Man Rainey had run a used car dealership across the street since the 1960s, bought the block, with its collapsing floors and fallen ceilings and broken windows, and demolished it to splinters in 2016.

Evangelist Savannah Anna Sparks, Reverend Clara Murray’s great aunt

Savannah Anna’s parents were born slaves in South Carolina in 1840 and ’41, were forced down to Randolph, Georgia in ’50, and halfway through the Civil War, two years before Emancipation, they married, then moved down further to Brown’s Station, incorporated 15 years later as Bronwood, where the Lord showed himself in a vision to Savannah Anna’s mother Sarah Anne one night and said she would bear many children, that one of the last, the pen-ultimate but one, would bring God down into Florida, that rank lush saurian stinking outlaw morass, and fish in its waters and become “fishers of men.” Amen.