Dwight York built a black haven in a quiet Georgia town. Relations with locals soured quickly.
EATONTON, Ga. — When Dwight York moved his followers to the heart of Georgia’s red-clay dairy country 11 years ago, the residents of Eatonton didn’t know what to expect. The Nuwaubians — as they later called themselves — were urban blacks from Brooklyn, Baltimore and Philadelphia, many of them well-educated and steeped in the politics of black nationalism.
Having looked to the south for a paradise — a place where they could rear children according to their insular, mystical religion — York’s followers chose a 476-acre swath of Putnam County. Their new haven was a sleepy county seat best known as home to the fictitious slave Uncle Remus, the invention of a white newspaperman from Eatonton.
On the land, eventually home to 500 people, rose two great pyramids, obelisks, a dun-colored sphinx and a massive gateway covered with hieroglyphics.
At the gate stood armed guards, ready to detain anyone wishing to enter the place they called Tama-Re, Egipt of the West.
Conflicts over the construction grew so tense that observers warned it could erupt into the kind of violence that occurred at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills first challenged the Nuwaubians in a dispute over zoning. But over the course of four years, Sills, who is white, and York circled each other with a sense of gathering threat.
On the streets of Eatonton, Nuwaubians passed out newsletters excoriating municipal officials as racists; city officials, meanwhile, sought to halt construction on the property.
For the last two weeks, the drama has shifted to a courtroom in Brunswick, on the Georgia coast, where York, 58, is on trial on federal charges of racketeering and transporting children across state lines for sexual purposes.
In Eatonton, the unsettling interlude has passed.
“The more I think about it, the more it seems like a dream,” said Georgia Benjamin Smith, 63, who, as leader of the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, found herself at odds with the group. “This man was going to take over this county. He was going to take it over.”
York’s followers arrived all dressed the same, in cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats. Frank Ford, an attorney, recalls the record store the Nuwaubians opened next to his Eatonton office. “It’s not often you get a bunch of black folks in the middle of Georgia running around in cowboy suits,” said Ford, who litigated for the county against the group in zoning cases. “We have our fair share of eccentrics. We sort of live and let live.”
York’s followers had reinvented themselves for the journey south. Conceived as Ansaar Pure Sufi, on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, they took the name Nubian Islamic Hebrews, according to a group member’s website. After York took a trip to Sudan, he renamed the group the Ansaru Allah Community, and ordered his followers to exchange their colorful African robes for Muslim veils and tunics. Their children spoke to no one outside the group, said a police officer who knew them in Brooklyn.
“I can see them marching up and down Bushwick Avenue right now, like a military formation, with women in the Muslim garb surrounding them,” said Bill Clark, a retired New York City homicide detective.
Known as “the Lamb” or “the Master,” York combined messages of black empowerment with Muslim and Christian beliefs and New Age mysticism. At one point, circulars claimed he came from the planet Rizq in the Illyuwn galaxy; in 2003, he warned, a ship would arrive to save 144,000 believers from apocalypse.
To parents rearing children in crime-ridden neighborhoods, the community offered a disciplined, secure life, said a 26-year-old woman who grew up with the group. Children studied Arabic and looked forward to rituals such as a nose-ring ceremony, which marked a girl’s puberty. From a young age, they helped out in the community’s businesses.
“I looked at it as something blissful, something peaceful,” said the woman.
The cowboy motif gave way to an Egyptian theme, and each year on York’s birthday, outsiders streamed onto Tama-Re. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton visited, congratulating York on his achievements.
“He put Egypt in the middle of Putnam County,” said the Rev. Omer Reid, a Baptist pastor and NAACP leader in nearby Milledgeville. “There were a lot of people who would have paid good money to see what he had built.”
As York’s followers began to participate in local politics, others bridled. Eatonton’s NAACP chapter had a relaxed air, said Smith. “We didn’t fuss and fight over nothing,” she said. Then a Nuwaubian attended, telling members that Eatonton’s blacks were so passive that she would be ashamed to bring her grandchildren to town.
“I began to get riled up,” said Smith. “This lady is talking about my county. If she is ashamed to have her grandchildren see us, then there are a lot of exits out of Putnam County, and I would donate my time to arrange a few more.”
Nobody was more wary than Sills, who keeps a verse from Proverbs in his office: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth; but the righteous are bold as the lion.”
Sills became sheriff just as York declared the property a sovereign nation, complete with an independent currency and a visa system for visitors. Discovering that York ran a nightclub on the property, local authorities acted to shut it down.
Two years later, when Sills went to deliver a court order demanding that the group allow county inspections, armed guards blocked his vehicle, he said. From then on, Sills said, violence was a real possibility.
“I know what happened in 1861, when my ancestors did the same thing,” Sills said. “When a group of people declares, ‘We’re a sovereign nation, we’re not subject to the law’ … blood is getting ready to be spilled.”
Sills was not the first law enforcement officer to scrutinize York’s group. A 1993 FBI report in Sills’ files described York’s philosophy as “extremely militant black nationalism” and described his “control [over] the lives and thinking processes” of his followers. The report details York’s criminal history, which includes convictions for statutory rape, assault with a dangerous weapon and application for a fraudulent passport.
In 1998, Sills received an anonymous letter alleging that York was having sex with children. Three years later, York was arrested in a parking lot in Milledgeville. He was indicted on child-sexual abuse charges. That night, 300 deputies and federal agents raided Tama-Re.
On Jan. 14, the 14th alleged victim, a narrow-shouldered 16-year-old, took the stand to describe sexual abuse that she said began with fondling when she was 5 and progressed to anal sex the following year.
Adrian Patrick, York’s defense attorney, has said the allegations are a conspiracy between local authorities and a group of angry former members led by York’s son. Six alleged victims listed by prosecutors in the indictment have taken the stand to deny the abuse reports. Closing arguments are expected today.
Locals say York’s influence in the county faded after his arrest, and authorities say only about two dozen followers remain on the land. Still, in certain Eatonton homes, people shrug off the trial in Brunswick as another chapter in racial relations in the Deep South.
“The sheriff ain’t never been with them,” said Charlie Dorsey, a 69-year-old retired truck driver, who is black. “They were the only black race that stood up against the sheriff.”
Hearing his comments, the NAACP’s Smith sighed. The wounds are far from healed, she said. Eatonton’s NAACP chapter collapsed this year; first the founding members left, alarmed by the influx of Nuwaubians. Then, the Nuwaubians left.
Smith has called a meeting a couple weeks from now for a new organization. The chapter will be starting from scratch.