Street name signs are a familiar language for a city and its inhabitants that give a measure of change and sometimes a symbol of hope.
On Friday evening, the Jernigan family and community members gathered at the corner of Jernigan Road in Ellabell for a community road name change dedication. The road sign name was changed from Tar City Road to Jernigan Road the day before in honor of Neil Jernigan, former owner of the land in which the street sign is on and founder of the 200-acre community.
During the gathering there was conversation, singing, and prayer led by Pastor Apostle Christopher Columbus Singleton of Boyd’s Temple New Order Greater Faith Ministries and New Jerusalem in Savannah.
“This is in honor of our ancestor Jernigan, the founder of our community.” Jernigan’s great granddaughter Juanita Baker stated.
Formerly named Groover Hill Road, the street name was changed to Tar City Road. Concerning the name change to Tar City Road, Baker explained, “It was originally Groover Hill Road which still shows over I-16. They didn’t get any signatures or permission from any owners. Somehow they got it changed and that was a very disrespectful thing to do. They thought it was funny, I guess. It stayed that way for years. I thought it was time to reverse that.”
To have the street name changed from Tar City Road to Jernigan Road was a process. “We had to have signed petitions from everybody that lived on here, get signatures from everyone and then submit it to the zoning board. We had three meetings for it to be approved by them,” Baker said.
According to members of the Jernigan family, Neil Jernigan was born into slavery in Mississippi between 1840 and 1846. He was a field worker until slavery was abolished. His slave owner gave him $400 to start his life as a free man. Jernigan married a young woman named Betty and they moved to North Carolina, where he owned a turpentine distillery. Eventually, they moved to Bulloch County, Georgia, and that’s where Jernigan saw an advertisement for the sale of 200 acres of land in Bryan County. He bought the land at the price of 50 cents per acre and moved here.
Today, about 33 members of the Jernigan family still live on the land that now has a plant nursery, goats, an upcoming Black Creek Community Center and homes. “Some of our original nice homes were burned down by the KKK in our community. Resolving in deaths (to) some of our ancestors. My mother lived through a lot.” said Baker.
Jernigan’s 97-year-old granddaughter Mary Mitchell Baker is the oldest living relative and still resides on the land. Concerning the road name change Mary Baker said, ”It means a lot to me because the Jernigans was the beginning of everything. We are here because he owned all of this land. It was my grandad who owned it and that’s why we are here because he had divided it with his children and his grands got in with it like that.”
Although from their union Neil and Betty Jernigan had 10 children, a legacy was started that has impacted generations of Jernigans. “He actually established the land because had he not come and spent the money to purchase the land, then we would have not been able to pass it down from generation, to generation, to generation. So that was the biggest accomplishment he had.” Juanita Baker added.
Smiling, 18-year-old Chabravia Jernigan said “Mr. Jernigan was my great, great, great granddaddy. This means a lot, having my last name as the road. You know, it’s been a long time. At first it wasn’t that, it was Tar City Road and now I get to grow up with my last name being on the road, that’s amazing!”