“Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re a-nobody. Always feel that you count, always feel that you have worth, always feel your life has purpose. — MLK.”
She’s 87 years old and wants him to receive the credit he deserves for a job well done — so do her daughter and her granddaughter. Neither she, nor her daughter, Julia Britton, or her granddaughter, Coletta Britton Reed, wants to take away from the others who’ve contributed to one of Georgetown’s greatest discoveries.
“We don’t want exclusion or revision,” said Coletta, a Behavior Specialist, “we just want my grandfather to be recognized for playing an integral part in retrieving this history.”
The person they are talking about is Julius Britton Jr., who died in 1989. True, his role as a trucker was minor compared to the others, but not insignificant.
Born in Georgetown, South Carolina, Julius was not the type of man to toot his own horn. He was a family man who loved his wife and seven children and raised them to be self-sufficient. He regularly attended church and practiced what he preached.
“There are a lot of heroes in the world,” Coletta said, “and my grandfather will always be my hero.”
For decades, Julius worked for the Mack Trucking Company hauling industrial goods throughout the low country. “All his life, my grandfather was a truck driver who took pride in his job,” Coletta said. “His love for being a truck driver was evident on Sunday evenings when he would be faithfully washing his truck. He taught a lot of people in our community how to drive 18 wheelers and helped them prepare for getting their CDL license.”
Julius’ widow, Mrs. Celia Geathers Britton, believes he was the best driver the Mack Trucking Company had. Others agreed.
“Of all the drivers, they picked my husband,” said Celia, “they knew he was the only one who could maneuver that big truck into those muddy waters and pull the precious boat out safely.”
That “precious boat” she’s talking about is the Brown Ferry Vessel (BFV as it is also referred to.)
Built sometime in the late 1720s, the BFV is a large merchant ship more than 50 feet long, 14 feet wide, and 3 feet deep that sank in the Black River in Georgetown around the time Benjamin Franklin was a boy and before George Washington was born.
Before sinking, the vessel carried 25 tons of bricks made on a local plantation. For nearly 250 years, it remained in its watery grave until a group of recreational divers discovered it buried under a cargo of 10,000 bricks in 1973. Realizing they had uncovered something special, they collaborated with archaeologists to begin meticulously excavating their discovery.
Eighteenth and Nineteenth-century boats, although rare, are discovered periodically in the rivers and lakes of the United States. But the BFV was considered the most extraordinary because it is primary evidence that American shipbuilding was occurring perhaps 50 years earlier than previously thought.
After bringing up over 10,000 bricks that lay on top of the boat, Dr. Ralph Wilbanks of the state Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology spent six weeks preparing the wreck for removal. Advised to chop the ship up and raise it in pieces, he replied, “No, we’re bringing it up whole.”
Constructed of live oak, Cyprus, and pine, raising the old relic intact from its resting place was a gutsy move.
Wilbanks borrowed a crane from the International Paper Company, fashioned straps to the vessel, and proceeded with his plan to lift the fragile vessel out of the water.
On the morning of August 28th, 1976, a crowd of over 8000 people lined the river bank to watch this historical event. They sang a gospel song called, ‘Shall We Gather at the River.’ When the 250-year-old vessel emerged from the water, everyone clapped and cheered. But this was only the beginning of a multi-tiered process.
The 50-foot vessel had to be carefully positioned on a flatbed truck and driven to Columbia. It was no accident that they chose Julius.
“My grandfather may not have had a formal education,” Coletta said, “but this did not stop him from knowing the highways and roads like the back of his hand.”
That day, Julius used his impressive navigational skills to get the boat out of the water and onto the flatbed truck. ”When he backed his truck into the river,” Celia said, “everybody thought he was going to slide into the river. You could hear them gasping, but my husband knew just what he was doing.”
After they secured the boat squarely on his flatbed truck, Julius skillfully maneuvered the truck out of the muddy waters and onto the dry road.
“It was a seat-of-the-pants operation,” said Wilbanks.
But there was more to be done before the operation could be considered a success. Believe it or not, once the vessel left the water, it had to be kept wet to prevent further deterioration.
On the journey to Columbia, Julius stopped every 10 miles to borrow water hoses from local gas stations to soak the boat and prevent further decay from oxygen. Once he reached Fort Jackson, a sprinkler system was set up for several months.
During this time, world-renowned ship reconstructionist Dick Steffy of the Institute of nautical archaeology declared the Browns Ferry discovery to be “the most important single nautical discovery in the United States to date.” Later, it was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The process of conservation, from start to finish, lasted nine years.
In 1992 the BFV was returned to Georgetown, and it currently resides on the third floor of the Rice Museum. Workers literally raised the roof to place it there. The BFV remains perhaps Georgetown’s greatest tourist attraction.
Both Dick Steffy and Julius Britton Jr. have gone on to meet their maker. However, many others who contributed to the preservation of the BFV are still around, including divers, model makers, and some of the world’s leading authorities on ancient ship construction and design. Their names are in the annals of its history.
Celia Britton and her family realize Julius’ contribution to the BFV isn’t on the same scale as the other archaeologists anymore then a scaled-down model of the original vessel in the Rice Museum represents equivalence. Julius did not have the education, the nautical knowledge, or the skill set of the other contributors, but he did have a unique skill set. More than anyone else in his company, he knew how to transport large commodities safely.
Anyone with a teaspoon amount of intelligence knows that investors and administrators of the Brown’s Ferry Project would not allow “the most important single nautical discovery in the United States” to be transported from Georgetown to Columbia by someone with lesser skills than Julius.
Even so, history is a funny thing. Often, it takes years, sometimes decades, to receive a modicum of credit for your contributions. Moreover, local heroes like Jerome Nicholas Holmes, who started a local water company to bring running water into homes in the Brown’s Ferry community in the late 1960s, are hardly known.
Sometimes it isn’t one individual rather a group of individuals that are excluded in history books. Enslaved carpenters and builders are a perfect example. Although they built hundreds of buildings throughout Georgetown, including the Old Courthouse on Screven Street, they are scarcely given credit for it.
Successes aren’t predicated on our degrees or credentials. Civil War hero Robert Smalls was never formally educated, but this did not stop him from commandeering a Confederate ship and skillfully navigating it through the night until he reached the Union Navy.
Julius’ family were quite content with keeping their warm memories of his contribution to the Brown’s Ferry Project in their hearts until they read an article in a local newspaper that gave Ralph Wilbanks the credit for transporting the BFV to Columbia – as if Dr. Wilbanks needed any more accolades.
“We knew this was not true,” said Celia. “My husband was a quiet man, but he was very proud of the day he pulled their boat out of the river in front of all those people and drove it safely to Columbia, stopping several times along the way.”
At 87 years old, it’s evident longevity runs in Celia’s blood. She most likely has “miles to go before she sleeps.” In the meantime, she and her family are determined to give Julius the just credit that he deserves. Julius was not an idol bystander or passenger on August 28th, 1976. He was an essential member of the preservation team, who was equal to his task.
To some, it may seem insignificant, but when you have seen your race devalued and dehumanized for centuries, and when you’ve seen their contributions conveniently ignored, you’re acutely sensitive to the slightest omission.
As a little-known black history fact, I asked Coletta and Celia if they knew why August the 28th was an important date in history for many Americans. They said they did not know. I reminded them that on that date, 13 years earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 100,000 people and delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream Speech.’
Steve Williams is an award winning journalist who lives in Georgetown. His columns are published regularly in the Georgetown Times and South Strand News.