Tensions Simmer Around a Black
Sect in Georgia
New York Times, June 29, 1999
By Tom Lassete
When members of a black religious group moved here from
Brooklyn in 1993, their purchase of 438 acres of pasture
about 10 miles outside town stirred up gossip and some
apprehension, but residents were more curious than
A few years later, with the completion of a 40-foot-high
black pyramid on the land that belonged to the group, which
is known as the Yamassee Native American Nuwaubians, most
neighbors in this small dairy-farming town east of Atlanta
scratched their heads and figured it would be best to keep
But in 1997, when the Nuwaubians declared themselves a
separate nation and began issuing passports and organizing
armed security patrols of their property, Sheriff Howard B.
Sills of Putnam County decided to take a closer look. A copy
of a 1993 Federal Bureau of Investigations report he
received, linking the Nuwaubians' New York operations to
welfare fraud and extortion, also concerned him.
Then, Sheriff Sills learned that the group's spiritual
leader, Dwight Z. York, was a convicted felon. Mr. York has
admitted he served three years in prison in the 1960's for
resisting arrest, assault and possession of a dangerous
He is known among the Nuwaubians as the Master Teacher Dr.
Malachi York, who founded the Nuwaubians sect on a
combination of Islamic, Christian and Hebrew teachings. Mr.
York says he is an extraterrestrial being from the galaxy
Illyuwn. He and many in his group say they expect a
spacecraft from Illyuwn to visit Earth in 2003 and to take
with it 144,000 chosen people, a number they do not explain.
The front of the compound, which Nuwaubians refer to as the
Egypt of the West, contains eight-foot-high statues of
ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses placed among columns
covered with hieroglyphics, and a sphinx and several smaller
pyramids about 24 feet in height.
''These are the last days, and we Nuwaubians have created
God's kingdom right here on Earth,'' said Marshall C. Chance
Jr., president of the group's Holy Tabernacle Industries.
The similarities between the Nuwaubians and the 39 members
of the Heaven's Gate sect in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., who
committed mass suicide in March 1997, were too close to
ignore, Sheriff Sills said. The Heaven's Gate group, like
the Nuwaubians, said they believed that a spacecraft would
come to save them.
At least 150 people live on the Nuwaubian property, and
tensions between Putnam County authorities and the
Nuwaubians have steadily increased in the last two years. In
the last few months, there have been several standoffs
between Nuwaubian guards and the sheriff's department, when
deputies were barred from the property. In April, for
example, when Sheriff Sills tried to deliver a court order
concerning zoning violations, two Nuwaubian guards, wearing
9-millimeter pistols on their hips, stood in front of his
car and would not let it pass, Sheriff Sills said.
The confrontations stem in part from three county lawsuits
filed in the last year against the Nuwaubians, charging the
group with zoning violations and violations of building
regulations. The Nuwaubians were operating a large nightclub
on their land, zoned for agricultural use, and were planning
to open, among other businesses, a health-food store, a bar,
a recording studio and a taxicab company.
Mr. York refused to appear in court and was ordered to be
tried for contempt of court on Tuesday for not appearing at
previous hearings on zoning violations.
He declined to be interviewed.
Over the weekend, thousands of Nuwaubian followers drove by
the dairy farms, fruit stands and bait shops of Eatonton to
attend the annual Savior Day's Festival at the Nuwaubian
compound, which celebrated Mr. York's birthday on June 26.
Because Sheriff Sills padlocked some of the compound's
buildings, acting on a court order in the zoning disputes,
the event, also known as the Djed Festival, was held
outdoors, in continual rainstorms.
''It's a utopia,'' said Mr. Chance, who wears a priestly
black shirt and pants with a white collar. When asked if he
was ordained by any particular denomination, Mr. Chance
replied that he was ''ordained and called by God himself.''
That sort of religious fervor has raised concerns among
state and Federal officials. Department of Justice
representatives from the community dispute resolution
offices in Atlanta have been in Eatonton since last
Wednesday, trying to bring the county and the Nuwaubians to
the same table to reduce tensions.
The conflict in Putnam County, and its potential for
disorder, even violence, led Gov. Roy Barnes to call Sheriff
Sills last week to discuss the situation.
Last Wednesday, a bench warrant for Mr. York's arrest on
contempt of court charges, was withdrawn when Mr. York's
lawyer promised that his client would appear in court on
Tuesday, June 29.
''There is an atmosphere of tension,'' said Ernie Stallworth,
a mediator for the Justice Department. ''The Nuwaubians feel
they have been unfairly harassed since they've been down
A lawyer for the Nuwaubians, Leroy B. Johnson, said he
thought local, white government officials should be more
tolerant of the group's endeavors, but he acknowledged that
predominantly white Putnam County might not be the most
suitable place for a black religious group to build
Driving into the county, motorists see signs inviting people
to join the local chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans,
and the county has an annual 10-kilometer race, once known
to locals as the Tar Baby Run in celebration of Joel
Chandler Harris, a white native of Eatonton who wrote the
Br'er Rabbit folktales.
''There has to be a realization by the Government there that
the situation is a powder keg, where the drop of a hat or a
miscalculated word can incite violence,'' Mr. Johnson, a
former state senator, said in a telephone interview.
At the festival, people from as far as Trinidad and London
came to honor Mr. York. Visitors walked the small labyrinth
surrounding the main pyramid, praying with tracts written by
Mr. York, who has written at least 200 of them.
Many in the crowd were wearing clerical robes and
ancient-Egyptian-style headdresses, spoke in bits of Nuwabic,
a blend of Arabic and English also invented by Mr. York, who
appeared briefly on Saturday, surrounded by five guards and
hundreds of admirers.
None of those living on the property, other than a
spokeswoman and Mr. Chance, would comment on their
organization. Many of the women had shaved heads, with a
single braid on the right side, in honor of a Mother
The Nuwaubians' move from Brooklyn, where the group was
known as both the Holy Tabernacle of the Most High and the
Children of Abraham, Mr. Chance said, was driven by
rivalries with Islamic organizations in New York that
objected to the group's borrowing of several Muslim
traditions, he said.
When asked how the group managed to buy its land and finance
the construction, Mr. Chance gave a faint smile, and said,
''We attract people who already have something with them.''