Eatonton site raises
a lot of questions
Macon Telegraph, August 8, 1999
By Matthew I. Pinzur
EATONTON - There is a 473-acre plot outside Eatonton that
has brought unheard of conflict and dissent to the rural
community, and no one can even agree on what to call it.
To visitors, it is called a curiosity, memorable for its
colorful Egyptian monuments, stories-high pyramids and the
medley of music that pours past the gates.
To some in local government and law enforcement, it is
called a compound, stirring images of the cultish
separatists in places like Waco and Ruby Ridge.
To the hundreds of people who live on or frequent it, this
is Tama-Re, or simply, The Land. The Nuwaubian Nation of
Moors came to Putnam County in 1993, believing the area is
equal parts native birthright, religious shrine and natural
Whatever it is called, it has given rise to tension in
Middle Georgia. A rural Southern community with shared deep
roots, Southern traditions and a population that's about 63
percent white and 37 percent black, Putnam County now is
forced to confront its own feelings about change and
The Nuwaubians - a predominantly black cultural organization
that blends elements of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and
ancient Egyptian religion - are discovering the complexity
of large-scale development in a new place, and are doing it
behind walls patrolled by armed guards and surrounded by
locals who wonder about the newcomers' intentions.
The legal battles between the Nuwaubians and the Putnam
government have largely centered on the use of their land -
zoning, building codes and inspections. But one thing both
sides do agree on is that zoning disputes only paper over
the real discord: Can these two groups of people - the
newcomers and the long-time residents - accept each other
enough to peacefully coexist?
Permits And Zoning
Nuwaubians lived in their village and the surrounding cities
of Eatonton and Milledgeville for years before serious
problems developed, and growth on the land was largely
That changed last January when occasional skirmishes over
zoning and permits escalated into a lawsuit in which Putnam
County officials charged Nuwaubian leaders with illegally
operating a nightclub in a building zoned only for storage.
By the middle of March, a Putnam County judge halted all
construction on the land in the face of charges that the
group was building without permits and operating an
On June 15, Putnam Sheriff Howard Sills acted on a court
order and padlocked five buildings in the village, including
two pyramids identified by the Nuwaubians as a church and a
Today, the Nuwaubians still have permit applications pending
with the county inspector, and little has changed. Nuwaubian
spokespeople claim the county is deliberately hindering
development in the village, while county officials said they
are only enforcing well-established laws and ordinances.
"I have nothing against the Nuwaubians; all they have to do
is abide by the law," said Putnam County Commissioner Robert
Poole. "If they do what they say they're going to do, we
won't have any problems."
But communication between the groups has ranged from
strained to outright threatening, and it is difficult to
know exactly what has been said in closed-door meetings this
Renee McDade and Marshall Chance, national spokespeople for
the Nuwaubians, said county officials routinely reject
permit applications on technicalities. When they address
those concerns, McDade and Chance said, the county finds new
reasons to reject them.
"We keep being put off," said Chance, Tama-Re's spiritual
leader and an ordained Baptist minister who dresses in black
with a traditional clergyman's collar. "They say it's
lawful, we say it's obstruction."
The group's most recent applications were rejected earlier
this month because the plat, a detailed map of the land, did
not meet the county's standards. They have received permits
for some of the monuments, including a tall obelisk and a
statue, but the pyramids and other buildings are still
"This is something that is asked of every citizen, including
myself," said Sandra Adams, also a county commissioner.
Beyond the individual buildings on the Nuwaubian's property,
commissioners said they are concerned about long-term
development and the impact it will have on the rest of the
Chance said he envisions diverse facilities including a
recording studio and theme park in Tama-Re's future as it
grows into a significant cultural and residential center.
Estimates from different sources placed between 100 and 300
people living full time in the village, and as it expands,
Chance said, surrounding cities will reap the rewards.
"We want to help the town grow and help the economy to
flourish," he said, explaining that members would continue
to shop, work, bank and dine in Eatonton and Milledgeville.
But county officials questioned whether unchecked growth was
desirable or possible, saying the impact on infrastructure
and utilities may be more than the county can carry.
"A lot of planning has to be done before there's large
growth there," Poole said. "And I don't see where the
county's going to benefit too much from it."
Side issues have created fear and distrust.
Putnam officials have been distracted by a flood of
newsletters and fliers that berate and sometimes threaten
public figures, including offering a $500 reward for
embarrassing information about people like Sills. The
documents have been printed by groups with names like
Concerned Citizens of Eatonton, but county officials believe
they are run by Nuwaubian members.
"They took it upon themselves to exercise their freedom of
speech," said McDade, who added that the publications did
not come from the official Nuwaubian organization.
"We're not going to be intimidated in any way, shape or
form," Poole said. "When they put a bounty on somebody's
head, that's not very Christian of them."
McDade said prominent members of the Nuwaubians have also
received death threats. A Putnam County minister, Robert
Lee, publishes a vehemently anti-Nuwaubian newsletter
condemning the group as satanic and has led marches
protesting their development.
The Nuwaubians founder and retired leader, Malachai Z. York,
has been a colorful and controversial distraction himself.
Before purchasing the Putnam County land in 1993 for
$975,000, York lived in Sullivan County, New York, and was
known as Dwight York. He founded the Nuwaubian nation there
as early as 1970, after serving three years in prison in the
1960s for resisting arrest, assault and possession of a
"He moved here to retire," Chance said.
York has become something of a recluse, rarely appearing in
public and, McDade said, moving around from place to place.
His absence became its own issue this year when he did not
respond to judges' requests that he appear to answer to
various charges. A formal court order was later drafted,
ordering him to answer contempt charges in Putnam Superior
He answered that order, but his hearing was scheduled during
the Nuwaubians' annual summer festival, which draws
thousands of supporters to the village. They announced that
more than 30,000 protestors would descend on the courthouse
before York's hearing, prompting Sills to have some 200 law
enforcement officers - including a helicopter and armored
personnel carrier - stationed within a few blocks. When only
a few hundred York supporters arrived, they accused Sills of
mustering an overwhelming and threatening police force, and
both sides launched into another round of defensive rhetoric
Accusations Of Racism
Throughout the legal disputes, the Nuwaubians have lobbed
accusations of racism and religious persecution, leaving
county officials angry and defensive.
"It's a group of black separatists who believe white people
are genetically inferior mutants," said Dorothy Adams, an
attorney for Putnam County. "They try to make us look like a
bunch of big-bellied rednecks."
McDade called those claims ridiculous, saying that although
the group is predominantly black, it includes members who
are white, Asian and of other descent.
"We don't see this as a black-white issue," McDade said.
"It's a matter of religious persecution."
But despite what is said in interviews, commissioner Sandra
Adams said the Nuwaubians have repeatedly made race an
issue. Adams, who is black, said she has been called a
"house nigger" by Nuwaubian protesters.
"They do not want to solve these problems; they want to call
attention to themselves," said Sandra Adams, who is not
related to the county's attorney. "When the racism card is
played, everybody stops what they're doing and converges on
little old Putnam County."
National publications from Time magazine to the New York
Times have covered the Nuwaubian issue this summer.
And while she believes racism still exists throughout the
United States, Sandra Adams said it is not an issue in the
The four voting members of the Putnam commission are evenly
split - Poole and Steve Layson are white, Sandra Adams and
Jimmy Davis are black. Chairman Ralph Perdomo is white, but
votes only to break ties.
"It is not my concern who they pray to or what color they
are, just that they are citizens of Putnam County," Perdomo
said. "I will bend over backwards to assist any citizen, but
I won't break the law."
But the commissioners are aware of just how different the
Nuwaubians are from traditional Putnam residents.
"There are going to continue to be ripples all along the way
because they are a cult," Poole said.
"I don't care what they say, that's not the norm in a
society, and we're a small town."
Chance said it is difficult to continue to believe that
county officials are supportive in the face of the legal
stalemate they have reached. In the case of the alleged
nightclub, which the Nuwaubians call the Ramses Social Club,
Chance said the group spent months trying to have the
building rezoned, but were never given clear directions from
"They gave us a list of 19 violations of the club," Chance
said, "then padlocked it before we could fix them."
Keeping The Peace
Sills sees himself as the man in the middle, charged with
keeping things cool.
"I have been willfully obstructed and opposed by armed
individuals, and I have simply turned around and left, even
with court orders," Sills said. "It is my professional
opinion that they are desperately seeking a confrontation."
Sills said he has overridden department policies, forgone
arrests and not responded to threats and behavior that would
land other citizens in jail, all in the interest of
preventing a showdown. He said he has ordered his deputies
not to stop Nuwaubian drivers for minor violations such as
license plate problems, or for speeding at less than 75 mph.
"There are lots of things I could arrest them for that I
have not," Sills said. "I accept responsibility for not
doing that, but police discretion is something I have. I
don't want an armed confrontation ever."
But Sills is losing patience with the group that, despite
his pains, has called him a "demon" and, he said, threatened
him. Sills takes the threats so seriously that he no longer
lets his children stay in his home overnight. "I've done it
under an onslaught, never seen in this state, of propaganda
slandering me, and I've never raised my voice," Sills said.
Sills has however appeared in a New York television news
report about the Nuwabians and has compared the group to
other well-known cult organizations. Sills said the group -
which he calls "the so-called Nuwaubians" - presents no real
threat to members of the public, outside of law enforcement.
Government officials, however, do perceive a potential
political threat from the Nuwaubians as their numbers
continue to grow in the region. In a taped speech, York said
the group would establish an independent nation with
passports, taxes and laws on the Putnam County land. Members
already carry those passports, which grant them access to
"I have a problem with them wanting to take over," said
commissioner Sandra Adams. "If they're not going to follow
the established laws, do I have to follow the laws they put
in place? Does that leave me at their mercy or do I have to
pack up my little bongos and boogie out of town?" The
Nuwaubians, whose published literature extols American
government and demands loyalty to the country, deny any
desire to establish a sovereign nation and said York's
comments were taken out of context. Chance said York was
speaking of creating a theme park similar to Disney parks in
Florida or California.
"We did not come as a political threat," Chance said. "We
have had the FBI and GBI here. If we were lawbreakers, we
would not ask for help from the federal government."
One of their cornerstone publications, "Little Guide Book
for Nuwaubians," reprints the entire U.S. Constitution. The
same book, which includes rules for Nuwaubians, forbids
disorderly conduct and demands total cooperation with
Perdomo dismissed concerns of a political threat. Tama-Re is
in the same voting district as Lake Sinclair, which Perdomo
said is the fastest-growing district in the county and
therefore unlikely to feel much political impact from the
But they have already made their presence felt in local
political groups. Some 125 of the 550 members of the Putman
County NAACP are Nuwaubians, giving them a voice in the
"If they do take over," Poole said, "a lot of people will
The heart of the problem, according to Poole and Perdomo, is
that the Nuwaubians lack the technical expertise to build
and win approval for their developments.
Progress has been smoother when the Nuwaubians have enlisted
the help of expert contractors and engineers, but
commissioners said those experts have not been used on a
consistent enough basis to solve the disagreements. The
Nuwaubians are still petitioning for permits that would
legitimate the padlocked buildings and clear the way for
future building. But McDade is concerned that there may not
be an end in sight.
"What is the next reason for saying 'no' to the Nuwaubians?"
she asked. Whenever it does come, Perdomo said there is only
one possible outcome. "It's going to end with them obeying
our laws," he said. "That's the only way it can end."