Originally created 02/25/01

Mystery circles Georgia's clan of Nuwaubians



They say they're a social group that promotes brotherhood and claim to be descendants of Egyptians and American Indians.

They also say their leader, Malachi Z. York, is from another place, the planet Rizq in the galaxy Illyuwn.

They are the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, and they made their grand entrance to Augusta on Saturday. The group has had an often-controversial presence in Georgia - one that members say is growing quickly.

The group defines itself as a "fraternal organization," but the Egyptian-centric sect has alluded to various religions, including Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

"I would put emphasis that it is a fraternal group - no different than the Masons or other groups," said Renee McDade, the group's national spokeswoman, who was in Augusta on Saturday.

The members are wary of the media and say they've been portrayed unfairly. Ms. McDade was the only member who would grant an interview, but she refused to answer questions on the controversies surrounding the Nuwaubians.

Since moving to Georgia less than 10 years ago, the group's notoriety around the state has grown.

A large part of that visibility has come from news reports about some group members' belief that a spaceship will descend in 2003 to claim 144,000 people for a rebirth.

Sometimes called the Yamassee Native American Nuwaubians, the group also claims to be descendants of a tribe of American Indians originally from Georgia, which is why they established a community near Eatonton in Putnam County.

Recently, the group moved its headquarters out of Putnam, which is about 90 miles west of Augusta. The members often butted heads with Putnam officials and received national attention for their elaborate village of Egyptian structures.

Dwight York, also known as Dr. Malachi Z. York - "the Master Teacher " - now lives in Athens. He also has gone by the names "Chief Black Eagle," "Imperial Grand Potentate," and "33 degree Deputy Grand Master of the State of Georgia."

In March, he purchased a $285,000 building in Athens for the headquarters of the Ancient Egiptian Order - one of the many organizations and names connected to the mysterious group.

The "Egiptian Church of Karast (Christ)" emerged in association with the group in Athens, where, according to one of the group's newsletters, Mr. York is the church's pastor.

It is uncertain how many members of the group are in Georgia, although a few thousand showed up in Athens for a recent social event.

Bookstores that carry the group's literature, usually called Holy Tabernacle Ministries - another organization associated with the group - pepper the Southeast.

Saturday's procession was the first time the group had held its own parade.

Last year, members participated in the city's Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, when Alexander Smith, then president of the Augusta NAACP, and Mr. York appeared in a full Egyptian headdress.

Augusta Mayor Bob Young said he has had limited interaction with local Nuwaubians. "The Nuwaubian people - whoever they are - they contacted us, they made arrangements to have a parade in Augusta, and then they asked for a proclamation to recognize their parade," he said.

That proclamation was not written nor seen by Mr. Young before being released. It asserts statements such as "the Nuwbuns were the dark, brown to black skin wooly hair original Eygyptians" and "the Black race's greatness has been accepted in America and many books as people of Timbuktu Africa or the Olmecians from Uganda, Africa, who migrated and walked here to North and South America to set up colonies way before the continental drift."

Mayor Young said it is not unusual for groups to write their own proclamation.

"Typically, the organization or individual that's asking for the proclamation will write up the information, and then what my staff does is put it into the proper format," he said.

Brooklyn to Georgia

The group began in Brooklyn, N.Y., during the 1960s, when Mr. York founded the Islamic-influenced group Ansaar Pure Sufi and the Ansaaru Allah Community.

During that time, Mr. York spent three years in a New York prison for assault, resisting arrest and possession of a dangerous weapon, according to a June 1999 article in The New York Times.

The group emerged with a distinct Egyptian tone as the Ancient Mystical Order of Melchizedek - shortly before moving to Georgia in 1993.

Mr. York purchased 473 acres of land in Putnam County for about $1 million to build an Egyptian-style complex. The group calls it "Tama-Re" or the "Egypt of the West."

The village, which has housed between 100 and 400 people at a time, contains pyramids, a Sphinx and Egyptian statues that the group built. They had plans to build a health-food store, a recording studio, a taxicab company and a social club inside the village, but that created problems with local officials, who said the land's residential and agricultural zoning did not allow for those types of businesses.

In 1998, the county padlocked several buildings in the village because the group didn't have the correct building permits. During the next two years, the small town of Eatonton was the site of numerous Nuwaubian demonstrations protesting what they called racist treatment. Lawsuits were filed from both sides.

"It's just so ridiculous," said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who was often at the center of the battle between the Nuwaubians and county officials.

At times, Sheriff Sills said, just delivering a court order to the village resulted in confrontations with armed guards.

"It was just bizarre. The sheriff doesn't normally get involved with building permits," he said.

While members deny comparisons to other fringe groups, Sheriff Sills said, "I would describe it as a cult - it fits anyone's definition."

Others say the Nuwaubians have encountered biased and unfair reactions for their alternative views.

"Oftentimes out of ignorance, false images are developed in the mind of folks. That leads sometimes to confrontations, and a community can become divided," said Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. Mr. Brooks went to Putnam County in an attempt to mediate the dispute between the Nuwaubians and officials.

The tension never spilled over into violence, and the group eventually worked out its permit issues with the county government.

The padlocks have come off all of the village's buildings, with the exception of the social club.

Since Mr. York and many members of the group moved to Athens, the activity around the Eatonton complex has died down.

"It's been extremely quiet in terms of any incidents," Sheriff Sills said.

The only problem the group has had with Athens officials has been over the expansion of their one-story building next to a historic neighborhood.

Athens officials have said they have no problem accepting the group into the community.

What kind of relationship Augusta forms with the Nuwaubians remains to be seen, observers say.

"I truly think that everything they did (here) was to generate publicity. I would imagine that's the next thing to happen in Augusta or Athens or wherever," Sheriff Sills said.

Others who have known the Nuwaubians say the group just takes some getting used to. "The Nuwaubians are no different than any other group," Mr. Brooks said. "They simply are new to this region."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.