LISTEN: On the Friday, May 17 edition of Georgia Today: Some Morehouse College students express concerns over President Joe Biden's upcoming commencement speech; a new report shows a rise in drowning deaths over the past decade; and a fixture of downtown Savannah’s art scene, the Ray Ellis gallery, is closing. 

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Peter Biello: Welcome to the Georgia Today podcast from GPB News. Today is Friday, May 17. I'm Peter Biello. On today's episode, some Morehouse College students expressed concerns over President Joe Biden's upcoming commencement speech. A new report shows a rise in drowning deaths over the past decade. And a fixture of downtown Savannah's art scene, the Ray Ellis Gallery, is closing. These stories and more are coming up on this edition of Georgia Today.


Story 1:

Peter Biello: President Joe Biden is set to deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College on Sunday. The invitation to speak at the prestigious historically Black college has been met with protests, and some students are demanding the school's president rescind the invitation. GPB's Pamela Kirkland explores the resistance to Biden's invitation and what it might mean for his reelection campaign.

Pamela Kirkland: In the waning days of the spring semester of Morehouse, it's quiet on campus. Students are moving out of their dorms, and the stage for graduation is going up. 26-year-old Miles Ross is gearing up for graduation.

Miles Ross: I am a senior political science major here at Morehouse, and I'll be graduating. I'm also a Navy veteran, and I'm from Valdosta, Ga.

Pamela Kirkland: There is excitement around the end of a four-year college chapter marked by a pandemic and global conflicts. But student reaction to the commencement ceremony featuring President Biden has been mixed.

Miles Ross: I know students who kinda don't mind having Biden come here and speak. They really just want to graduate. And then there's others who are more concerned about they know what's going on with Gaza, Congo, Palestine, all that. And they do not agree with Biden's participation in that.

Pamela Kirkland: Ross thinks there just might have been better speakers. What's followed have been contentious meetings with university leaders urging them to rescind Biden's invitation.

University leader (from video): I'm gonna stop you right there.

Pamela Kirkland: For Ross, his lack of enthusiasm about Biden's speech translates to a lack of enthusiasm for candidate Biden in the 2024 election — or among his peers, for any presidential candidate at all.

Miles Ross: One of the things I've noticed with my generation is a lot of us don't see the point in voting on that level, on a presidential level. They feel like it's it doesn't mean anything.

Pamela Kirkland: Recent polling reflects Ross's point. According to a may Ipsos/Washington Post poll, fewer Black Americans plan to vote for Biden in the 2024 election. Nearly 1 in 5 Black voters who turned out for Biden in 2020 say they are less than certain about whether they'll vote at all this year. The drop is sharpest among young Black voters. Rashawn Ray, a senior fellow in governance study at the Brookings Institution, says this lack of enthusiasm from young voters for Democrats is actually a messaging problem.

Rashawn Ray: They are now learning about what happened with the 1994 crime bill. They're learning about some of the things that Biden has said 30, 40 years ago. And I think the Democrats have not done a good job of crafting a narrative about the way that Biden has grown as a politician.

Pamela Kirkland: It's a troubling sign for the Biden campaign. Biden won Georgia in 2020 by razor-thin margins, and current polling suggests this year's election will be just as close. Ray says there are issues that could move voters toward Biden.

Rashawn Ray: People are concerned about equity. People want to be able to graduate from college, whether it be Morehouse or Spelman or what have you, and come out and have the same likelihood is getting a job as — as one of their white counterparts from Georgia State, University of Georgia. And research tells us that still not the case.

Pamela Kirkland: And Morehouse senior Miles Ross says if Biden is serious..

Miles Ross: I feel like any president where the sitting president or a candidate who would want to woo the Black population needs to be speaking about reparations, because it's about time. That would move me.

Pamela Kirkland: But on his graduation day, when he and his classmates become Morehouse Men, Ross wants Biden to steer clear of politicking.

Miles Ross: And it's the president, I get it. It's very prestigious. This is campaign season. So you see a lot of pandering to the Black community, the Black vote. I just don't want that at my graduation.

Pamela Kirkland: For GPB News, I'm Pamela Kirkland.

A map from the feasibility study outlining the proposed city of Mulberry in Gwinnett County.

A map from the feasibility study outlining the proposed city of Mulberry in Gwinnett County.

Credit: KB Advisory Group

Story 2:

Peter Biello: A Gwinnett County Superior Court judge says the vote on the creation of the city of Mulberry can proceed as scheduled on Tuesday. This after a man sued to stop it, arguing the proposed city charter is unconstitutional. Stephen Hughes says the charter's ban on property taxes is unconstitutional. And while the judge declined to stop the vote yesterday, she also declined to dismiss the case, which Hughes counts as a victory.

Stephen Hughes: We're hopeful that on May 21, the case will be dismissed because the voters turned down the measure. But, you know, if they don't, then I plan to proceed in my challenge to the charter.

Peter Biello: Proponents of Mulberry City have praised the judge's decision on social media. They say it preserves the right to vote for local control.


Story 3:

Peter Biello: A conservative activist who helped organize the Jan. 6 rally that led to a mob storming the U.S. Capitol, is trying to win one of two Georgia seats on the Republican National Committee. Amy Kremer's leadership bid is one of many items that delegates to the state party's convention will vote on this weekend. GPB's Sarah Kallis reports.

Sarah Kallis: Thousands of Republican Party members are gathering this weekend in Columbus to pick delegates to send to the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee and discuss issues important to their party. Kenneth Lott is from Columbus and has come to the convention for the past three years. He says he wants to, quote, "get back to the Trump years."

Kenneth Lott: You know, the border. That's — that's really important. And the crime rate, you know, that's got to be — and inflation. You know, I mean, those are the things that have just got to get under control, you know.

Sarah Kallis: While Gov. Brian Kemp is not scheduled to attend, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and former Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard are expected to be at the convention. For GPB News, I'm Sarah Kallis in Columbus.


Story 4:

Peter Biello: Georgia employers are showing continued strength with strong hiring in April. The Georgia Department of Labor said yesterday the number of workers on payrolls in the state rose by more than 35,000. That's the most number of jobs added in more than two years, bringing the total number to a new record: nearly 5 million. Georgia's unemployment rate in April remained steady at 3.1% for the fourth month in a row.



Story 5:

Peter Biello: More than 4,000 Georgia based soldiers are returning to Fort Stewart after a nine-month deployment to Eastern Europe. The third Infantry Division formally concluded its deployment with a flag-unfurling ceremony yesterday. Soldiers have been returning since April and will continue returning over the next month. The division was deployed in Poland and the Baltic states to deter aggression against NATO countries after Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago.


Story 6:

Peter Biello: A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a rise in drowning deaths since 2020. GPB's Sofi Gratas reports.

Sofi Gratas: Drowning deaths had been going down for years before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted swim lessons and lifeguarding, says the CDC report. Then they went back up and it wasn't equal. Black Americans saw the highest increase in death rates. Researcher Tessa Clemens says there's lots to consider, like how historically, segregation limited access to public pools.

Tessa Clemens: Racial and ethnic disparities in drowning rates are not new. It is concerning that there are increases in drowning rates among some of these groups that were already at disparately higher risk.

Sofi Gratas: Just under 40% of Black people in the study reported knowing how to swim. Nationally, drowning is the leading cause of death for kids 1 to 4 years old. That's true in Georgia for white children, while homicide is the leading cause of death for Black children. For GPB News, I'm Sofi Gratas.


Story 7:

Peter Biello: Zoo Atlanta is preparing to say goodbye to the last giant pandas in the United States. Zoo officials said today they've started the process of preparing the four pandas to return to China. They don't have a date for the return yet, saying only that it'll happen later this year. The four are the last in the country since the National Zoo in Washington returned three pandas in November. Zoo Atlanta got two of them in 1999, as part of a loan agreement that's now expiring amid diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China. The two others, twins, were born at the zoo in 2016.


Story 8:

Peter Biello: Legislation that would allow a study into the possibility of designating North Georgia's Benton Makai Trail as a National Scenic Trail was introduced yesterday by Georgia's U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. The trail runs nearly 300 miles from Springer Mountain into Tennessee and North Carolina. Adding it to the National Trail system would improve mobility for hikers and walkers throughout the region. A companion bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday.


Story 9:

Peter Biello: Historic preservation advocates in Savannah are celebrating a major milestone as they work to restore a shuttered building that once housed the city's first Black-owned museum. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports.

Benjamin Payne: Back in 1959, artist Virginia Kiah opened up part of her stately home as a museum for the masses, serving all races at a time when segregation kept Black residents out of many other cultural institutions. After Virginia's death in 2001, though, the Kiah House Museum fell into disrepair. But just this month, the property secured a coveted recommendation from the state to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. Savannah preservationist Sarah Ward led the effort and says such a designation could provide tax credits key to one day reopening the museum.

Sarah Ward: I'm excited to see the building rehabilitated and put back into the use that the Kiahs envisioned. I'm excited for the residents that live on the blocks, and I want people that have lived there for a long time, hoping to see this building restored.

Benjamin Payne: The Kiah House Museum building is located in the historically Black neighborhood of Cuyler-Brownville. For GPB News, I'm Benjamin Payne in Savannah.



Story 10:

Peter Biello: A fixture of downtown Savannah's art scene for nearly four decades, is closing. The Ray Ellis Gallery says. By the end of next month, sales of the artist's work will move solely online, and its storefront on West Congress Street will shut down. Known for his calm coastal scenes in watercolor and oil, Ellis proved popular with tourists, residents and critics as well. He painted close to 6,000 paintings before he died in 2013. To find out more about his work, GPB's Orlando Montoya spoke to his daughter, Libby Ellis.

Libby Ellis: My father painted all seven continents. We sold the painting earlier this week that he painted when he was 15 years old, and he painted for almost 80 years of a life that he lived 92.5 years. So he started painting young, and he never stopped. He ran an advertising business for 25 years. But during that time, he was developing himself as an artist in the real world — American world of art. He was, accepted into the American Watercolor Society. He had the Grambach Award. He was a member of the Salmagundi Club. He won the Windsor Newton Award all before he closed his advertising. And after 27 years, I think, and decided to just paint.

Orlando Montoya: When did he take an interest in Savannah?

Libby Ellis: Savannah was after my mom passed. My mom passed at a young age. She was only 46. And me being the baby, I was only 16. He met another woman. They came to Hilton Head, bought a home on Hilton Head. He lived on Hilton Head for about 10, 12 years. And that marriage was not a success, let's put it that way. And he moved to Savannah and never looked back. And he lived here over 25 years. Then he built a house in Martha's Vineyard. He'd go back and forth, and finally he sold the house in Savannah and made his permanent residence Martha's Vineyard. But he kept the gallery storefront on West Congress in Savannah for 37 years.

Orlando Montoya: I want to talk about the very distinctive nature of your father's paintings. He painted lowcountry paintings. The water scenes, the lighthouses, the birds, that kind of thing. But they were a little bit different. Can you describe his style?

Libby Ellis: His style was always impressionistic. He painted watercolors the first half of his artistic life. He was such a natural at it. He could capture the warmth and action and everything in a painting and the colors. To me, he was incredible. But then again, I'm probably biased, but I think a lot of people believe that.

Orlando Montoya: And it proved very popular in the lowcountry and proved popular among tourists as well who would visit Savannah. But any house you would go into, or many houses that I would go into, in Savannah, chances are there would be a Ray Ellis there. As the daughter, you must have felt very proud about that.

Libby Ellis: I have always been proud to be his daughter. I like to say that I — my sister paints professionally like my father did. She didn't start until like 40s, after her kids started getting old enough where she could take time to paint. But she is strictly painting now, just like my dad decided to do. And my brother's even got talent. I say I didn't get any of the painting talent, but I like to say I got his personality.

Orlando Montoya: How is it going to feel for the gallery not to have a physical presence in Savannah?

Libby Ellis: Oh, it's very — that's bittersweet. But we have we can't justify keeping it open. So we really did not want to do this, but we really need to. And online sales is all we're going to be offering after this.

Orlando Montoya: Libby Ellis, daughter of the late painter Ray Ellis. Thanks for joining me today.

Libby Ellis: Oh thank you, Orlando, it's a pleasure to talk with you.


Story 11:

Peter Biello: In sports. Atlanta Vibe outside hitter Leah Edman was crowned the Most Valuable Player of the Pro Volleyball Federation's inaugural season. Edman led the league in scoring to help Atlanta to their 2024 regular season championship with a team record of 19 and 5. She started in all 89 sets of the Vibe's 2024 regular season, pacing the league with 424 points and 380 kills. And weather permitting, the Braves open a four-game series at home against the San Diego Padres tonight. Max Freed is scheduled to get the start for the Braves.


Story 12:

Peter Biello: And even with the threat of rain in parts of Georgia this weekend, there is a lot going on around the state. Working north to south, there's the Dahlonega Arts and Wine Festival, the Loganville Wing Fling, the Marietta Greek Festival and Wig Wag Arts and Music Festival in Avondale Estates. Wig Wag will feature a musical performance from Puddles Pity Party, Gringo Starr and El Matador. Gringo Starr, by the way, has been featured on GPB's Peach Jam podcast, so take a look through past episodes of Peach Jam for that, and be on the lookout for new episodes of Peach Jam dropping soon. Fayetteville will play host to the suds on the Parkway Beer Fest. There is McDonough's Geranium Festival, Register's Pecan Festival, Thunder Over Evans, and the Cornelia Music Festival. Lots to do this weekend.

And thanks very much for tuning in to Georgia Today. If you want to learn more about any of these stories, visit our website, and remember to subscribe to this podcast. We've got more news coming your way next week, and you won't want to miss any of it. And if you've got a story we should know about or some feedback on the podcast, send it to us by email. The address is I'm Peter Biello. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you next week.


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