DNR Sapelo Ferry Discussion
The Gullah-Geechee Community Is Fighting To Keep Its Culture and Heritage Alive
The Gullah (also known as Geechee or Gullah-Geechee) are descendants of enslaved West and Central Africans who were brought on slave ships to the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Their descendants retained many of their ancestors’ African traditions reflected in their arts and culture, food, and religion.
In 2006, Congress designated the Atlantic shores and sea islands from North Carolina to Florida, “The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.”
One of those designated places is off the Georgia Coast, called Sapelo Island. On Sapelo Island, a small community of Gullah-Geechee people are struggling to preserve their culture, land, and future. They are descendants of enslaved West Africans, and their ancestors worked on plantations on the island until Emancipation, when they bought their own land.
The Gullah-Geechee originally owned land all over Sapelo Island and had several communities, but according to descendants, in the 1930’s, the North Carolina tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds, Jr. used coercive and exploitative tactics to move the Gullah-Geechee onto one part of the island called Hog Hammock (or called Hogg Hummock by descendants) — where they remain today.
In the 1970s, Reynolds’ widow sold most of the island to the State of Georgia, which owns 97 percent of the island. Descendants and others own the other 3 percent.
This is one of the last intact Gullah-Geechee communities in Georgia, and the number of descendants on the island is declining every year. Descendants say their people are leaving the island because they are slowly being driven off by state and county entities that are denying descendants basic municipal services, and increasing property taxes.
We spoke with Reginald Hall, CEO of Raccoon Hog Community Development Corporation and a descendant living on the island. Hall was not born on the island, but grew up visiting his grandmother. He was living in the Midwest in 2007 when his family called him back to his ancestral home to help his community and take an assessment of their survival.
Back in 2015, Hall and 56 Sapelo Island property owners, filed a federal race discrimination lawsuit which claimed that McIntosh County, the state of Georgia, and the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority were “engaged in a policy designed to make plaintiffs’ lives so uncomfortable that they abandon their homes and their land.”
In a statement to the AP, the county’s lead attorney in the lawsuit denied the county had discriminated against Hogg Hammock residents because they were Black.
Sapelo Island is located about 7 miles from the mainland, and its remote location has helped descendants preserve their Gullah-Geechee culture, but also made it difficult to live full-time on the island.
The only public access to and from the island is a state-run ferry, which only runs three times a day. It makes it hard for descendants to hold jobs off the island, and many end up working for the state institutions on the island. And the docks to-and-from the ferry, and the ferry itself, are not wheelchair accessible, meaning many of their elders cannot come to the island.
There’s also no school on the island, no medical services, no fire department, no trash collection. And on top of that, descendants’ lands are being threatened by developers and the resulting high property taxes.
In 2020, the state settled its portion of the lawsuit that descendants had filed in 2015. The state agreed to fix the aging ferry dock, and make the ferry and the docks ADA-compliant. The settlement is estimated to cost 19 million dollars in infrastructure rebuild, along with a $750-thousand-dollar payout to descendants.
And earlier this month, descendants settled the federal lawsuit against McIntosh County. The county agreed to station an emergency medical vehicle and emergency medical equipment on the island. The county will maintain and install a helipad for emergencies and evacuations, and provide a functional fire truck and firefighting training to residents who wish to receive it. And the county will maintain the roads, and reduce the trash collection fee that Island residents pay. Descendants also received $2 million in damages and attorneys’ fees, and a three-year freeze on property taxes.
The settlement agreement says the settlement is not “an admission or acknowledgment of liability by Defendant McIntosh County.” We also reached out to the county and the state for a comment but did not get a response.
Receiving these settlements, and the updates to the island that will come with them, is just one step in Hall’s, and his family’s, plans for recovery.
Their main goal is to bring their family members and other descendants home – but also to create jobs for them to come back to. In the future some descendants are hoping to work with the state and county to create a historical district on Sapelo Island. With this historic district designation, Hall and his family hope to build a tourism industry on the island run by descendants.
Produced by Katerina Barton
Hosted by Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry
Source: The Takeaway | WNYC Studios
CAIR-Georgia Welcomes Federal Settlement Agreement Between Sapelo Island Gullah Geechee Residents and McIntosh County, Notes More Work to Be Done
(ATLANTA, GA, 8/12/2022) – The Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Georgia) today welcomed a Federal Settlement Agreement between McIntosh County, Georgia, and a group of Gullah Geechee residents of Sapelo Island.
The settlement provides damages of $2,000,000 and addresses the lack of facilities and services provided to Sapelo Island by Mcintosh County and improper tax assessments of Hogg Hummock properties, home to the last intact Georgia Sea island Gullah Geechee communities in the U.S.
It comes after years of legal proceedings to secure fire protection, emergency medical services, trash removal/receptacles, and road maintenance, services not provided by McIntosh County despite receiving taxes from Sapelo Island residents.
For Background, See:
Additionally, the settlement establishes a three-year tax freeze demanded by the plaintiffs as the gentrification of Sapelo Island has led to higher property tax assessments, which threatens the displacement of the historically excluded Gullah Geechee community landowners.
SEE: Sapelo Islanders Have Survived Persecution And Slavery. Can They Survive Tourism?
The settlement includes damages and fees of $2,000,000 for the plaintiffs.
Sapelo Island organizer and resident Mr. Reginald Hall said:
“We welcome the terms of the settlement, but (…) it is the first step towards asserting that Sapelo Island Gullah Geechee residents deserve a higher quality of life, will not tolerate abuse and will hold authorities accountable if laws, federal compliance, and human/civil rights are being violated.”
“Our family has a second breath. The settlement is allowing our people to see we are serious about our survival and will give up life and limb to create the opportunity for survival throughout the next 10 generations on Sapelo Island. We want the diaspora to know we are out here and are willing to share our map as a model for certain forms of justice through civil rights litigation.”
The community notes that threats to their survival continue to exist and they will persist in seeking permanent property tax relief solutions for Gullah Geechee peoples and properties and true representation and decision-making control inside of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority by legislative means.
The community also wishes to hold Mcintosh County accountable for public corruption and to recover 702 acres on the northern end of the Island that the State of Georgia has claimed.
In a statement, CAIR-Georgia Legal and Policy Director Javeria Jamil said:
“This settlement is a testament to the commitment of the Hogg Hummock community to secure their survival and preserve their history. CAIR-Georgia stands by the Sapelo Island residents, the Gullah Geechee community, and the descendants of Bilali Muhammed in Georgia, as they assert their rights.”
“Much more remains to be done to ensure true representation, justice, and equality for Sapelo Island residents. CAIR-Georgia is committed to uplifting the voices of Sapelo Island and advocating for their civil rights.”
CAIR’s mission is to protect civil rights, enhance understanding of Islam, promote justice, and empower American Muslims.
La misión de CAIR es proteger las libertades civiles, mejorar la comprensión del Islam, promover la justicia, y empoderar a los musulmanes en los Estados Unidos.
CONTACT: Javeria Jamil, Legal and Policy Director, CAIR-Georgia, email@example.com; Reginald Hall, Representative for Gullah Geechee Community, firstname.lastname@example.org, 508-309-2828
No Firefighters, No EMS, No Trash Collection. Residents of One Georgia Island Say a Lack of Public Services Reveals a Deeper Problem
Reginald Hall rises early. Then he pulls on his running shoes, mounts his bike, and starts out from the house where he grew up.
Here on Sapelo Island, an otherworldly landmass off the coast of Georgia, the sandy brown dirt roads crunch under foot or wheel. Oaks boast trunks wide as compact cars. Pines seem best measured by their proximity to the sky. Celestial in their own way are the waxy-leaved magnolias, fragrant when their generous, bowl-shaped white flowers bloom. Green things so narrow most roads that drivers must pull over for a vehicle to pass in the other direction. That system, like so much else here, is maintained without official enforcement. Dangling bunches of silvery brown Spanish moss, a rootless plant with the rare ability to draw all it needs from the air, lend Sapelo the feel of a Southern secret garden—a space defined by a natural beauty that for some is enough to obscure neglect or even brutality.
But nothing compares to the vista at the end of Hall’s morning journey. On Sapelo’s seven-mile stretch of white-sand Atlantic coastline, Hall, 56, likes to stand awhile in silence. At the edge of America, between the waves and the grass-studded dunes, Hall turns his hands and face toward the sun. It is, Hall explains, a singular source of restorative energy. The sun helped sustain his ancestors, enslaved Africans and progenitors of the population today known as the Gullah Geechee, who maintained a unique culture after having been brought to this area. Nearly 1,000 were living on Sapelo just after the turn of the 20th century. Today, Sapelo is believed to be home to one of the last intact Gullah Geechee island communities in the U.S., comprising what Hall says is a mere 26 people.
“What could force people off a beautiful plot of land, an island? Lack of employment and lack of services, that’s what forced them off,” Hall says of the ground in which the ancestors he never knew, along with his grandparents and father, now rest in peace.
On Sapelo, where more than 90% of residents are Black, according to 2017 testimony offered by a Georgia official during a federal lawsuit, there are poisonous snakes, but there are no ambulances. When anyone on the island requires medical evacuation by helicopter, others must form a makeshift landing site by positioning their vehicles in a circle, headlights on. (The precise number of full-time residents is difficult to calculate, as the island attracts many vacationers and does not constitute its own census tract.) There is no person trained to fight fires—and no working equipment for doing so, even if someone knew how. Residents must haul their own trash, and the disposal site is irregularly maintained. On one day in July, after less than an inch of rain overnight, potholes filled with water deep enough that I watched not one, but two, young alligators crawl out.
Meanwhile, in the mainland portions of the county that includes Sapelo—McIntosh County, Georgia—the roads in its overwhelmingly white areas are paved or at least smoothly packed. Ditch and drainage systems are regularly cleared of debris. Residents can call for firefighters or ambulances to come directly to their doors. Garbage is picked up at their curbs. In other words, the population can count on the kinds of public services most people assume will be provided by the government in a country with an advanced economy and standard of living.
To Hall and many other Gullah Geechee islanders, this difference is not just a result of rural living. Sapelo, Hall argues, has been subject to targeted neglect, which he sees as aimed at driving off Black locals as an influx of mostly white newcomers acquire property on the island. That activity has caused sudden property-tax increases on the island; from 2011 to 2012, tax assessments for some Gullah Geechee residents in older homes rose as much as 3,000%. (Hall and his relatives challenged the hike in about 100 individual cases in state court. They won refunds and a temporary reprieve in a group settlement reached in 2015.)
In 2015, Hall and dozens of his kinfolk with connections to the island filed a federal civil rights suit alleging that, despite residents’ paying property taxes and other government fees just like mainlanders, McIntosh County and the state of Georgia had systematically starved the island of resources by refusing to provide essential services that are standard in other—and, crucially, whiter—parts of the county. On Sapelo, they charged, the absence of core services has made it nearly impossible for the descendants of the historically important population to thrive. The state settled its portion of the federal case in 2020, but the remaining case against McIntosh County had been set to go to trial at the end of July. Then, days before proceedings were to begin, McIntosh County officials offered a settlement.
While the specifics of what’s happening in McIntosh County may be unique, the patterns are not. Public services are provided in unequal ways all over the country. And in city after city, town after town, county after county, it’s Black, Latino, and Native American families who so often receive less than their fair share of services. According to one 2019 analysis of federal data about a major low-income housing program, people living in majority-white neighborhoods with units created by the program were 1.5 times less likely to dwell in conditions that make them vulnerable to contagious disease. And of the more than 2.2 million people in the U.S. who live without access to any kind of indoor plumbing, Native Americans are nearly 20 times as likely as white Americans to rank among them, according to one 2019 report. Studies have shown that in cities in Washington and Texas, Michigan and Maryland, everything from streetlights to water-service fines are uneven in the same ways. And, experts say, outsiders who do notice the situation are all too likely to ask what’s wrong with its victims, rather than what’s wrong with the officials who fail to fix it. Sapelo’s settlement terms were made official on Aug. 5 when all the case’s living Sapelo plaintiffs and county officials signed an agreement that U.S. District Court Judge R. Stan Baker is expected to approve Aug. 8. That moment will come a decade after Colfax first stepped foot on Sapelo. For the countless others who might see themselves in Sapelo’s story, this conclusion to a seven-year legal battle—as part of a centuries-long story—may offer a blueprint for how such a fight can be fought. For those who see a neighborhood or community in distress and don’t question what public services are provided, it’s also a warning.
“It’s government. It can be you next,” Hall says of any who might see limited public services as the problem of the people on the receiving end of such treatment. “It could be you tomorrow.”
They say the Gullah Geechee are people of the water.
It was the water that brought them here, from the shores of West Africa, in the hulls of fetid slave ships, to make the U.S. rich. It was the water that made their white enslavers dependent on the men and women who brought with them knowledge of the best ways to farm this marshy land, to build homes that caught a cool breeze, to keep mosquitoes at bay. And it was the relative isolation created by water that helped foster conditions where the Gullah Geechee could sustain more West African language, foodways, and traditions than other enslaved populations.
On Sapelo, an island roughly the size of Manhattan, there are remnants of an advanced public-works system erected by the Native American tribes that occupied the island as long ago as 4080 B.C.E. Graves on the island indicate it was in the late 1700s that enslaved people of African origin began forced labor here. The white men whose fields they went on to forcibly work included Thomas Spalding, who represented Georgia in the U.S. Congress as a pro-Union Democrat and eventually bought up most of the island. Among the enslaved people said to have been most valued by Spalding was Bilali Muhammad, one of Hall’s forebears. Family lore has it that Muhammad is a shared ancestor of most of the Gullah Geechee who have called Sapelo home. His list of descendants also includes Ahmaud Arbery.
The Civil War began just over a decade after Spalding’s death. Georgia’s Sea Islands, which include Sapelo, would play a unique role in the conflict’s story: when 1865’s Field Order 15 offered an economic jump start to Black Americans who had been enslaved—the promise known widely today as 40 acres and a mule— the Sea Islands were set aside for Black landowners. The concept was revolutionary. Historian Eric Foner, in his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, puts the number of freedmen and women who by June 1865 had taken up residence in the territory covered by the order at an estimated 40,000. But soon after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson revoked the field order and directed unsold land returned or made available to new white buyers, says Stan Deaton, senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society. On some of the Sea Islands, federal troops were sent to ensure the land went back into white hands, he says.
The American history of efforts to push Black people off of land did not stop there. In fact, the civil rights era of the 1960s saw much of that movement, says historian Pete Daniel, author of Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights and The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969. “It was almost as if people were blind to what was going on or more likely they didn’t care what was happening to African Americans. So the white people in rural areas were just free to do all kinds of mischief and take over land,” he says.
Early one morning at the beginning of July, I take the 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland through Hudson Creek, into the Doboy Sound, and a little ways up the Duplin River to Sapelo Island. A great blue heron flies low over the sound, and I overhear a middle-aged white man with a buzz cut and a Southern Roots Brewing Co. T-shirt talking excitedly about Spalding and the history of Sapelo. His party and I are going to meet the same person: Reginald Hall’s cousin J.R. Grovner, 42, who has been giving island tours for 30 years. If Hall is exacting and sometimes blunt, his cousin can come across as his affable opposite. But even at the moment we first meet, there are hints that there’s something more to Grovner, just as time reveals the empathy that drives Hall. Waiting near the ferry terminal, Grovner is smiling and wearing a red T-shirt bearing the words Black Land Matters.
The tour begins with Hogg Hummock, the area where just about all the island’s private property sits. (A sign welcomes visitors to “Historic Hog Hammock Community, Established Circa 1857.” Its inaccuracy is a source of immense frustration to Hall, a hummock being a good place to build in a marshy area and a hammock a thing one sleeps in.) At the post office, letters dated 1917, naming Hall’s grandfather the island’s postmaster, hang on a wall. There’s a stop at Behavior Cemetery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Just as I ask Grovner what people most tend to want to see on the island, he rounds a bend on a shady dirt road and there it is: the Reynolds mansion.
In 1934, the tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds Jr. made his first purchases on Sapelo Island. He eventually came to own more than 90% of its land, purchasing much of it from a Detroit auto executive named Howard E. Coffin. But Hall also has a number of family stories of tactics Reynolds used to prompt Gullah Geechee residents to sign over the deeds to their properties. An uncle, Hall relates, says he exchanged land for an emergency boat ride to the mainland when he thought his wife was having a heart attack. (Veronica Davis Gerald, director emeritus of Coastal Carolina University’s Charles Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies, wrote in a report submitted in their federal suit that Reynolds often engaged in “coercive and fraudulent land swaps.”) Reynolds’ widow later sold what he’d owned on the island to the state of Georgia. Today, the state uses much of that land—more than 9,000 acres—for scientific research and as a wildlife management area. But ask Hall about that generosity and it becomes just one of many ways that powerful white people are still setting the terms of life on the island.
“There’s always a threat” of losing Gullah Geechee land and with it the culture, says Victoria Smalls, a Gullah Geechee woman who is executive director of the National Parks Service’s Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. The 12,000-sq.-mi. corridor was first recognized by Congress in 2006, two years after the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the area on its list of the country’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites.
Later—after the alligators exit the puddles and move down the road—the man in the Southern Roots T-shirt, having seen just a few hours’ worth of life on
Sapelo, asks a question: “Does the county provide any services, at all, on the island?”
“No,” Grovner says plainly. “We pay the same taxes but don’t get the same services. Just about nothing at all.”
In 2007, Hall was working in real estate on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, when his father summoned him back to Sapelo Island with warnings that the Gullah Geechee community was under threat. Hall’s father, who died in 2014, wasn’t wrong. While Sapelo once had the student population to support two Rosenwald Schools, there are now just two school-age Gullah Geechee children who live on the island full time. Many residents are older people for whom a lack of public services created particular difficulties.
That call set Hall on an odyssey of research, and he moved back to the island in 2009. Then, in 2012, he read about a case out of Zanesville, Ohio. Not long before he’d moved back home, residents there had won an almost $11 million federal civil rights suit after a court found their civil rights had been violated when government entities refused to provide a predominantly Black area called Coal Run access to the public water system, even as that very same service was provided to white residents in areas that surround it. One county commissioner was reported to have had said that Coal Run would not get water until “President Bush drops spiral bombs in the holler.”
The lawyers representing the city, county, and water authority described the
triumphant plaintiffs’ representation as “out-of-town lawyers who saw an opportunity for a cash settlement.”
But Hall—who tends to speak in the cool-cat monotone of a Gil Scott-Heron interlude even as he recites Georgia law verbatim—took particular note of the way one of those lawyers, Reed Colfax, seemed not to hesitate in pointing to racism as a cause of the disparity.
Already, in 2011, Hall himself had successfully pushed McIntosh County officials to put an end to selective restrictions on private-boat docking. Around the same time, he got the state to replace most of Nanny Goat Beach’s damaged boardwalk and pavilion. He’d pressured the state to install a new water tank for the island and to give two Black state employees real homes to live in on the island, like some other staff, instead of the 1970s-era trailers they had been assigned. And in 2016, he got the county’s waste-management contractor to equip the island with an electric trash compactor to alleviate the buzzard problem caused by food waste waiting to be picked up by the county. Hall knew how to send the right email, to mention the right law, to show up at the right meetings.
And this, he thought, was the kind of lawyer Sapelo Island needed. Colfax, a Black, homeschooled Californian with a Harvard undergrad and Yale Law education, responded to his cold call within a day.
That first phone call was long. It was intense. It was with Hall, so it was fact filled, says Colfax, then 38 and today still a boyish 51. In 2015, he filed a federal racial-discrimination case, brought by Hall and dozens of his relatives, against McIntosh County, the state of Georgia, and some of its agencies, including the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, a preservation group.
Sapelo Island, the suit argued, was facing pressure from developers and officials eager to see it become a “vacation destination spot with luxury second homes and resorts.” Meanwhile, the island had no school, firehouse, medical services, or police. The county was charging island residents the same fee for trash services that they did people living on the mainland, even though Sapelo residents have to haul their own garbage and mainlanders get curbside pickup. And while the state talked the talk about the importance of preserving Gullah Geechee culture, it had dedicated few resources to doing so, the suit claimed. Hopes of a life on the land that some of their ancestors first worked as enslaved people were being crushed by absent streetlights and impractical ferry schedules.
“Working jointly, the County, State, and Sapelo Island Heritage Authority are engaged in a policy of malign neglect of the Gullah Geechee on Sapelo Island,” the initial complaint read. “… These actions have the purpose and effect of driving the last intact Gullah-Geechee community from Sapelo Island and into history books.”
In late 2020, the state settled various claims in the federal case, to the tune of $19 million spent on improvements ranging from wheelchair-accessible docks to more frequent ferry service. The department of natural resources promised to consider “low-cost” options for improving water pressure in the “Hog Hammock water system,” and island residents received a collective $750,000 payment.
But other claims, evolving over the years as various judges made decisions, rolled on. In documents filed in federal court in October 2020, Colfax and his team argued that people have died as a result of a lack of emergency medical access having delayed care. Hogg Hummock has an International Organization for Standardization fire rating of “unprotected,” and Hall says that as a result of the lack of infrastructure, many people on the island struggle to pay the highest possible fire-insurance costs. The absence of trash collection also creates safety and sanitation risks, the document claims. Residents and visitors alike have to cart their own garbage, and the dumpsters into which the waste is deposited aren’t replaced by the county on a regular schedule, Hall tells me. Sometimes creatures get into trash bags and spread litter for miles.
The October 2020 document argues that it is a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause that while McIntosh County has spent millions of dollars improving water service for mainland residents, it’s done nothing of the kind on the island. Island residents can’t use their water for cooking or drinking, and many don’t feel safe using it for household tasks. After a hurricane, residents did their own cleanup, using their own tools to clear fallen trees. Overall, the plaintiffs argued, in the places where McIntosh County is spending tax dollars, residents are nearly 70% white. But in places where McIntosh County is spending virtually nothing, residents are over 90% Black. (The state disputes the 90% figure.) Meanwhile, the suit argues, selective zoning enforcement has left an overwhelmingly white group of newcomers free to build large Sapelo getaway homes, jacking up property taxes.
All of this is happening in a county with what the October 2020 document describes as almost ambient racism. Schools remained under a court-ordered desegregation plan until 2006. In the 1970s, when the county was equally divided between Black and white residents, grand juries were 90% white. And Reynolds is not the only white man accused of strong-arming Black people out of property on the island. In her book Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Greene writes that Tom Poppell, McIntosh County sheriff from 1948 to 1979, had what the October 2020 document calls an “understanding” with Black residents that, as Greene wrote, “an arrest warrant or an indictment might be mislaid permanently … in exchange for their land.”
State officials did not respond to a request for comment. Richard K. Strickland, a Georgia lawyer who represented McIntosh County in the federal suit, rejects the idea that Sapelo’s Gullah Geechee residents were not receiving comparable services to others, pointing out that the lack of streetlights on the island isn’t unusual in the county and that Sapelo has an on-island dump while the owners of homes—mostly vacation homes—on other islands must haul trash to a dock. McIntosh is not a rich county, Strickland says: about 25% of its land is not taxable. In responses to the initial lawsuit filed with the federal court, the county argued that most of the people involved in the suit don’t even live full time on the island. Also among the county’s claims: That the difference in services received has to do with whether one lives on the mainland or on the island—in other words, that there is no gap for white and Black residents who live in the same place—and thus there is no Equal Protection Clause violation. That Sapelo’s Gullah Geechee have no proof that white homeowners are being given preferential treatment. That anyway, property appraisals for tax purposes are conducted by an independent body, not the county.
Only this year did the federal case against McIntosh County get a trial date. It was set to be heard by a jury in Savannah, a coastal city whose residents include many Gullah Geechee and other African Americans. Citing the high cost of putting up its lawyers in Savannah, the county pushed instead to move the trial to Waycross, Ga., a landlocked town about 2½ hours west of Sapelo, a rural place in a majority-white county that in 2020 voted nearly 70% for Donald Trump. (Savannah’s diverse county went for Joe Biden.) The court refused. Then, on July 13, the county contacted Colfax to talk about settling.
“The county is just pleased that we were able to reach an agreement,” says Strickland. “Nobody wants to be disagreeable with their own citizens.”
There are plenty of places in the U.S. with no public transit or curbside garbage pickup. But a disproportionate share of such situations can be found in Black, Latino, or Native American communities.
This is not, says demographer Allan Parnell, “a Southern thing; it’s a Black and brown thing.” Vice president of Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities and a former Duke University professor of what he says were “boring things,” he now devotes himself to providing expert testimony in civil rights cases. As part of a team with his wife, former journalist Ann Moss Joyner, and mapping expert Ben Marsh, he has worked on at least 40 such cases, three of them related to access to public services, since 2003. In that time, he says, he’s seen a pattern in communities with large nonwhite populations: “[T]he sewer lines stop and the streetlights stop and the storm drains stop.”
Judges, juries, and journalists are just as likely as anyone else, Parnell says, to have knee-jerk denial reactions to allegations of bigotry. But, taken as a whole, the picture is hard to miss.
At the close of the 19th century, W.E.B. Du Bois surveyed thousands of Black Philadelphia residents. Few had access to indoor plumbing, and only about 14% had access to bathrooms. Even private outhouses were uncommon. The impact was clear. In the areas of the city with the worst sanitation, the death rate was highest. In Savannah, another researcher found that a trio of yellow fever outbreaks had prompted the city to build a public water and sewer system in 1898. Two years later, while 88% of white homes had access to it, just 58% of Black households did, according to a 2019 NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) report.
Today, take Cleveland. There, the LDF is challenging the city’s policy of placing liens on homes with overdue water bills, which can lead to foreclosure. Or take Baltimore. A similar policy exists there too, according to the LDF report; until 2019, the Maryland city placed liens on homes for unpaid bills as low as $350. Cleveland’s threshold was even lower. In the county that includes Cleveland, the study says, most water liens are placed on properties in predominantly Black neighborhoods. City officials have argued it’s efficient to disconnect many homes with overdue water bills in one area at a time, even if individual homes in other areas are much deeper in arrears. That means, the report explains, that if you live in a predominantly Black area, you are more likely to lose your water service.
Take Modesto, Calif. A 1948 study suggested that the city and surrounding Stanislaus County begin investing in infrastructure in densely populated areas nearby, which might one day become part of Modesto. As those areas became majority-Latino communities and as Modesto grew, public officials opted to make improvements in and then annex other, whiter areas instead. By 2004, when a group of four mostly Latino communities filed suit, maps showed their neighborhoods were contained inside the area where state law says Modesto is expected to provide services. Public officials’ decisions left them as excluded islands in the city. A type of sewer main that cannot be readily tapped to add new lines had, in most cases, been run around the edges of the so-called islands; says Nick Jensen, 27, a lawyer with the Community Equity Initiative of California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., one of the organizations that filed suit on behalf of the communities. By 2010, those organizations argued, Latinos in that area were about three times as likely as white residents to live with limited or no public services—and yet, for some, to endure the “horrendous smell” from a nearby sewage plant that served others. The Modesto case, on which Parnell and his team consulted, settled in 2011. Today, more than a decade after the settlement, one of the four communities behind the suit has been added to the city’s water and sewer system. Various infrastructure extensions to the other three are still in progress.
That kind of timeline is not unusual, says Mike Daniel, 75, a Dallas-based lawyer—no relation to Pete Daniel—who in 2015 won a fair-housing case before the Supreme Court, affirming that the legal standard for discrimination in such matters is found in a policy’s effect, not its intent. (Colfax’s Sapelo case, as an Equal Protection matter, carried the more challenging burden of showing discriminatory intent.) In 1980, Daniel brought a suit on behalf of public-housing residents in 36 East Texas counties where everything from the number of working streetlights to the frequency of police patrols was different in the streets closest to those housing projects—areas with larger Black and Latino populations—from that in other parts of these same cities. The cities evened things out while under an active court order. When it ended in 2003, they went right back to doing things the old way, Daniel says.
“Nobody called them on it,” says Daniel, who is considered one of the nation’s leading attorneys in this area of the law. That’s part of why it’s so “massive and impressive” to see Colfax and his team do just that. “One of the things about segregation is that it keeps us white folks from having to admit how bad things are. You don’t even have to see it, much less understand what it means and what it’s like to live with it.”
In the early 2000s, I was working at a Texas newspaper when my editor sent me to a colonia about 13 miles outside the city where I’d grown up. The word simply means community in Spanish, but as an English-language noun and a public matter colonia signals a lack of access to potable water, sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, or safe housing. There are thousands in the U.S. near the southern border. Until I got that assignment, I didn’t know that one existed right outside the city. In this all-Latino community, water supply was so poor that only working people showered in the morning. Other adults had claim to the midday hours, and children bathed at night. If the people deviated from that plan, their taps could run dry. The county government was debating whether to even try to fix the problem. I was a lot younger then and couldn’t believe this was happening in the U.S.
It is—but not to everyone equally. If attending to the racial distribution of access to public services doesn’t at some point become fundamental to our understanding of life in U.S. cities, the very idea of America as a place with high living standards becomes a fiction. Those paying attention might argue that it already is. No one has to convince Hall that the problems he’s contending with stem from ideas about race and who deserves what.
When he calls me to tell me about the settlement, I can’t tell if he’s vexed or happy. He always sounds like a man who has a long to-do list. The deal will require the county to pay the plaintiffs $2 million. (Hall and his relatives voted among themselves in a late July meeting to pay Colfax and his team half of the $2 million payout—a fraction of the legal team’s costs on the long case. “This was not a money-making case,” says Colfax. “This was a case to further our mission.) Among other promises, the county will create written emergency plans, and train and equip some residents to perform medical and firefighting tasks. It will also attend to roads and ditches on the island quarterly, and make sure a working fire truck no more than “5 years older than the average age of the mainland fleet” is stationed on Sapelo Island. Landfill fees for all island property owners will be reduced 30%, and the county’s trash contractor will check the island compactor’s functionality and will empty it at least once per month. McIntosh will also implement another three-year freeze on all property taxes on the island.
This result, Hall tells me, is going to increase the number of people who survive medical crises, reduce the risk that houses will burn to embers, and, perhaps just as importantly, free up the mental energy to focus on things that may help Sapelo’s Gullah Geechee people feel once again that this is a place to which they can come home.
But in late July, when the settlement is almost final, Hall also tells me he still intends to seek a long-term solution for the tax problem, and to work toward the return of lands that left Gullah Geechee hands through what he considers nonstandard means. In the days since the settlement news was announced in the local press, he says, he’s been flooded with emails from people elsewhere who are looking for information about how he and his relatives did what they have or want to help. In other words, the case is done, but he’s not. He’s up early taking in the sun. He’s back at his computer. When it comes to the services he expects from America, he wants more than just the basics necessary to survive.
Source: TIME | With reporting by Solcyre Burga, Leslie Dickstein, Anisha Kohli, and Simmone Shah
Sapelo Island's Geechee population fight development, sea-level rise, land loss to preserve culture
The Gullah Geechee came to this land as slaves and made it their home. Now, they're fighting for survival from developers and lawmakers.
This story is part of Turning Tides, a series from the Savannah Morning News and USA Today Network that examines the threats to Gullah Geechee land in Coastal Georgia. Find more at savannahnow.com
HOG HAMMOCK, SAPELO ISLAND, GA — Maurice Bailey stood in the small plot of sugar cane, defying the wind and rain and biting cold that came a month too early to the remote island he’s lived his entire life.
The towering stalks bowed under the nor'easter gusts, creating a leafy wave over Bailey and the volunteers who came in for the harvest.
The floodwaters, brought in on a record-breaking king tide, were ankle deep by 10 a.m. Clad in a cotton sweatsuit and a leather-brimmed hat pulled low over his tinted glasses, Bailey swung his gas-powered weed whacker with casual precision.
The plots had to be harvested in time to load on the barge in three days’ time. If they wait for the next barge, the stalks could over-ripen, becoming too sweet for consumption.
On Sapelo Island, Bailey explained, everything’s about timing.
The sugarcane is one of several agricultural products Bailey is trying to revive in Hog Hammock, the only intact, documented community of Saltwater Geechee left in the world. The Saltwater Geechee of Sapelo Island are a part of the Gullah Geechee community, direct descendants of West Africans brought over for their expertise in rice and indigo cultivation during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Gullah and Geechee remain on coastlines and barrier islands running from North Carolina to Florida — and this historic community’s future is under siege despite its designation as part of the congressionally designated Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
Their forefathers and descendants have been on this land for nearly 300 years — these were the lands abandoned by plantation owners thinking the formerly enslaved would perish. Confiscated by the Union Army during and after the Civil War, these lands stretched from Charleston, SC, to Jacksonville, FL, and were envisioned by Union Gen. William T. Sherman and Savannah's Black preachers to be distributed as a form of reparations to freed people in 40-acre plots, according Special Field Order No. 15. Within a year, though, U.S. President Andrew Johnson abandoned the order and returned much of the land to the former plantation owners.
With the rise in tourism and development along the Southeast coast, the Gullah Geechee are facing dual challenges to their land: First, from the "come heres,” or outsiders, who want to develop their ancestral lands, and second, from the looming menace of continued sea-level rise, which threatens to submerge the Southeast’s barrier islands and displace millions of people and millions in property.
For Bailey, the threats have already surfaced on Sapelo Island. Towering vacation homes block Hog Hammock residents’ from the fishing hole they've accessed for more than a century. Fish they used to eat in abundance are scarcely seen. Saltwater plants, such as marsh grasses, take root farther inland each year.
Bailey reckons 90% of Hog Hammock has already been sold out from under him and his neighbors. He’s fighting for the last tenth of the community (about 1% of the island's nearly 10,000 acres) that his ancestors made home since 1803.
He’s using a buckshot-approach to fight the outsiders: Through farming, tourism ventures and solidifying land ownership rights, Bailey hopes to gain cultural and economic capital. But it’s not about money for Bailey, that’s just the language people in power understand.
“We've been here since slavery. And this land, people had to fight over it to get it. We owned the land starting 1881. People had to fight from that point on to hold onto the land. A lot of land was stolen from people throughout the years. Literally stolen,” Bailey explained.
Bailey can trace his Saltwater Geechee roots on Sapelo to an enslaved rice planter named Bilali Muhammed, an Islamic scholar and slave who arrived on the island at the dawn of the 19th Century. Bailey is one of the last Geechee left on Sapelo.
“So, it's more of an investment to us to hold on to what our ancestors fought for and bought for us. They look at an investment: ‘How much money can I get when I sell?’”
When the Outsiders came
Indigenous groups have lived on Sapelo as early as 4,500 years ago, according to historical documents compiled by the state-owned Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. Since the late-1500s, the island has passed through white hands in cyclical bids for land and power.
It was “discovered” by Portuguese explorers, made into a Franciscan mission by the Spanish and tilled for sugarcane and cotton and timber during the days when Georgia was just a colony. The French took control of the island during the Revolutionary War. After the war, Thomas Spalding, a representative in the newly formed U.S. Congress, ran the island, using it for rice and cotton production. In the 1850s, nearly 400 enslaved Africans lived on Sapelo. Bilali Muhammed was brought to Sapelo for his skill in growing rice; It’s believed many of the Geechee on Sapelo are descended from Muhammed.
Then, the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed the slaves on Sapelo, creating several freedman’s communities across the island. According to U.S. Census data, the Black population of Sapelo peaked in 1910 with 539 residents across five communities.
Four of those communities — Raccoon Bluff, Kenan Place, Lumber Landing and South End — became extinct just a few decades later. Richard Reynolds, a tobacco baron from North Carolina, owned the island from 1934 until his death in 1964. The way Bailey knows the story, Reynolds and his associates forged deed sales and engaged in predatory land swap arrangements to buy up all the land on Sapelo Island, except Hog Hammock, for his own private use. Agents would sign an “X” on the sale of deed, forging the signatures of Black landowners. The land grabbing began in 1937, Bailey said.
“Different wealthy owners started consolidating people in this community for various reasons. Some was on false promises,” he added. “Some deeds was forged. Some intimidation was used to get everybody into this one community, Hog Hammock.”
By the time the state bought the island and took control of Reynolds’ lands in 1975, the Geechee were concentrated on the 427-acre tract toward the south end of the island.
It was in this community of about 200 people where Bailey remembers growing up during the '70s. The dirt roads would get so hot in the summer he would have to walk in the grass. “We didn’t have no shoes, you know,” Bailey said. The mainland felt far away, until the state-run, daily ferry threatened that isolation.
In the 1970s, Hog Hammock earned historical designation, which protected their roads from being paved and their one-story, wood-sided homes from zoning changes in the county. The community started nonprofits in the '70s and '90s to raise funds to fight legal battles over their land, raise awareness to their cause and provide funding for locals at-risk of losing their property.
But as the years ticked by, the population dwindled. Elders died, children moved off-island to find jobs and spouses. And as the Saltwater Geechee population on Sapelo Island waned, “the outsiders,” as Bailey calls them, moved in. There’s estimated to be fewer than 30 Geechee permanently living on the island today.
The conflict to keep Hog Hammock in Geechee hands has reached a fever pitch as the island becomes more accessible because of infrastructure improvements and an increase in tourism, and as rural places along the Southeast Coast develop. Bailey said they have help from a few coastal organizations and researchers, but they largely face the “good ole’ boys” — a colloquialism used to describe the ruling class of rural America (mainly white, wealthy men) — on their own. Darien County is still steeped in the good ole' boy system that allowed slavery and Jim Crow to flourish in rural Georgia, Bailey explained. A fancy dinner and a firm handshake is all it takes for a white landowner to get something built on Sapelo Island, Bailey explained. For Hog Hammock residents, it takes several lawsuits and sustained activism.
“We started this fight long before some of the others,” Bailey said. “But we don't get a lot of support from the others," he added, referencing other environmental and racial activists along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts.
Georgia Gold Rush
In 1978, Bailey, then 9-years-old, loaded onto the brand-new Sapelo Island Ferry to go to school on the mainland in Darien public schools. The state closed the island’s schoolhouse the year before. The state didn’t like how five-year-olds up to teenagers learned in the same two-room schoolhouse, sharing materials and desks and lessons for the day.
Bailey was in fourth grade. The kids in Darien public schools mocked him for his accent, shouting, “Boy, you too Geechee” at him. He remembered being popped with a ruler for speaking Geechee. He said the mainlanders think the people of Sapelo are too different. Too African.
“They always thought we were more Black than other places because of our isolation,” Bailey said.
South and North Carolina are home to the Gullah, while the Geechee live in Georgia and Florida. Bailey is a Saltwater Geechee. Move 30 miles inland, you'll find Freshwater Geechee.
While the isolation of Sapelo Island has allowed the Geechee to preserve their culture through the decades, it’s made them vulnerable to “cultural and economic deprivation” from the state and county, according to Raccoon Hogg, a community development corporation started in 2011 on Sapelo that's led by Hog Hammock residents and descendants who live in Darien, a mainland city in McIntosh County.
There’s no trash pick-up on the island. The ferry stops running before 6 p.m. every day; it doesn’t run at all on major holidays. The ferry ramps and docks are not accessible for elderly or people with disabilities. Their property taxes have increased throughout the years, yet residents said they haven’t seen those reflected in public services.
In 2015, Raccoon Hogg and 54 Hog Hammock residents or descendants filed a federal lawsuit against McIntosh County, the State of Georgia and the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, a state board used to buy and maintain property on Sapelo. The lawsuit claimed the governments “engaged in a policy designed to make plaintiffs’ lives so uncomfortable that they abandon their homes and their land,” according to the plaintiffs’ lawyer for the case, Relman Colfax.
Last year, a federal court dismissed the case with prejudice, ordering the state to repair and upgrade the ferry landings and docks, and ordered the SIHA to include the residents of Hog Hammock in their meetings and advisories. The residents also received a $750,000 settlement claim to make up for the loss of their tax dollars and quality of life.
Other lawsuits have been filed over the years, but the population has increasingly diversified as white families build second homes within Hog Hammock. The beige and tan houses tower above the one-story wooden houses the Geechee live in, forming a waterfront ring around the historic homes. It’s divided the once tight-knit community, Bailey said.
“You can feel the tension, you can feel the worry of people, you can see the outsiders coming in and they use their influence to get what they want,” Bailey said.
“A lot of things happened on Sapelo that we're not aware of until we see it, because they have these connections — political connections — to get things done. So that's not good for us because, one, we don't have no connections.”
Organizations across the coast are pitching in to help the residents of Hog Hammock. The Pan-African Family Empowerment and Land Preservation Network paid $20,000 in county property taxes on behalf of Hog Hammock Geechee. A nonprofit Bailey runs, Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS), hosts heirs’ property workshops and spreads the word about land-use issues playing out in courtrooms or on county zoning boards.
Up and down the coast, battles over Gullah and Geechee land play out in courtrooms and at family tables.
Hilton Head, once the site of the first Freedman’s Community in the nation, has become a haven for tourists and wealthy retirees. Their condos and country clubs are called plantations. Their skin is usually white. Their accents carry a midwestern sharpness. The money is always good. The gentrification began in 1957, when two brothers opened Sea Pines, a 5,200-acre resort with four golf courses on the southern end of the island. Now, 80% of the island is behind gates in private communities. Since 1995, the native Gullah population has lost 70% of its land.
Geechee folk in Chatham County remember the stories from World War Two, when the military confiscated their families’ McIntosh County land for an Army base. The government promised to give it back. They didn’t. It's now Harris Neck Nature Preserve.
Marquetta Goodwine, known as Queen Quet, elected chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, sees the displacement of her people. She calls it by a name not many dare to utter: Genocide.
“The current thing now is genocide through gentrification. So, we're gonna displace those people,” said Goodwine, who was born on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. “And we're gonna justify it now because we're gonna say, 'Well, there’s so much flooding going on in that community, maybe we need to move y'all, take buyouts and we'll move you somewhere else. No. Why don't you buy out everybody that came after us first?”
It’s estimated that the South’s Gullah and Geechee communities have lost nearly all of their land during the last century, according to the Center for Heirs’ Property, a nonprofit aimed at preserving Black-owned lands in South Carolina.
On Sapelo Island, the remaining land was threatened last year when a house bill called to give state-owned land to private developers. House Bill 906 stemmed from the desire of a private, Atlanta-based developer to turn part of the Butler Plantation into a microdistillery. Butler Plantation sits on the sea island just north of Sapelo, and is the site where the Weeping Time began. The Weeping Time was the single-biggest sale of enslaved people in American History, when Pierce Butler sold 436 slaves in Savannah over a two-day period to pay off his debts.
HB 906 was pitched as a way for private owners to take over care of state-owned “heritage preserves.” Bailey sees the bill as a permission slip. It’s a way for landowners to gobble up the rest of the state- and Geechee-owned land on Sapelo for development.
The bill was killed last year, but Bailey fears the issue will spring up again come the new General Assembly session in 2022.
"They say they were just doing that for Butler Island because they want to build a distillery on the island,” Bailey said of the developer and state Dept. of Natural Resources, who helped draft HB 906. “But once that door opens, then that opens the door to a lot of problems. And we knew Sapelo couldn't be the focal point of that land grabbing. So, we’re still watching to make sure they don't slip right in there.”
The lands once too disease- and heat-ridden to be attractive to slave owners are now undeveloped paradises. The last pockets of a once-rural coastline.
“The coast is now the Carolina and Georgia Gold Rush,” Goodwine said.
To combat the latest tide of land-conquering, Goodwine is leading a charge to equip her people with as many “tools in the box” as possible.
“Many of our people just aren't accessing the tools, it's right there for them to use,” Goodwine explained. “They could use the same tools that already exist in many cases, if they're taught how to use it the right way.”
The main tool is establishing family LLCs and establishing living wills. Issues with heirs’ property (land that does not have a clear title or deed owner because of how the land was acquired and passed down) have led to thousands of Gullah and Geechee lands being sold off by family members who live states away, sometimes without the knowledge of the family member living on the property. Or, elders pass on without clear plans for their estate, sending families into probate court trying to untangle the legal mess of dying without a last will and testament. And without clear title, no improvements can be made and no loans can be approved. | For more, read the full article here
Source: Savannah Morning News | Written by Zoe Nicholson
A federal judge said the state of Georgia is not immune from a lawsuit that claims the state discriminated against a community of slave descendants on Sapelo Island.
The suit was filed last December by several members of one of the last Gullah Geechee communities, Hogg Hummock.
It claimed the state and McIntosh County employed harsh tax hikes and denied basic services, which reduced the community's population.
The defendants argued the 11th Amendment protects the state from federal lawsuits, and asked that the claims be dismissed. On June 17, U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood disagreed.
Hogg Hummock is home to about 50 black residents. It can only be reached by limited ferry service, and has no trash pickup, schools, police or fire departments.
The plaintiff's are seeking damages under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A court order reads, “Plaintiffs assert, in part, that the State has allocated the federal financial assistance in a discriminatory manner by giving it to the County, which used the funds to benefit White residents on the mainland.”
The state also faces damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Plaintiff's say the ferry, which is the only way on to the island, is not readily accessible to community members with physical disabilities.
Judge Wood dismissed all claims against the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority.
Claims are still pending against McIntosh County, Governor Nathan Deal and Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Williams.
Tags: discrimination Sapelo Island Gullah Geechee Georgia Savannah
June 22, 2016 10:38 AM | Updated: August 14, 2020 12:50 AM
Source: GPB.org | By: Gabrielle Ware
Members of Sapelo Island’s Gullah Geechee community are suing local and state governments for practices they say are threatening their ability to live on land they've called home for generations.
Reed Colfax is an attorney representing the group and says many are descendants of slaves.
“When those slaves were freed after the Civil War, many started creating their own communities, had their own lives,” he says. “It was an extraordinary thing, and it's being ignored now.”
The suit filed in Atlanta says residents of Sapelo Island don't have basic resources like fire or police service.
It also cites issues like a ferry system that doesn't run enough to serve as an effective link to the mainland and property taxes inflated by the development of vacation homes on the island.
Colfax says suit will help the Gullah Geechee preserve their history and remain on Sapelo.
“This is a significant step in being able to help first ensure that there is fair treatment of residents and property owners on the island, and, if there is fair treatment, this community will survive," he says.
Sapelo Island is home to the largest intact Gullah Geechee community in the country.
Tags: Gullah Geechee; Sapelo Island; Atlanta
Source: GPB.org | By Sam Whitehead
December 9, 2015 4:18 PM | Updated: July 17, 2020 12:49 AM
Sarah Frances Drayton’s one acre of land on Sapelo Island has been in her family since the time of her great-grandfather, James Green, who was born a slave but died a free man among the island’s thriving Gullah-Geechee community.
Drayton, 87, is part of a dwindling band of that Gullah-Geechee community who still call the unbridged barrier island in McIntosh County home. Many others who have strong roots on the island have moved to the mainland, unable to maintain a livelihood with the bare essentials available on Sapelo.
And the Gullah-Geechee community’s flight from Sapelo Island is no accident, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta. The lawsuit asserts that a systematic practice of neglect and mistreatment by state and county government officials has served to drive the Gullah off of ancestral lands that their ancestors have occupied since the 1700s.
“They’ve been all but wiped out,” said attorney Reed Colfax, who filed the suit. “And that’s the most authentic Gullah-Geechee community in existence.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of some 54 people descended from Sapelo Island’s Gullah-Geechee people. Most of those named in the racial discrimination lawsuit now live in Brunswick and on St. Simons Island, and some are from as far away as Texas and New York City. Drayton, who lives in a mobile home on her one acre, is among the few named in the suit who still live on Sapelo Island.
“What do we hope to achieve?” Drayton said Wednesday. “Justice. Justice for the people of Sapelo Island.”
The lawsuit claims that McIntosh County taxes Sapelo Island residents for services that it does not provide, including trash pickup, fire and police protection, water and sewer services, and road maintenance. The lawsuit claims the county additionally taxes Sapelo’s Gullah-Geechee residents exorbitantly, based on the lavish vacation homes built on the island by rich white people.
Some of these homes were allowed, according to Colfax, by the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, a state entity that exists to protect the Gullah-Geechee culture on the island.
“They’re there to protect the population and they’re doing just the opposite,” said Colfax, of the Washington, D.C., firm Relman, Dane & Colfax. “They’ve actually done some land trades with white developers who want to come in and build vacation homes.”
The state services that are provided are often inadequate, including trash and ferry service. The Gullah-Geechee people are a federally-recognized distinct group of people, descendants of slaves from West Africa who have their own culture, heritage and language. Sapelo Island is at the heart of a 400-mile coastal corridor established by a Congressional commission for Gullah-Geechee cultural preservation.
Colfax said the lawsuit aims to prevent further outside encroachment from resort home developers and to increase services that will help the Gullah-Geechee thrive on the island. The lawsuit also seeks monetary damages to those named, as determined in a court of law.
“Today, the very existence of the Gullah-Geechee population faces extreme peril,” the lawsuit states. “Like the islands of Hilton Head, S.C., and St. Simons, Ga., before it, Sapelo Island struggles to resist the pressures of development that threaten to convert the Island from a community that has been home to the same families for nine generations into a vacation destination spot with luxury second homes and resorts.”
More than 20 such resort homes are located on the island. The Gullah-Geechee population presently stands at no more than 50, all holding out in the Hog Hammock community. The remaining 90 percent of the island is state-owned, the lawsuit said. Much of that state land was obtained from Gullah-Geechee property owners in a 1950s land grab by tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds Jr., the suit states. Upon his death, the land was deeded to the state.
“The state’s ownership stake is based on a history of fraudulent land transfers and land theft by white millionaires throughout the 20th century,” the suit said.
Trash disposal consists of residents bringing their garbage to a communal dumpster/compactor, which is run by the state. Yet the county charges Sapelo residents the same annual trash fee that is charged to mainland residents, who receive residential roadside pickup, the suit said.
The state’s “pseudo-sovereign role” also includes a water system, “some emergency personnel and equipment” and a ferry service.
The ferry service is limited, making three trips between the island and mainland daily, the last of which is at 5:30 p.m. The service makes commuting to jobs on the mainland difficult. Students participating in after-school activities at the nearest schools in Darien cannot depend on the ferry to get them home.
“It makes it virtually impossible for Gullah-Geechee families to continue living there,” Colfax said.
Drayton, whose great-grandfather worked on the Thomas Spalding Plantation on Sapelo before emancipation, does not want to be the last of her kind on the island.
“My great-grandparents were slaves over there,” she said. “And the property has been passed on to us through the generations. I hope to hold on to this little piece that I have.”
McIntosh County Manager Brett Cook could not be reached Wednesday.
Source: LARRY HOBBS, The Brunswick News
Reporter Larry Hobbs writes about government, public safety and other local topics. Contact him at email@example.com or at 912-265-8320, ext. 320
Residents and property owners in one of the few remaining Gullah-Geechee communities of slave descendants on the Southeast coast are suing a variety of state and county agencies, accusing them of discrimination and neglect. (Dec. 9) AP
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