ATLANTA (AP) — 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.
The lawsuit alleges landowners on Sapelo Island, along Georgia’s coast about 68 miles south of Savannah, pay high property taxes while receiving few basic services from surrounding McIntosh County or the state of Georgia. They say that’s making it nearly impossible for them to live there and is destroying their community and culture.
Attorney Reed Colfax said he filed the lawsuit Wednesday in federal court in Atlanta.
The Gullah, referred to as Geechee in Georgia, are scattered in island communities over 425 miles of Atlantic coast where they’ve endured after their slave ancestors who worked island plantations were freed by the Civil War. Hogg Hummock on Sapelo, also known as Hog Hammock, is home to fewer than 50 people and is one of the last such communities from North Carolina to Florida.
Scholars say these people long separated from the mainland retained much of their African heritage from a unique dialect to skills and crafts such as cast-net fishing and weaving baskets. But isolation also caused Gullah communities to shrink.
The state claims it owns 97 percent of the island, but its “ownership stake is based on a history of fraudulent land transfers and land theft by white millionaires throughout the twentieth century,” the lawsuit says. And a zoning ordinance designed to protect the Gullah-Geechee community is flouted in favor of mostly white developers who build expensive vacation homes that violate zoning requirements, the lawsuit says.
Reginald Hall, 49, grew up in Ohio but spent countless vacations on his family’s property on Sapelo and said his family roots there go back 224 years. Now he’s a leader of an effort to improve conditions for the community.
“We’re looking for those protections to say our survival and sustainability is more important than vacation homes and losing the land by measures we consider illegal,” he said following a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Atlanta.
Among the defendants named in the lawsuit are the state of Georgia, McIntosh County and the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority.
Adam Poppell III, the attorney for McIntosh County, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying he had not yet seen it. He said county officials had already dealt with an outcry by Sapelo residents over steep property tax increases they saw in 2012 when their properties were reassessed. The county agreed to roll back most of those increases.
“We’re astounded they’re bringing actions, especially after we lowered the values across the board,” Poppell said.
The state attorney general’s office, which represents state agencies, had no comment, spokesman Nicholas Genesi said in an email.
The county doesn’t maintain the roads, run a modern sewer system or provide emergency services on the island despite collecting high taxes, Colfax said. A perfect example, he said, is that an annual garbage fee paid by all county landowners guarantees curbside pickup on the mainland but provides nothing for the Gullah-Geechee.
The state operates the ferry that runs back and forth between the island and the mainland, but it runs on such an infrequent schedule that it makes it tough to live on the island and have a job on the mainland, Colfax said. Combined with the fact that there are few jobs available on the island, it’s virtually impossible for working families to live there, he said.
Sarah Drayton, 87, one of the 57 property owners who brought the lawsuit, has fond memories of visiting her grandparents on the island when she was a child growing up in coastal Brunswick. Now she lives in a mobile home on the land they owned and treasures the rich history.
“When I walk some of those roads, I can see and feel my grandparents because they walked those same roads,” she said in a phone interview. “I would like to be able to pass that down to my children and grandchildren.”
By Kate Brumback; Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah contributed to this report.