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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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.
Attorney Reed Colfax speaks at a news conference outside federal court where he filed a lawsuit on behalf of one of the few remaining Gullah-Geechee communities of slave descendants on the Southeast coast, suing state and county entities accusing them of discrimination and neglect, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, in Atlanta. The lawsuit alleges landowners on Sapelo Island 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. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
ATLANTA -- 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.
Click here to read more
Source: AJC.com 4:59 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015 | Filed in: News