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