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