Arabia Alliance team members visited Sapelo Island and Harris Neck along the Georgia coast where Gullah Geechee communities are under multiple threats.
Most coastlines these days are pretty well cluttered with high rises, hotels, franchises and other modern development. Georgia’s coastline, however, is a rare exception. Although only 100 miles in length, roughly 80 percent of Georgia’s Atlantic coast has been preserved, protecting not just land and wildlife but local Gullah Geechee communities that have lived on these islands, marshlands and tidal shores for generations. On a trip planned by Georgia Beloved Naturalist (GNB) and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, two Arabia Alliance staff recently visited coastal Georgia and got a glimpse into the unique Gullah Geechee way of life.
Sapelo Island—Saltwater Gullah Geechee
The first two days of the trip were spent taking the ferry over to Sapelo Island, the fourth largest of the state’s chain of barrier islands. A 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland, Sapelo looks like another country, perhaps a remote island in the Caribbean. No outside vehicles are allowed on Sapelo, which is home to Hog Hammock, the only remaining saltwater (oceanside) Gullah Geechee community in Georgia. Some 30 folks still call Hog Hammock home, most of them descendants of enslaved West Africans brought to the islands in the 1700s and 1800s to work on plantations, growing primarily cotton and raising cattle. Because of the islands’ relative isolation from the mainland, these enslaved people were better able to preserve elements of their African culture and knowledge (including rice growing, boating, fishing and crabbing) thus creating the unique Gullah Geechee ethos.
In Hog Hammock today, there’s only one grocer, the Sapelo Go Country Store, a functioning post office, a church, and one restaurant, Lula’s Kitchen, open by reservation only. The tiny town might be charming but it has been shrinking for years. Residents have to go the mainland for access to a doctor or any purchases bigger than a bag of groceries. Each morning, a school bus picks up the village’s 5 schoolchildren to take them to the ferry where the kids will then take another bus to the closest public school on the mainland.
The GBN and Arabia Mountain group learned about Sapelo Island from Hog Hammock local Yvonne Grovner, a master basket maker. She was also a knowledgeable local historian, giving the dozen from Metro Atlanta a riding tour of Sapelo in an old school bus. The group saw the gorgeous stucco estate of tobacco tycoon RJ Reynolds (now a wildlife management area), a historic lighthouse built in 1820, and untouched sugar-white sandy beaches, all before getting a crash course in sweet grass basket weaving from Grovner and her husband. (It’s much harder than it looks!)
As precious as the Gullah Geechee culture is, it’s under multiple threats today. Little economic and educational opportunity on the island has driven Gullah people to the mainland and larger cities in a diaspora that has been ongoing for decades. Also, the island itself is a prime target for big developers and realtors who are salivating at the opportunity to turn Sapelo into another Hilton Head, which would result in irreversible gentrification. With little other income, some local property owners on the island are tempted to sell their lots for exorbitant prices. The Hog Hammock community has struggled with the quandary of how to bring more opportunity and people to the island without fundamentally transforming their way of life.
There are some signs of hope, however. Part of Yvonne’s Sapelo tour that Sunday included a stop by St. Luke Baptist Church, founded in 1884. The local congregation of only 2 dozen was gracious enough to allow the GBN and Arabia Alliance folks to sit in during some of the service. In the back pews, in Yvonne’s rocking arms, was the newest church member: a napping six-month old girl, the first baby born on the island, we learned, in many years.
Harris Neck—Freshwater Gullah Geechee
About 20 miles north of the Sapelo Island Ferry and Visitor Center is the freshwater (or mainland) Gullah Geechee community of Harris Neck. Many locals know Harris Neck as a National Wildlife Refuge but it was, for many generations, a vibrant Gullah Geechee community. Founded in 1865 (when the land was deeded by a plantation owner to a formerly enslaved man), Harris Neck later thrived on a popular seafood industry that featured crabbers, fishing, packing houses, handmade nets and fishing boats, and a bustling oyster factory. By the early 20th Century, Harris Neck had become a prosperous, self-reliant community of 75 African American families with a post office, school, and many local stores. Today, none of that exists.
The GBN and Arabia Alliance group learned about this history from the Direct Descendants of Harris Neck Community (DDHNC). The group met with DDHNC President Frances Timmons Lewis, or Miss Fran, at the First African Missionary Baptist (FAB) Church Harris Neck, organized in 1867. Miss Fran welcomed the group from Atlanta by playing arpeggios on her piano and singing gospel with her sister Margaret. This small group told the story of how, in 1942 after the United States entered WWII, the US government via Eminent Domain confiscated the 2687 acres of Harris Neck for an airbase to train fighter pilots. Federal agents threatened to burn the historical FAB Church, but then-Deacon William Timmons told the agent in charge, “If you have this church burned down, you will not burn down another.” The officer gave more time for the church to be dismantled and moved to its present site. The rest were given three weeks to move off their land and promised a chance to repurchase later on.
However, after the end of WWII, the land was given to McIntosh County to use as a county airport. In 1961, after many complaints about the County’s corruption and misuse of the Harris Neck lands, the federal government seized all 2500-plus acres and conveyed it to the Department of Interior, which created the National Wildlife Refuge that stands today.
Since then, the Harris Neck descendants like Miss Fran and her sister Margaret have been fighting for their land back. A window tour of the refuge with members of DDHNC and Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge drove home the depth of the destruction. Although it was impressive to see an environment teeming with rare birds, alligators and other wildlife, it was harrowing to see how little remained of the once vibrant town: mostly live oak and pine forest with swaying Spanish moss, the ruins of a foundation or brick house, a water fountain and wading pool swallowed by the jungle, the historical Gould Cemetery, still in use today, where many in the community were buried. This is what had happened to the Harris Neck Community’s land during the decades-long fight to win it back. Almost everything they were fighting for had decayed.
Protecting Gullah Geechee Culture
After decades of stalemate negotiations between Harris Neck descendants and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that manages the refuge, some progress has been made in recent years. In 2020, a Memorandum of Understanding with the USFWS was signed, marking the beginning of a partnership between the Harris Neck descendants and the USFWS. That partnership has included help with historical and archaeological surveys, expanding access to historically significant sites and fishing areas and oyster beds, and the official Commemoration of the 1942 Harris Neck Community Diaspora, which takes place mid-July every year. Whether any of Harris Neck’s land will be given back to its descendants, remains to be seen. That doesn’t stop Miss Fran from singing in church and praying about it and telling others the story of Harris Neck.