OPINION: Geechee descendants deserve input on Sapelo land deals

The sun rises behind St. Luke Baptist Church in the Hog Hammock community of Sapelo Island, Ga., on Friday, May 17, 2013. (Courtesy of David Goldman)

Credit: David Goldman

Credit: David Goldman

The sun rises behind St. Luke Baptist Church in the Hog Hammock community of Sapelo Island, Ga., on Friday, May 17, 2013. (Courtesy of David Goldman)

Sapelo Island is accessible only by a 30-minute ferry ride, and by most descriptions, it is a study in serenity and calm — Spanish moss, magnolia trees, white sand beaches along the Atlantic coast.

It also stands out for the history of the people who live there and the culture they have preserved.

The community of Hogg Hummock (aka Hog Hammock) is believed to be among the last intact Gullah Geechee communities in the country. Sapelo Island is part of the federally recognized 12,000-square-mile Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that stretches from Florida to North Carolina.

Hog Hammock was once home to more than 500 residents descended from enslaved people whose isolation on the island enabled them to sustain cultural traditions — language, craftsmanship, food — carried from West Africa. That number has since dwindled to fewer than 30 descendants.

The coast is rife with development and gentrification, and generations of Geechee have spent almost a half-century in an existential fight to preserve the home and culture of their ancestors.

Late last year, residents won million-dollar settlements from the state and McIntosh County to remedy decades of neglect and lack of infrastructure on the island.

The county reduced the trash taxes since Hog Hammock residents dump their own trash. The island will gain a helipad for emergencies as well as a fire/ambulance truck for the community, which it did not have previously. The senior center will also be restored, said Reginald Hall, a descendant who lives in Hog Hammock.

Residents were compensated for improper tax assessments and given a three-year tax freeze after some residents battled past tax increases as high as 1,000%. But months after settling the lawsuit, Sapelo residents were surprised to learn of new legislation that once again may threaten their way of life and small measure of self-governance.

“I don’t see the lawsuit as a victory,” said JR Grovner, also a descendant who lives on the island. “It is a step forward but not a victory. We are long past where we should be.”

The Sapelo Island Heritage Authority was created in 1983 to protect the Hogg Hummock community and keep it intact for future generations, but residents say they haven’t seen that happening. The authority votes on community issues and gets first right of refusal on land for sale.

But House Bill 273, which has been making its way through the Legislature, would change the composition of the five-member board. The commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources would become chairman, the governor would move from chairman to vice chair with authority to appoint someone in his stead, and a seat previously held by the commission on human relations would go to a resident.

But a resident is not the same as a descendant, which worried members of the Geechee community.

A recent language change in the bill ensured that at least two resident descendants would have a seat on the board as they do at present, but left open the question of whether the governor’s appointee must be an elected official who can be held accountable for his or her actions.

“They made a fancy move to pass the House bill without any discussion with the people that this Heritage Authority covers,” Hall said. “This is our land but they have had purview over it as the authority since 1983.”

Their worries are justified, according to a 2021 article in Sage Journals which documents tactics that individuals and institutions have used to dispossess Black Sapelo residents of land from 1802 to present.

In the early 20th century, coastal Georgia began to shift from a place of labor to a place where prominent families decamped for pleasure. Through a series of transactions too lengthy to outline here, Sapelo Island became majority owned by individuals, one of whom’s widow would sell all the land, including land acquired by coercion of Black residents, to the state of Georgia in 1976. Today, the state owns 97% of the island and prioritizes conservation for game management and hunting.

The Geechee people know that losing land means losing culture. They know Hilton Head was once the site of the first freedmen’s community in the country before it became a privatized playground. They know Geechee-owned land confiscated by the U.S. Army became Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge rather than being returned to the residents as promised.

There are ways to protect the culture of the Geechee community — most of which involve allocation of funds to support small businesses, infrastructure, community-oriented development, etc. — but that requires putting the interests of people and their history over private property and business, and for some, the lure of this coastal paradise is too difficult to resist.

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