Sapelo Island's Geechee population fight development, sea-level rise, land loss to preserve culture

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

This story is part of Turning Tides, a series from the Savannah Morning News and USA Today Network that examines the threats to Gullah Geechee land in Coastal Georgia. Find more at

HOG HAMMOCK, SAPELO ISLAND, GA — Maurice Bailey stood in the small plot of sugar cane, defying the wind and rain and biting cold that came a month too early to the remote island he’s lived his entire life.

The towering stalks bowed under the nor'easter gusts, creating a leafy wave over Bailey and the volunteers who came in for the harvest.

The floodwaters, brought in on a record-breaking king tide, were ankle deep by 10 a.m.

Clad in a cotton sweatsuit and a leather-brimmed hat pulled low over his tinted glasses, Bailey swung his gas-powered weed whacker with casual precision.

The plots had to be harvested in time to load on the barge in three days’ time. If they wait for the next barge, the stalks could over-ripen, becoming too sweet for consumption.

On Sapelo Island, Bailey explained, everything’s about timing.

The sugarcane is one of several agricultural products Bailey is trying to revive in Hog Hammock, the only intact, documented community of Saltwater Geechee left in the world. The Saltwater Geechee of Sapelo Island are a part of the Gullah Geechee community, direct descendants of West Africans brought over for their expertise in rice and indigo cultivation during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Gullah and Geechee remain on coastlines and barrier islands running from North Carolina to Florida — and this historic community's future is under siege despite its designation as part of the congressionally designated Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Their forefathers and descendants have been on this land for nearly 300 years — these were the lands abandoned by plantation owners thinking the formerly enslaved would perish. Confiscated by the Union Army during and after the Civil War, these lands stretched from Charleston, SC, to Jacksonville, FL, and were envisioned by Union Gen. William T. Sherman and Savannah's Black preachers to be distributed as a form of reparations to freed people in 40-acre plots, according Special Field Order No. 15.  Within a year, though, U.S. President Andrew Johnson abandoned the order and returned much of the land to the former plantation owners.

Twin challenges

With the rise in tourism and development along the Southeast coast, the Gullah Geechee are facing dual challenges to their land: First, from the "come heres,” or outsiders, who want to develop their ancestral lands, and second, from the looming menace of continued sea-level rise, which threatens to submerge the Southeast’s barrier islands and displace millions of people and millions in property.

For Bailey, the threats have already surfaced on Sapelo Island. Towering vacation homes block Hog Hammock residents’ from the fishing hole they've accessed for more than a century. Fish they used to eat in abundance are scarcely seen. Saltwater plants, such as marsh grasses, take root farther inland each year.

Bailey reckons 90% of Hog Hammock has already been sold out from under him and his neighbors. He’s fighting for the last tenth of the community (about 1% of the island's nearly 10,000 acres) that his ancestors made home since 1803.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Black Land Matters

Credit: Photo courtesy of Black Land Matters

He’s using a buckshot-approach to fight the outsiders: Through farming, tourism ventures and solidifying land ownership rights, Bailey hopes to gain cultural and economic capital. But it’s not about money for Bailey, that’s just the language people in power understand.

“We've been here since slavery. And this land, people had to fight over it to get it. We owned the land starting 1881. People had to fight from that point on to hold onto the land. A lot of land was stolen from people throughout the years. Literally stolen,” Bailey explained.

Bailey can trace his Saltwater Geechee roots on Sapelo to an enslaved rice planter named Bilali Muhammed, an Islamic scholar and slave who arrived on the island at the dawn of the 19th Century. Bailey is one of the last Geechee left on Sapelo.

“So, it's more of an investment to us to hold on to what our ancestors fought for and bought for us. They look at an investment: ‘How much money can I get when I sell?’”

When the Outsiders came

Indigenous groups have lived on Sapelo as early as 4,500 years ago, according to historical documents compiled by the state-owned Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. Since the late-1500s, the island has passed through white hands in cyclical bids for land and power.

It was “discovered” by Portuguese explorers, made into a Franciscan mission by the Spanish and tilled for sugarcane and cotton and timber during the days when Georgia was just a colony. The French took control of the island during the Revolutionary War.  After the war, Thomas Spalding, a representative in the newly formed U.S. Congress, ran the island, using it for rice and cotton production. In the 1850s, nearly 400 enslaved Africans lived on Sapelo. Bilali Muhammed was brought to Sapelo for his skill in growing rice; It’s believed many of the Geechee on Sapelo are descended from Muhammed.

Then, the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed the slaves on Sapelo, creating several freedman’s communities across the island. According to U.S. Census data, the Black population of Sapelo peaked in 1910 with 539 residents across five communities.

Four of those communities — Raccoon Bluff, Kenan Place, Lumber Landing and South End — became extinct just a few decades later. Richard Reynolds, a tobacco baron from North Carolina, owned the island from 1934 until his death in 1964. The way Bailey knows the story, Reynolds and his associates forged deed sales and engaged in predatory land swap arrangements to buy up all the land on Sapelo Island, except Hog Hammock, for his own private use. Agents would sign an “X” on the sale of deed, forging the signatures of Black landowners. The land grabbing began in 1937, Bailey said.

“Different wealthy owners started consolidating people in this community for various reasons. Some was on false promises,” he added. “Some deeds was forged. Some intimidation was used to get everybody into this one community, Hog Hammock.”

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

By the time the state bought the island and took control of Reynolds’ lands in 1975, the Geechee were concentrated on the 427-acre tract toward the south end of the island.

It was in this community of about 200 people where Bailey remembers growing up during the '70s. The dirt roads would get so hot in the summer he would have to walk in the grass. “We didn’t have no shoes, you know,” Bailey said. The mainland felt far away, until the state-run, daily ferry threatened that isolation.

In the 1970s, Hog Hammock earned historical designation, which protected their roads from being paved and their one-story, wood-sided homes from zoning changes in the county. The community started nonprofits in the '70s and '90s to raise funds to fight legal battles over their land, raise awareness to their cause and provide funding for locals at-risk of losing their property.

But as the years ticked by, the population dwindled. Elders died, children moved off-island to find jobs and spouses. And as the Saltwater Geechee population on Sapelo Island waned, “the outsiders,” as Bailey calls them, moved in. There’s estimated to be fewer than 30 Geechee permanently living on the island today.

The conflict to keep Hog Hammock in Geechee hands has reached a fever pitch as the island becomes more accessible because of infrastructure improvements and an increase in tourism, and as rural places along the Southeast Coast develop. Bailey said they have help from a few coastal organizations and researchers, but they largely face the “good ole’ boys” — a colloquialism used to describe the ruling class of rural America (mainly white, wealthy men) — on their own. Darien County is still steeped in the good ole' boy system that allowed slavery and Jim Crow to flourish in rural Georgia, Bailey explained. A fancy dinner and a firm handshake is all it takes for a white landowner to get something built on Sapelo Island, Bailey explained. For Hog Hammock residents, it takes several lawsuits and sustained activism.

“We started this fight long before some of the others,” Bailey said. “But we don't get a lot of support from the others," he added, referencing other environmental and racial activists along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts.

Georgia Gold Rush

In 1978, Bailey, then 9-years-old, loaded onto the brand-new Sapelo Island Ferry to go to school on the mainland in Darien public schools. The state closed the island’s schoolhouse the year before. The state didn’t like how five-year-olds up to teenagers learned in the same two-room schoolhouse, sharing materials and desks and lessons for the day.

Bailey was in fourth grade. The kids in Darien public schools mocked him for his accent, shouting, “Boy, you too Geechee” at him. He remembered being popped with a ruler for speaking Geechee. He said the mainlanders think the people of Sapelo are too different. Too African.

Credit: GA Council of The Arts

Credit: GA Council of The Arts

“They always thought we were more Black than other places because of our isolation,” Bailey said.

South and North Carolina are home to the Gullah, while the Geechee live in Georgia and Florida. Bailey is a Saltwater Geechee. Move 30 miles inland, you'll find Freshwater Geechee.

While the isolation of Sapelo Island has allowed the Geechee to preserve their culture through the decades, it’s made them vulnerable to “cultural and economic deprivation” from the state and county, according to Raccoon Hogg, a community development corporation started in 2011 on Sapelo that's led by Hog Hammock residents and descendants who live in Darien, a mainland city in McIntosh County.

There’s no trash pick-up on the island. The ferry stops running before 6 p.m. every day; it doesn’t run at all on major holidays. The ferry ramps and docks are not accessible for elderly or people with disabilities. Their property taxes have increased throughout the years, yet residents said they haven’t seen those reflected in public services.

In 2015, Raccoon Hogg and 54 Hog Hammock residents or descendants filed a federal lawsuit against McIntosh County, the State of Georgia and the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, a state board used to buy and maintain property on Sapelo. The lawsuit claimed the governments “engaged in a policy designed to make plaintiffs’ lives so uncomfortable that they abandon their homes and their land,” according to the plaintiffs’ lawyer for the case, Relman Colfax.

Last year, a federal court dismissed the case with prejudice, ordering the state to repair and upgrade the ferry landings and docks, and ordered the SIHA to include the residents of Hog Hammock in their meetings and advisories. The residents also received a $750,000 settlement claim to make up for the loss of their tax dollars and quality of life.

Credit: University of Georgia Marketing and Communications

Credit: University of Georgia Marketing and Communications

Other lawsuits have been filed over the years, but the population has increasingly diversified as white families build second homes within Hog Hammock. The beige and tan houses tower above the one-story wooden houses the Geechee live in, forming a waterfront ring around the historic homes. It’s divided the once tight-knit community, Bailey said.

“You can feel the tension, you can feel the worry of people, you can see the outsiders coming in and they use their influence to get what they want,” Bailey said.

“A lot of things happened on Sapelo that we're not aware of until we see it, because they have these connections — political connections — to get things done. So that's not good for us because, one, we don't have no connections.”

Organizations across the coast are pitching in to help the residents of Hog Hammock. The Pan-African Family Empowerment and Land Preservation Network paid $20,000 in county property taxes on behalf of Hog Hammock Geechee. A nonprofit Bailey runs, Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS), hosts heirs’ property workshops and spreads the word about land-use issues playing out in courtrooms or on county zoning boards.

Up and down the coast, battles over Gullah and Geechee land play out in courtrooms and at family tables.

Hilton Head, once the site of the first Freedman’s Community in the nation, has become a haven for tourists and wealthy retirees. Their condos and country clubs are called plantations. Their skin is usually white. Their accents carry a midwestern sharpness. The money is always good. The gentrification began in 1957, when two brothers opened Sea Pines, a 5,200-acre resort with four golf courses on the southern end of the island. Now, 80% of the island is behind gates in private communities. Since 1995, the native Gullah population has lost 70% of its land.

Geechee folk in Chatham County remember the stories from World War Two, when the military confiscated their families' McIntosh County land for an Army base. The government promised to give it back. They didn't. It's now Harris Neck Nature Preserve.

Marquetta Goodwine, known as Queen Quet, elected chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, sees the displacement of her people. She calls it by a name not many dare to utter: Genocide.

“The current thing now is genocide through gentrification. So, we're gonna displace those people,” said Goodwine, who was born on St. Helena Island in South Carolina.  “And we're gonna justify it now because we're gonna say, 'Well, there’s so much flooding going on in that community, maybe we need to move y'all, take buyouts and we'll move you somewhere else. No. Why don't you buy out everybody that came after us first?”

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

It’s estimated that the South’s Gullah and Geechee communities have lost nearly all of their land during the last century, according to the Center for Heirs’ Property, a nonprofit aimed at preserving Black-owned lands in South Carolina.

On Sapelo Island, the remaining land was threatened last year when a house bill called to give state-owned land to private developers. House Bill 906 stemmed from the desire of a private, Atlanta-based developer to turn part of the Butler Plantation into a microdistillery. Butler Plantation sits on the sea island just north of Sapelo, and is the site where the Weeping Time began. The Weeping Time was the single-biggest sale of enslaved people in American History, when Pierce Butler sold 436 slaves in Savannah over a two-day period to pay off his debts.

HB 906 was pitched as a way for private owners to take over care of state-owned “heritage preserves.” Bailey sees the bill as a permission slip. It’s a way for landowners to gobble up the rest of the state- and Geechee-owned land on Sapelo for development.

The bill was killed last year, but Bailey fears the issue will spring up again come the new General Assembly session in 2022.

“They say they were just doing that for Butler Island because they want to build a distillery on the island,” Bailey said of the developer and state Dept. of Natural Resources, who helped draft HB 906. “But once that door opens, then that opens the door to a lot of problems. And we knew Sapelo couldn't be the focal point of that land grabbing. So, we’re still watching to make sure they don't slip right in there.”

The lands once too disease- and heat-ridden to be attractive to slave owners are now undeveloped paradises. The last pockets of a once-rural coastline.

“The coast is now the Carolina and Georgia Gold Rush,” Goodwine said.

To combat the latest tide of land-conquering, Goodwine is leading a charge to equip her people with as many “tools in the box” as possible.

“Many of our people just aren't accessing the tools, it's right there for them to use,” Goodwine explained. “They could use the same tools that already exist in many cases, if they're taught how to use it the right way.”

The main tool is establishing family LLCs and establishing living wills. Issues with heirs’ property (land that does not have a clear title or deed owner because of how the land was acquired and passed down) have led to thousands of Gullah and Geechee lands being sold off by family members who live states away, sometimes without the knowledge of the family member living on the property. Or, elders pass on without clear plans for their estate, sending families into probate court trying to untangle the legal mess of dying without a last will and testament. And without clear title, no improvements can be made and no loans can be approved.

Rising tides

Holding onto the land is an economic and heritage preservation tool, according to Goodwine, but it’s also a way to save the coastline and her residents from a more existential threat.

“It’s a gold rush,” Goodwine repeated. “Everybody want to rush here, and (municipalities are) still allowing the permitting of more overbuilding, which is antithetical to coastal resilience and sustainability of the coast. That has to stop.”

The East Coast is sinking into the Atlantic. Literally. As the ice sheet beneath our land retreats, "land bulges" collapse in the vacuum. The sea is also rising. Since 1950, the waterline at Tybee Island has risen 11 inches. Another six to seven feet will cover much of the island in the briny waters of the Atlantic over the next century.

Development in coastal and freshwater areas exacerbates sea level rise. Grading promotes erosion. Construction projects tear down trees and destroy salt marshes. Developers destroy farmland for subdivisions. Ports dredge the river so bigger ships carrying more stuff can be delivered to shelves and front porches.

For many of the Gullah Geechee, the solution is simple: return the coast to the Gullah and Geechee people, and it will heal itself.

“If you redirect that money into the hands of the native Gullah Geechee population, people can sustain their land ownership, they can sustain the agriculture, they can now purify the water,” Goodwine said. “So the water quality increases here in Georgia, so that the fish stock returns to a lot of our traditional fishing areas. These are the things I fight for.”

Native tribes in the American West have set a precedent for land restoration. In regions of Washington and Montana, lands given back to tribes have healed themselves through non-invasive land management.

It's a precedent Goodwine wants to follow on the Southeastern coast.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

When the winds quiet 

On that cold, windy day in November, Bailey and his team of volunteers cleared the sugarcane stalks in minutes. The entire harvest finished before lunch on Saturday. A day and a half to cultivate the year's harvest, which will be boiled down into cane syrup and sold online as part of Bailey's newest nonprofit, SOLO (Save Our Legacy Ourself).

The harvest is the culmination of nearly a decade of planning that began with Cornelia Walker Bailey, Maurice Bailey's late mother, who was an advocate, storyteller and griot, a Geechee elder who holds and passes down knowledge, traditions and other important cultural practices.

The sugarcane is one of several agricultural products being revived on Sapelo Island under the guidance of Bailey and Nik Heynan, a geology professor with the University of Georgia.

Bailey is also working to mass produce sour oranges, first brought to the islands in the 18th Century, and indigo, the South’s original cash crop. He already has buyers interested in the products. A sugar refinery is under construction, too, so the stalks don’t have to be barged off the island for processing. He runs the convenience store in Hog Hammock, operates overnight cabins, tours and golf cart rentals. He helps host legal workshops for the families on Sapelo in an effort to establish clear title and succession plans for the remaining Geechee landowners.  He does dredge work up and down the east coast. He’s seen a lot of cities, a lot of sand and a lot of water. He always comes home.

Sometimes when the work gets too much, Bailey will find peace in the island. He’ll watch the waves from the boardwalk, or the easy passage of time from his front porch. Sapelo refuels him.

“It has a lot of problems,” he said. “But, you can escape on Sapelo.”

Zoe covers growth and how it impacts communities in the Savannah area. Find her at, @zoenicholson_ on Twitter, and @zoenicholsonreporter on Instagram. 

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Sapelo Island's Geechee population fight development, sea-level rise, land loss to preserve culture