Georgia: Would restoring Sapelo to the Gullah Geechee save the land?

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Once home to hundreds of enslaved Africans who tended rice, cotton, and sugar cane, Sapelo Island after the Civil War became a haven for Gullah Geechee descendants. 

Today, the only neighborhood that remains is Hogg Hummock. About 30 descendants live here full time, fewer than the white, nondescendant population.

Why We Wrote This

The longtime efforts of Gullah Geechee descendants to preserve their ancestors’ land is a fight to save a people and a culture. Some believe it could also save a slice of coastal Georgia.

The original, hand-hewn houses are small, sturdy, and easy to repair if a hurricane floods them. But they are ringed by new, larger, houses – the bulk of which are summer homes for white Southerners, the construction of which largely ignores the environmental realities of life on a barrier island.

Many of the tensions between the two groups mirror their different approaches to the land.

The Gullah Geechee’s recent legal victories won improvements to public services from the state and county, but for Reginald Hall, the ultimate goal is restoration of the land to the people whose descendants, like his, were deeded the island after the Civil War. 

Marquetta Goodwine, a Gullah Geechee activist, sees that as a win for the land as well. 

“Let’s let the people who have been here for hundreds of years stay and let them live and build the way the ancestors did,” Ms. Goodwine told the Savannah Morning News. “And let’s see if this coast doesn’t restore itself.”

Down a single-lane, sand road where yellow county signs warn “dead end” and “no turnaround,” the standoff begins.

As a pickup truck driven by Gullah Geechee activist Reginald Hall backs up the rutted path, a work van comes the other way. Both vehicles stop. Then the van noses within inches of Mr. Hall’s rear bumper.

The van driver honks. Mr. Hall, whose bloodline stretches to when enslaved Black people first disembarked on Sapelo in the beginning of the 19th century, doesn’t budge. Two carpenters in overalls, both white, walk around the truck, stare, and wave their hands in disbelief. No words are spoken.

Why We Wrote This

The longtime efforts of Gullah Geechee descendants to preserve their ancestors’ land is a fight to save a people and a culture. Some believe it could also save a slice of coastal Georgia.

Eventually, Mr. Hall puts his truck in gear, makes a U-turn, and cuts through a private driveway to get around the van.

The confrontation, says Mr. Hall, shows “how high the tensions are running” as one of America’s last intact settlements of Gullah Geechee struggles to maintain its grip on lands first ceded to them at the end of the Civil War. Recent victories in court will help, but for Mr. Hall they are just one step in a long road ahead.

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