Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ossabaw Island: Culture Preserved on the Coast of Georgia

The barrier islands that line the Georgia coast offer special opportunities to explore history and culture of the American South. Ossabaw Island, about twenty miles south of Savannah, has a rich history that can teach us many lessons about survival, freedom, and perseverance.

Ossabaw is the third largest barrier island of Georgia, according to the Ossabaw Island Foundation, which promotes and manages educational and scientific programs on the island. Not linked to the mainland by bridge or causeway, the island is used by colleges, universities and researchers as an “unspoiled living laboratory for monitoring environmental changes over time and for learning from one another in a setting where humans lightly tread.”

For example, the foundation has presented programs with the Georgia Historical Society on interpreting the Gullah/Geechee heritage. The Gullah/Geechee people were enslaved Africans captured from the rice-producing regions of Senegambia, Angola, and Sierra Leone in West Africa and brought initially to the port of Charleston. When Georgia removed its ban on slavery in 1750, many West Africans were brought to Ossabaw Island and other parts of coastal Georgia as enslaved labor.

On the island are three restored tabby cabins built in the 1820s-1840s by skilled enslaved labor. The cabins were the homes for enslaved families who worked the fields and tended livestock. The buildings were later used by their descendants who worked as sharecroppers for the island’s owners. To create tabby, a cement-like material, the enslaved workers mixed oyster shells, sand, and water with lime from burned shells, according to Paul Pressly, Director of Ossabaw Island Education Alliance. Other examples of early life on the island that are less visible are now being uncovered by scholars.

For example, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has conducted investigations at North End Plantation, one of the plantations where indigo, rice, and sea island cotton were grown, to develop an archaeological record of enslaved Africans at that part of the island. The earliest human artifacts found on Ossabaw date to more than 4,000 years ago when Native Americans inhabited the island. Records of early Spanish explorers (who left hogs that became feral and produced offspring that still survive 400 years later) indicate that a Guale Indian village called Asapo was probably located on Ossabaw. In the 1730s the British began to occupy the area, although an early English treaty reserved the island as a hunting and fishing area for Creek Indians. However, the Creek in 1758 (25 years after Savannah and the colony of Georgia were established) were forced to convey the island to King George II.

In the decade before the American Civil War, almost 300 enslaved people called Ossabaw home, according to Allison Dorsey, professor of history at Swarthmore College, with whom I visited the island as part of a workshop. During the war, Union General William T. Sherman confiscated the Ossabaw plantations as part of his March to the Sea campaign. In the spring and summer of 1865, under the authority of Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, the plantations were redistributed in 10- to 40-acre allotments to former U.S. Colored Troops soldiers and emancipated blacks. The field order was in response to Sherman’s meeting in January 1865 in Savannah with black leaders who convinced him that true freedom required ownership of land “to turn it and till it by our own labor.” However, the U.S. government revoked the order and returned the land to its Confederate owners in January 1867, thus ending the hope of freedmen to start life anew on Georgia’s sea islands.

The Ossabaw Island Foundation sponsors several events each year, including a Gullah Geechee day trip in the spring so participants can learn about the African roots of enslaved and freedmen families who lived on the island from the early 1800s through the mid-20th century, although the island is no longer inhabited by African Americans. In the late 1890s after severe hurricanes, island residents began moving to the mainland and established the Pin Point community (where U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was born in 1948).

In 1978 the state of Georgia acquired the Ossabaw. The island has now been set aside as the Georgia’s first Heritage Preserve, which restricts its use to natural, scientific and cultural study, research, and education. However, the island, with 26,000 acres of forest and tidal marshland, is still listed as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When I visited the island as part of a workshop on African American culture and history conducted by the Georgia Historical Society for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ossabaw seems more than 20 miles and minutes away from modern America. I hope to return one day and learn more about its rich history.

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