Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sapelo Island: Preserving the Past and Studying the Forgotten

The Georgia coast and its barrier islands have been invaluable for recording and preserving information about the people and cultures of the American South. Islands such as Sapelo, about sixty miles south of Savannah, are treasures of Geechee-Gullah heritage; the sea islands were also early scenes of vibrant African Muslim communities whose traces have faded over time. Even with a documented historical importance, only a few locations have been protected for future generations (and sometimes unintentionally by unknowing stewards).

Gullah-Geechee Heritage

The Gullah-Geechee were taken from the rice-producing regions of Senegambia, Angola, and Sierra Leone in West Africa and brought to rice plantations of the American South as enslaved labor. They were brought to Sapelo in 1802 when Thomas Spalding, who introduced the cultivation of sugar cane and manufacture of sugar to Georgia, began buying portions of the island and created several plantations (which included a sugar mill) operated by as many as 400 enslaved workers in cotton, sugar cane and livestock activities.

The porous soils, temperate climates, tidal influences, and saline atmosphere of Sapelo and its marshes are ideal for the cultivation of rice and Sea Island cotton, according to Buddy Sullivan, manager of the reserve when I visited as part of a workshop on African American culture and history conducted by the Georgia Historical Society for the National Endowment for the Humanities. In fact, the freshwater rivers of the Carolina and Georgia coastal areas permit rice cultivation to thrive, particularly as alternating cycles of flooding and draining fields (skills brought by enslaved West Africans to the Atlantic coast) are repeated; this coastal system was later adopted by the planters on large river plantations.

The 1860 census indicates that the Spalding family had 252 enslaved residents living in 50 cabins. Following the American Civil War, the freedmen created several communities throughout Sapelo, although only Hog Hammock now remains. This community, home to about 50 Gullah-Geechee descendants, includes the historic Behavior Cemetery and the First African Baptist Church that traces its origins to 1866. Because Hog Hammock no longer has its own school (the last one closed in 1978), children take the ferry to the mainland and then a bus to school.

Accessible by only ferry or airplane, the island is remote. Because the Gullah-Geechee were so isolated, many generations were able to preserve their distinct culture. When I visited Sapelo, I met Cornelia Bailey, storyteller and folklorist, who wrote about growing up on the island and preserved many Gullah-Geechee memories in her book God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man. “We still drink, love, hate, and remember we are still living for our ancestors,” says Bailey (who traces her lineage back to an African Muslim named Bul-Allah, the head enslaved manager for Spalding) in her essay “I Am Sapelo.”

Islamic Heritage

Although the First African Baptist Church congregants continue to worship on the island, what has faded is awareness of how significantly Sapelo and neighboring coastal islands constituted the largest assembly of African Muslims in early North America. Such knowledge is the result of painstaking research by scholars such as Michael Gomez, professor at New York University, who describes the Muslim presence in the coastal American South as “active, vibrant, and compelling.” As Gomez points out, of the 388,000 Africans brought into British North America during the Atlantic slave trade, more than 224,000 came from regions influenced by Islam.

By analyzing interviews conducted by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and related family narratives, Gomez has identified how many practices of enslaved Africans show a picture consistent with serious pursuits of Islam, such as attempts to adhere to Islamic dietary requirements, observance of Muslim feast days, and other elements of Muslim life, such as prayer mats, veiling, and daily ritualized prayer. The longing of many to preserve their religion and culture is also shown by the pattern among American-born enslaved to carry Muslim names and retain vivid memories of their ancestors’ religious practices, even as the number of Christian converts increased. In addition, Gomez has confirmed Sapelo as an important Muslim community based on listings of enslaved Africans when plantations were sold as well as advertisements for enslaved runaways. (Names are clearly Muslim such as Mustapha, Sambo, and Mamado.) Other research by the Georgia Historical Society substantiates the Islamic influences in early African communities on the southeastern U.S. coast.


What protected Sapelo from the boom of coastal real estate development, the fate of some islands such as Hilton Head, S.C., that also share the Gullah-Geechee heritage? Several islands were acquired by wealthy Northerners in the fifty years after the American Civil War. The story of Sapelo is similar to Ossabaw and a few other islands whose purchase protected them from the typical development. For example, in 1912, Howard E. Coffin, a Detroit automotive pioneer, purchased all of Sapelo from its various owners except for the African American communities. During the Great Depression, Coffin sold his property to North Carolina tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds, Jr., whose widow later sold it in two transactions (1969 and 1976) to the state of Georgia.

The 16,500-acre Sapelo Island, the fourth largest barrier island of Georgia, is now home to an estuarine research reserve (6,110 acres as part of the 27-reserve national system) and a wildlife refuge (8,420 acres). Equally important is that Hog Hammock is the last intact sea island community of Geechee-Gullah people in Georgia. As a result, Hog Hammock has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Except for this small community (434 acres), the island (97%) is state owned and managed.

Preserving Culture

The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society annually conducts several educational events, including a cultural day each fall that features storytelling, arts and crafts (including quilt-making and sweet grass basket-making), dancing, music, and food. These efforts, although small, are vital for preserving the full history of the American South. More concerted actions are needed to retain a critical awareness of how past generations have shaped our values and traditions.

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