Off the coast of Georgia, Sapelo Island cradles the remnants of African populations.
Just after daybreak, alligators, tusked boar, thick snakes, and feral cattle can be seen roaming the long north-south roads. An hour later, local Geechee patriarch Julius Bailey revs up his yellow school bus to pick up the few children still living on Sapelo Island, population under 200, to deposit them on the ferry landing. From there, the sleepy-eyed kids and the adults who work on the mainland will travel 20 minutes across the estuarine marsh waters that separate the island from Meridian, Georgia.
I’ve been sitting in a rocking chair on the long porch since before dawn, nursing a mug of hot coffee and watching the daily ritual unfold—a ritual that has become fairly predictable to me, this being my fourth visit to Sapelo. As gray light turns to blue sky, twittering and cheeping morning birds swoop down onto the front lawn, pecking away for worms, bugs, and seedlings. It’s only late March and yet the Georgia day is already warm, a nice respite from yesterday’s near-freezing temperatures at the Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In late morning, I bike down a road that earlier was occupied by wild animals. A sharp left, and I am heading toward the restored 13-bedroom, neoclassical Reynolds Mansion (Reynolds of the tobacco fortune), now a retreat and conference center run by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and a popular weekend wedding venue. I go by the old staff quarters and workshops and past the head-turning fountain with four granite turkeys facing north, south, east, and west, and another in full plumage astride the top. A hard right takes me past the double tennis courts and then to the path along the marsh, where I spot the white-and-red striped lighthouse. Finally, after pedaling over a short arched bridge, I park my bike near a long, quiet beach facing the Atlantic. There’s nobody else here. I walk amid unbroken seashells and swim in shallow waters, arms outstretched.
I’m staying in The Wallow, a six-room B&B operated by Cornelia and Julius Bailey, matriarch and patriarch of Hog Hammock, an African-American Geechee community with origins tracing back to 1789, when a consortium of Frenchmen purchased the island and brought in African slaves to work it. The original plantation, inexplicably named Chocolate, survives as ruins; crumbling walls outline the old workhouses and living quarters. The buildings here, as in many European settlements along Georgia’s coast, were constructed of “tabby,” a compound made of shells, sand, lime, and water. Nearby, an expansive rebuilt barn from the 1830s perches on the edge of the estuarine channel. On the three occasions I’ve visited this spot with Cornelia Bailey, we’ve always had it to ourselves.
Nearby is a site called Hanging Bull. According to tourist brochures, it got its name after a bull was blown into a tree by a long-ago hurricane. But Geechee oral tradition holds that a man was hanged there. According to Cornelia Bailey, the white masters referred to large, muscular, male slaves as “bulls.”
Northeast across a small channel lies Blackbeard Island, named for the infamous pirate, who was known to have lain low here between treasure-grabbing excursions. He is reputed to have buried some of his gold coins, goblets, and jewels on the island.
Naturalists love this place. Even from a rocking chair on the porch, a bird watcher can spy on a wide variety of species—birds with colorful local names like kanoe, pojo, and chacalaca. Armadillos, deer, and even coyotes live on the island. There is a brief bow-hunting season to thin the deer population. The local flora is a sensual mix of pine, magnolia, wisteria, cassina, and pecan trees.
Sea life abounds off Sapelo, as I discovered one morning when a group of us stretched a wide net along the surf and dragged in scores of leaping shrimp, mullet, crabs, and even a shark. That evening, we contributed to the community’s Saturday night fish grill. Next day, the Baileys served up the traditional low-country boil (crab, shrimp, corn, smoked sausage, potatoes, yam) with skillet-baked cornbread and fresh-picked collard greens seasoned with fatback pork. Another meal featured Julius’s shrimp and gravy over thick-grain grits, a side of hot biscuits, and his slow-cooked baby back ribs.
If you know where to look at low tide (I’m sworn to secrecy), there are bountiful oyster beds. One night I helped the Baileys shuck a bucketful, slurping down a salty one every few minutes. In between, I played with their two step-grandkids, one of whom couldn’t help running his fingers playfully through my straight hair, a novelty to him.
Sapelo isn’t easy to get to. There’s no connecting bridge from the mainland, like the one to St. Simons in the south, or to the well-known Hilton Head resorts on the far northern end of these barrier islands. The tightly scheduled ferry is the only way on and off Sapelo. The ferry’s crew checks your name against a list of invited visitors before letting you board.
The difficulty of traveling to Sapelo has largely protected it, making the island a rare specimen of Americana that may not survive much longer in its authentic state. It’s not the ecology of Sapelo Island so much as its culture that’s threatened. Aside from the 430 or so privately owned acres comprising Hog Hammock, the island is mostly protected: A state nature preserve covers most of the northern and eastern portions, and a research center, the University of Georgia Marine Institute, occupies most of the southern and western ends. The endangered habitat lacking any particular attention from a state or federal agency is actually Hog Hammock’s Geechee community. Where once the Geechee numbered in the hundreds, possibly as many as 1,000, there are now only about 60 on the island.
If the United States had a national “Cultural Heritage Preservation” list, Hog Hammock would certainly rank among the top ten. As it is, three spacious vacation homes have been built within sight of the community in recent years, and others are cropping up around the island. Cornelia tells me that residents have defeated recent proposals for a connector highway from the mainland, but she expects bridge proponents to keep lobbying the legislature.
My first visit to Sapelo was in 2000, when a group of writers, mostly African-American women, invited me to join them. We arrived on the first Sunday of May, when many off-island Sapelonians return to worship at the historic First African Baptist Church, usually shuttered the rest of the year. Dressed in our Sunday best, we slipped into a rear pew, joining the singing of old-time gospel songs and shouting amens and hallelujahs to the fiery cadences of the preacher.
Later, we were told that the original church in the woods near Raccoon Bluff had been built by the descendents of Bilali, an African Muslim bought by Thomas Spalding. Bilali, who was educated and proficient in cotton cultivation, became head driver of a vast farming enterprise. His success conferred enough status on his family that they were able to convince the master to allow the community to build its own church. Ostensibly Christian, the church’s observances surreptitiously hewed to the strictures of Islam. For example, the congregation faced east towards Mecca and Medina. Men and women sat on opposite sides of the church, separated by the middle aisle. Women who reached puberty were required to wear long sleeves and cover their heads while in church.
Bilali himself prayed three times a day in public, behavior interpreted by his masters as that of a zealous Christian convert. He actually prayed five times a day—twice in private—to Allah. Bilali, it turned out, also knew Arabic script. Many years later, his personal journal surfaced and is now archived in the University of Georgia, Athens. Many of Sapelo’s Geechee, including Cornelia, trace their ancestry to Bilali.
The only time the Geechee community left Sapelo was during the American Civil War, when they were force-marched as slaves deeper into the South, away from the advancing Union Army. After the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the war, many Geechee walked back to the island. They purchased land and established several communities: Hog Hammock, Raccoon Bluff, Shell Hammock, Belle Marsh, and Lumber Landing. After World War II, many residents left the island to find jobs on the mainland. Hog Hammock is the last surviving community.
Today, the remaining inhabitants have laid the foundations of an ecotourism industry they hope will revitalize the Geechee community, offering van and horse-drawn wagon tours to historic sites, as well as horseback riding, bicycling, fishing expeditions, and kayaking in and around the island. Even the ornate Reynolds Mansion offers maps for hiking and biking and manages an island campsite. The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society arranges tours and accommodations.
More importantly, the Society is working on obtaining the right of first refusal on any sales of island property. Of course, without funds to purchase land that becomes available, the right would be a hollow legal victory.