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Land at heart of fight to preserve culture

Cornelia Bailey, a Sapelo Island historian, with her grandson JeMarcus, 2, says she wants her community to stay all-black.

New York Times

Cornelia Bailey, a Sapelo Island historian, with her grandson JeMarcus, 2, says she wants her community to stay all-black.

SAPELO ISLAND, Ga. — When Wevonneda Minis first came to this marshy barrier island where her ancestors had been rice-cultivating slaves, she learned of the dream her great-great-grandfather, Liberty Handy, had the night before he died. In the dream, people told her, a black cat had scratched him.

The handing down of stories like that through the generations lies at the very marrow of life here in Hog Hammock, a community of about 400 acres, some 50 mostly elderly people and one store. Reachable only by boat or ferry, Hog Hammock is one of the last settlements of the Geechee people, also called the Gullah, who in the days before air-conditioning had the Sea Islands virtually to themselves and whose speech and ways, as a result, retained a distinctly African flavor. But now the island has been discovered by speculators and wealthy weekenders.

As development has swallowed up nearby islands like Hilton Head, S.C., and St. Simons, Ga., preserving the Gullah culture has become a popular cause. In 2006, Congress designated the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida the Gullah-Geechee National Heritage Corridor, establishing a planning commission that met for the first time last month.

But what the residents of Hog Hammock really need, they say, is help holding onto their land.

The mechanisms designed to preserve the culture can offer little help to residents or descendants who want to move back. The National Park Service commission does not have the power to buy land. The island's revitalization society has a land trust but little money. A state entity called the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority has never had a budget.

During slavery, Sapelo was part of the plantation economy, but after the Civil War blacks began to buy land and formed a handful of settlements. Those were consolidated by the island's last white owner, the tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds Jr., who forced black residents to relocate to Hog Hammock in the '50s and '60s, an act still remembered with bitterness.

If the past is still present on Sapelo, so are its injustices, and perhaps that is why some islanders maintain that black outsiders, even those without Geechee roots, are more palatable than white outsiders.

"On the verge of sounding racist — which I have been accused of, which I don't give a hoot — I would rather my community be all-black," said Cornelia Bailey, an island historian, writer and proprietor of a bed and breakfast called the Wallow. "I would rather have my community what it was in the '50s."

Land at heart of fight to preserve culture 05/03/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:37pm]
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