For two centuries the Geechees have farmed this land, fished the seas and gathered crabs and oysters in the marshes. They have buried their ancestors here and believed in the healing power of its soils. Yvonne Grovner still makes her sweet grass baskets. Maurice Bailey still throws his cast nets into the marshland. Mildred and John Teal describe their admiration and beauty for the land in Portrait of an Island. I, too, walked the desolate, pristine beaches and spent hours hidden in the boughs of a Georgia live oak, but I believe it cannot be truly appreciated until one learns about how it has and continues to shape the lives of the Geechee people.
In this paper I will offer my unqualified rendition of what I learned. I will never be of this culture, it doesn’t do well to portray it as so. I am just a vulnerable observer who was lucky enough to stumble into a class, and then a culture, that has enhanced my understanding of a fading way of life.
Origins and Early Life
The first recorded Africans on Sapelo came as slaves in the early 1800s, under the reign of Thomas Spalding. The boats departed Bance Island, Sierra Leone, and it’s unfathomable cargo of men, women and children lay naked, chained, and crying in the darkness of the ship’s hull. Stripped of family, land, and their proud identity they traversed the ocean into the new world, but to them it was not a land of opportunity. The journey was long and perilous. If fifteen percent of the people died, their captors still made a profit(“The Language that you Cry In”). “Crossing the water” became a phrase for “death.”
On Sapelo, those who survived were forced to live in deplorable conditions, work long hours, and cater to Spalding’s wealthy whims. Sapelo: A History hails Spalding as a genius and refers to the Spalding Era as “nigger heaven” because of his “relaxed treatment of his blacks.” The book cites Spalding as some sort of botanical genius, but the untold reason for his profits is that Spalding didn’t have to pay his laborers; he didn’t always even feed them. “I remember my Mama and Grandma telling me things were so bad over here that they actually had to catch rats to eat. They almost starved to death. Those people had it rough (Bailey 131).”
Though he may have been more lenient than many, a lesser wrong is still wrong. Here Spalding is a champion of paternalism, a practice in which it is the slaveholders role to “civilize” their slaves and they therefore feel better about their position. I would argue, and so would Cornelia Bailey, that Spalding wasn’t doing his slaves that much of a favor. “The view of Spalding being strict but fair was passed down by his descendants and friends, not by black people here…Grandma and Uncle Shed said that some of the slave masters were devils from hell (Bailey 136).”
Much of the horrors of slavery were left unrecorded. Not too many stories have been told because recollections of “those days” were so unpleasant and the older people didn’t want to remember or have their young feel the burden that they did. “They sealed their lips and didn’t look back. They wanted to go forward(139).”
A New Home
Sapelo Island is located off the coast of Georgia in the Southeastern United States. The Africans who came to Sapelo found similarities to Sierra Leone, and the Gullah/Geechees found everything they need to survive and memories of a rich heritage, beginning and continuing with the land.
“The climate on Sapelo was hot and humid and buggy, just like it was in West Africa. There were tidal streams and marshes similar to those they knew in Africa. There were seabirds and fish that were similar. There were lima beans, okra, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables that were similar, and they could simmer vegetables and seafood together and serve them over rice in ways that they knew. So, they would have taken a deep breath and said, “Okay, this reminds me of home. Maybe we can go on.” (Bailey 2).”
An important unifying remnant of African culture is the Gullah language. Gullah began as a pidgin language that enabled the slaves from various parts of Africa to combine their languages and communicate in a common tongue. It was passed down and became a Creole. Later, when everyone spoke English, it was still used to discuss things among one another that they did not want the white man, or “bukra,” to understand. Today it is used to celebrate a common heritage between Gullah speaking people. “Speech communities imply a shared culture and world view,“ says Joyner (Goodwine 10).Though it may sound like a simplified English, according to Turner it has traces of thirty-two West African vocabularies, syntaxes, and sounds (Goodwine 59).
The movies “The Language that you Cry In” and “Family Across the Sea,” tell the story of an African song that is traced back to Sierra Leone. It is a funeral song recorded by Amelia Dawley. This discovery was significant because it provided a sure link between the two cultures. From this discovery the people began to explore their true roots and develop a sense of pride. When they were first brought to America, Africans were stripped of their identities by slaveholders who sought to civilize them and convince them of subordinance. Slaveholders told the people they were barbaric and stupid, when really they had been chosen from a thriving culture in Africa for their superior knowledge of rice growing.
Another aspect of Geechee culture that is derived from Africa is the oral tradition. The history of the culture is passed down from generation to generation through stories. The great thing about oral tradition is that it requires families to share with one another and remain close. The tough part is that over time, it tends to fade. “It was a very rich oral tradition, but there were huge holes in it, so many it was harmful to our view of who we were (Bailey 279).” Some of the stories are simple moral tales about animals that teach children respect for the land and for one another. While on Sapelo, we were lucky enough to hear the story of “How the Alligator Lost his Tongue” (Mrs. Banks) and a story of “Briar Rabbit and the Fox” (Mrs. Bailey). Other stories are more specific like stories about family members who had passed on, instances where they used root and conjure, and legends.
The Gullah people were religious, yes, but they found ways to integrate three aspects of supernatural belief: God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man. “Dr. Buzzard was the root doctor. The conjurer. The worker of black magic. He could put a spell on you and do you bodily harm (Bailey 187). The Bolito man referred to a lottery system involving numbers and signs (145). Since you couldn’t ask God for revenge or money, you had somewhere else to turn.
The prominent legends in Cornelia Bailey’s book are the ‘ol hag and the jack-o’-lantern. The ‘ol hag is said to have ridden you if you wake up feeling weary, and the jack-o’-lantern was a light in the darkness that lead you away from your destination, often leaving you confused and lost.
Christianity came into the Gullah/Geechee culture in one of two ways. Either a missionary came and converted the people or they were forced to attend church by their slaveholders. On Sapelo Island, things were a little unorthodox. When slaves first came to the island, most notably the Muslim scholar Bilali, many were Islamic. When freedom came and the people were allowed to erect their own church and worship services, they blended their beliefs with the ones they had learned. “They wanted to go to church together. So they patched things up (Bailey 158).”
According to Muslim faith, God resides in the East; East is the direction in which people pray and the direction their feet go upon burial. At church one must cover their arms and women must cover their heads. The men and women separate upon entering the church and sit on opposite sides. Baptisms were similar to Muslim traditions, and before baptism a child was required to study with a teacher at length, just like in the Muslim faith (Bailey 159-162). Baptist churches are lively in that “the self, the body, is not silenced or constrained (McFeely 117) and preaching is call and response (Goodwine 63).
The church was more than a place of worship; it is a community and political center. The people would spend hours there rallying to support their cause, and the deacons of the church had a great influence over the actions of the community. When the lawyers wanted to propose their inequality lawsuit to the community, they went to the church prepared to give a lecture. They soon found out that just being invited to this place meant that they had won the people’s support. They were only really there to request the support of the Lord.
Geechee Sea Island Cuisine reflects the importance of land and community and self-sufficiency. The ingredients for Geechee recipes can be found right on the island, very likely in one’s backyard. If a family has more of something than they need, they will share it with a neighbor. “They also have a deep understanding of their coexistence with other living things and believe that the use of these resources should be moderate and non-exploitative (Goodwine 139).”
“When I as a child coming up, we never used to put fertilizer in our crop to rush up the food. Food used to taste much better then than now. The old folks didn’t have as many health problems as we are having and they ate all those forbidden foods (Goodwine 144). People on Sapelo Island do seem to live long lives. At Behavior Cemetery, we discovered that Uncle Shed had made it to one hundred twelve, and Cornelia Bailey said he may have really been as old as one hundred eighteen! Minto Bell made it to one hundred ten. Cornelia Bailey’s father is ninety-nine and still alive and well. Perhaps it is the food or the way of life, or the simple joys of community and family togetherness, but Sapelo’s people live long lives.
The Civil War swept through the south and freed the slaves, however it left them displaced and uncertain. Many of Sapelo’s people who had fled with Spalding’s family now faced the long journey home-- back to the lands they had worked and families they had become a part of. Despite the history of oppression, it was the only home that they knew. “After all, on the same island where they had been chattel slaves, they knew curtains of trees through which slipped secret paths to favorite fishing spots (McFeely 83).” So the people walked 200 miles hungry, tired, cold, and carrying those who faltered and those too old or too young to make the journey. “Unlike their ancestors brought across the ocean, they could go home on foot(84).”
When faced with the dilemma of what to do with the displaced freedmen, the government devised a series of solutions. General Sherman promised “40 Acres and a Mule.“ Special Field Order 15 set aside coastal lands and the sea islands for black private settlements, therefore removing property from white landowners (McFeely 90). In 1863, Tunis Campbell entered the picture and came to the aid of the freedmen, struggling to rebuild their lives and adjust to freedom. Campbell was a bright young black man from New Jersey with a passion “to instruct and elevate the colored race (96).” Campbell became a friend to the black settlers and an active voice in politics. He provided them with seeds and farming equipment, schools and a vision for the future.
In 1865, President Johnson issued his Amnesty Proclamation that offered pardons and a return of land ownership to Confederates. Tunis Campbell was replaced and found guilty of “misconduct.” Johnson’s plan included a system of sharecropping where freedmen were to work for their former masters. “His rhetoric suggested that do so was to accept an equally good definition of what freedom meant (133), similar to the “separate but equal” segregation mantra: unfair in theory and in practice.
So Sherman‘s Promise and Article 15 were lost and the people went back to work for their former masters. Residents were given the right to vote in 1867 and the right was taken away in 1906. “African Americans may derive as much anger from the broken promises of Reconstruction as from slavery itself (McFeely 125).”
Around 1912, Howard Coffin purchased much of the island. A small step up from slavery, he exploited cheap labor. At least, though, Coffin was caught up in regaling visitors and entertaining himself with his exorbitant lifestyle. Reynolds was the next and last of the Sapelo Island tycoons. He employed local laborers for menial jobs and pay, and fancied himself a philanthropist for building a school on Sapelo and a research facility. He also consolidated the remaining communities into one: Hog Hammock. He used his influence to force people out of their homes to serve his own private interests. In the third attempt to get Mr. Walker to move, Reynolds foreman reverts to threats. “Well, Hicks, you know it’d be too bad if you lose your job and have to go to the mainland and your family have to fend for themselves (Bailey 99).”
The Reynolds mansion is kept up meticulously as a hotel and conference center, for tours, and as an historic site. It serves as a grossly elaborate symbol of the uneven distribution of wealth and the prize won of three lifetimes of exploited labor. While the state of Georgia and the Department of Natural Resources fund maintenance of the mansion, the Hog Hammock community landmarks are restored chiefly by their own fundraising.
The Island Geechees still felt authoritarian controls, but the Civil War had given them the first hints of freedom. Change came slowly to this remote little island, but hope was alive and more so were the ancient traditions, isolated and left to develop in the hammocks the Geechees called home.
After his death in 1964, Reynolds’s holdings were sold to the state of Georgia as the Richard J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge, administered by the Department of Natural Resources. This is fortunate for the people of Sapelo, for their island home has not been subject to deconstructionment, not developed into a tourist’s playground like Hilton Head and some of the other Sea Islands.
However in many ways, the Geechee culture is slipping away. The Geechees found creative ways to explain the world around them. Modern science has encroached on these ways. Children began to believe their teachers over their elder family members. “But to my kids, the hag and the jack-o’-lanterns were legends from the past. To them, they weren’t the real, living, mysterious beings they had been to me and everybody before me on Sapelo (Bailey 269).” When the scientists came over from the Department of Natural Resources and the University of Georgia, they explained away the hag as poor blood circulation and the jack-o’lanterns as naturally occurring gas. “Once you put magic to a spotlight, it disappears (Bailey 211).”
There is no longer a school on the island, and there aren’t many jobs. Women don’t have the time to cook all day for their families, they have to work, too. Many Hog Hammock residents are being pressured to sell their land and move to the mainland, where there are more opportunities. Children are leaving and the old ways are dying with the older generation, and a concrete solution is nowhere in sight.
The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS) is one organization that is coordinating an effort to preserve the Geechee lands and way of life. The organization was founded in 1993 by resident and nonresident descendants, but associate non-descendant membership is also encouraged. The organization has done some maintenance and restoration projects, including the First African Baptist church at Raccoon Bluff, the Farmer’s Alliance Hall, and Behavior Cemetery. SICARS is responsible for a land use plan, a community land trust, and implementation of the first HUD grant,. A project on oral history with Georgia State University is also supported by SICARS as well as a quarterly newsletter appropriately named the “Griot.” (www.sapeloisland.org)
Another organization devoted to the perpetuation of Gullah/Geechee culture is the Gullah-Geechee Sea Island Coalition of St. Helena, South Carolina. Their goal is to sell authentic crafts and food and share information with the public about businesses to support on the Sea Islands. (http://users.aol.com/queenmut/GullGeeCo.html)
The Georgia Sea Island Singers are a traveling music group. The members dedicate themselves to raising awareness and sharing the Gullah/Geechee traditions. They not only entertain, but also offer a lesson on the origins of their songs and interpret the meaning. (www.georgiaseaislandsingers.com)
“You see, you can think of the Africans of being victims, and in a sense they were, but they were also great survivors…they were determined people.” (Bailey 2) We can only hope that this determination and ability to adapt will carry through to the next generation.
“Mus’ tek cyear a de root fa’ heal de tree (Goodwine 13).”
Bailey, Cornelia. God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man Anchor Books. New York 2000. Personal Interview; Summer 2002.
Behar, Ruth. The Vulnerable Observer Beacon Press. Boston 1996
Goodwine, Marquetta L. The Legacy of Ibo Landing Clarity Press. Atlanta 1998
Greene, Melissa Fay. Praying for Sheetrock Fawcett-Columbine Ballantine Books. Toronto 1991
McFeely, William S. Sapelo’s People WW Norton and Company. New York/London 1994
Sullivan, Buddy Sapelo: A History Sapelo Island Restoration Foundation. Darien, GA 1989
Teal, Mildred and John. Portrait of an Island The University of Georgia Press. Athens and London 1997
Also check out Daughters of the Dust.