Saltwater Geechee Culture

This is a blog about culture, but culture can mean anthropological or sociological as well as artistical. This entry, I guess, will be a bit of all three.

For our winter vacation Linda and I visited my cousins in Atlanta (who had moved there decades ago from Kalamazoo) and ended up for a night at Miami South Beach and then three nights in Key West, a Caribbean island without colonialist guilt.

In between, we made something of an Obama pilgrimmage. Linda had worked hard for him, and I had done my bit, too. She had always wanted to visit the coastal islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Our first idea was to begin with the Friendfield Plantation in Georgetown, S.C., north of Charleston. This was the home of Michelle Obama's Robinson ancestors during slavery times. But you could only go on a tour, and the day we could have made it had been booked by a group from the University of South Carolina.

So, after a night in Charleston, we headed south for Kiawah Island. I had recently written an essay on Porgy and Bess for a forthcoming Harvard anthology. Gershwin had visited Kiawah to soak up gullah music and mores (post-Africans who lived there, and who migrated to Charleston for work during Porgy times, called themselves gullahs in S.C. and geechees in Georgia); it was renamed Kittiwah in Porgy and Bess. There was supposedly a statue somewhere of Goat Cart Sammy, the inspiration for the character of Porgy. But no: like so many of those islands today, Kiawah has been gentrifed and whitewashed into a gated golf community. One (white) security guard had never heard of Sammy, or Porgy. Oh, well, the public dining room of a seaside country club (great view) was OK in a deracinated sort of way, though empty (recession, you know).

So it was on to St. Helena Island, home of the Penn Center, where Martin Luther King Jr. had planned strategy and tactics among sympathetic allies, white and black. There was a moving exhibition about life under slavery, full of displayed texts of reminiscences of former slaves and photos over the years of the center's educational activities, which date back to 1862, when the Union seized control of the islands during the Civil War. In the planning stages before King's assassination was a "retreat house" where he could study and contemplate looking out over the gorgeous marshes. It wasn't finished until after his death, but it's there now, and you can rent it. We didn't know about that until we got there, but maybe one day.

Then, after a night in Savannah, it was on to Sapelo Island. You take a ferry to get there, and you can only visit the lone community of Hog Hammock with an invitation from a resident -- especially if you want to spend the night in one of the three bedrooms at the Wallow Lodge (clean, comfortable, a kitchen but you have to bring your own food; no restaurants on the island).

Sapelo is a typical coastal island, with flat marshes, pines, oaks, beaches. Yet it is untouched by the rampant real-estate development elsewhere along the coast. The island is owned now by the state of Georgia, which uses most of it as an environmental research station.

Otherwise, except for the few mostly white scientists at the station and the odd hunter, all the people you see, the real inhabitants of Sapelo, are black -- "saltwater geechees," as opposed to the inland variety and to the gullahs. They are descendants of the slaves who used to pick cotton on the island. Fifty years ago there were some 500 of them, spread among several communities. But the owners of the "big house," a mansion built on the site of the former plantation owner's home by the Reynolds of the tobacco company, oversaw the forced collectivization of the island inhabitants to Hog Hammock (through financial incentives and cruder negative pressures). (Hog is from a family named Hogg who lent it their name; hammock is a term for a raised piece of ground above marsh level.) Some 70 inhabitants remain.

We were lucky enough to arrive on the Sunday before Christmas, and were taken in hand first by Nettie Evans, who was on the ferry and who runs the local historical society, and then by Cornelia Walker Bailey, who owns the Wallow Lodge. She and her husband Julius and their two grandsons took us up the road to the First African Baptist Church, where there was a two-hour Christmas pageant and service followed by a fried chicken, sausage etc. spread. We thus had a chance to see the whole interrelated community, or most of it, in one place.

We thought we had been pretty lucky, and we were, but then I got an e-mail from Noel Holston. He and his wife had stayed at the lodge on New Year's Eve and found a bunch of newpapers and magazines we had left behind. Turns out he was a National Arts Journalism Program fellow and had been the television critic of Newsday before relocating to teach at the University of Georgia journalism school. They attended the island New Year's Eve service, which was followed by a midnight feast in the woods at which pig's feet, peas and rice, venison, cornbread and Sapelo oysters were the bill of fare!

Sapelo feels almost under siege, from the state of Georgia and from the threat of Kiawah-style (or Hilton Head-style) development. Many of the island inhabitants work on the mainland now or go to school there, taking the ferry at the break of day. There is a kind of petri-dish artificiality to Hog Hammock now, as if the traditions of the islanders are about to be washed away by the mainstream culture, if not another hurricane.

In the meantime, Mrs. Walker has written a book called God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man, and it is just a wonderful read. It purls along like elegantly crafted oral story-telling, and it brings the traditions and customs and past tragedies and, one hopes, future triumphs of these remarkably resilient people alive. If you can't get to Sapelo, read the book. It's as artistically cultural as any cultural anthropologist or sociologist might wish.  

January 11, 2009 4:27 PM | | Comments (3)


Reginald Hall

August 27, 2010

My name is Reginald H. Hall/Hogg. I am a direct descendant of the slaves from the Thomas Spalding plantation that was located on Sapelo Island, Georgia. I am writing this on behalf of the Saltwater Geechee community as the appointed spokesperson.

I am requesting an investigation of the illegal land dealings being committed by the governor of the state of
Georgia, Sonny E.J. Purdue. Pudue, who is now the chairman of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, that is a state instrumentality which was voted into the house legislation under Senate Bill 391.

Developers are now building resort style homes in the Hogg Hummock Historic District on Sapelo Island. These homes are illegally being constructed per the McIntosh County building, zoning and ordinances codes as stipulated in section 515.

Hogg Hummock and Raccoon Bluff were placed on the National Register of Historic Through the United States Department of Interior in 1996.

The developers have formed 9 LLC’s and other corporations that have operated under the radar for so many years on Sapleo Island. Sapelo is a 17,600 acre island.

There are now 14 new resort residential developments that have been built illegally. These developments have raised our taxes double in the last year. Thus, a tax run off is being implemented.

My forefathers were brought to this island as slaves. We have survived on this island for 209 years, this year. My forefathers began purchasing lands on this island as early as 1871. There was a time when we, the Saltwater Geechee people on Sapelo Island owned upwards of 2,700 + acres that encompassed 13 separate communities.

I have enclosed a map of Sapelo Island that details the former locations of the 13 ancestral Saltwater Geechee settlements.
These settlements were populated by close to 1,000 descendants of the slaves up until the mid 1950's.

By forced migration and illegal land dealings, we have now been concentrated into one community (Hogg Hummock), roughly estimated at 191 acres and only 49 descendants. The state of Georgia has recently claimed another 1,376.78 acres of our Raccoon Bluff community, (one of the original 13 ancestral Saltwater Geechee settlements).

Raccoon Bluff is the community that my father and his father went to visit my great grandmother on Sundays, which is about 5 miles away from where our homestead is currently located in the Hogg Hummock Historic District . Our Hogg Hummock homestead was passed to my father by his parents. My father has since passed the homestead on to me . My plan is to carry on the tradition of survival by continuing to pass ownership of the lands to my children for them to do the same for future generations.

Based on a comparative analysis of the current real estate market for Sapelo Island, the lands in Raccoon Bluff are approximately valued $386,614,500.00. This undeveloped waterfront property is located on the north end of the island.

The last sell in the Hogg Hummock historic district which is located in the middle eastern section of the island, sold for $275,000.00 for one acre. We, the Saltwater Geechee people, have lost upwards of 2,700 acres, which has an estimate land value of $742,500,000.00. Moreover, the drastic decrease of Saltwater Geechee population has diminished our culture.

In addition to land loss and population decline, the quality of life on the island for the Saltwater Geechee is extremely poor. Not to go without mention, we have been denied docking rights on the mainland and on the marshland.

We do not have quality drinking water.
We do not have properly engineered irrigation systems.

We do not have proper trash removal or receptacles.

We do not have a medical facility.

We have lost our schools.

Our paid county taxes are not being represented.

State jobs are not being offered on Island.

State jobs that are on Island are underpaid.

The University of Georgia Athens has been on the Island since 1959 as one of the largest research institutions in the country and yet has never had one educational open house for the community in which it thrives.

The University of Georgia Athens has not supplied any economic development for the Saltwater Geechee community or the people.

The University of Georgia Athens has taken in over 600 million dollars in gifts and donations in 2009 and built over 1 billion dollars in construction in 2009. Is the effort of bridging the gap with the community of the Saltwater Geechee people on Sapelo not important to them?

All and all we are being driven away in the most blatant forms imaginable.

The Superior Court Judge Robert L. Russell is one of the key builders/developers of the illegal resort style developments. Judge Russell is the Superior Court Judge in McIntosh County, which Sapelo Island is within the same county jurisdiction.

Proof of the illegal land transactions during Gov. Purdue's administration can be obtained from the Georgia Superior Clerk of Courts website. Therefore, not only is a state government causing the destruction of a 209 year culture, but the county government is also taking part of the destruction of the Saltwater Geechee culture.

Perhaps media outlets could help to expose the atrocities by these government entities.

Ultimately, we need to preserve our Saltwater Geechee culture, which is a thread of our American cultural fabric, by the preservation of our lands and sustainable economic development. With cultural tourism on the island, our family members could support themselves and their families and continue the survival of our Saltwater Geechee culture.

We are in need of immediate assistance as time is of the essence, due to the aggressive illegal actions to erase the culture and acquire our lands.

My father, who is 77 years old, asked me to assist him and the Saltwater Geechee people of Sapelo Island with the survival of our culture, economic stabilty and land loss delima.

The Saltwater Geechee people of Sapelo Island and our extended family members appointed me as spokesperson for these specific purposes.

I am requesting assistance with this daunting task, especially with the legal matters.

Please, Help!!!

An additional note, that should not go without mention, is the horrid way in which our burial grounds have been stolen.

Reginald H. Hall,

Appointed Spokesperson for the Saltwater Geechees on Sapelo Island

508-509-1920 cell

I am an 11 generation descendant of the slaves of Thomas Spalding. Sapelo Island has the last intact Saltwater Geechee society in the United States.
We have been on the Island as a people for 205 years this year we have owned land on the Island for 138 years to date. Several thousands of acres of land have been stolen from us over so many years as the Geechee/Gullahs in the U.S. have lost 14 million acres of land since the civil war, land that today, is valued over 1.5 billion dollars. We have been forgotten and abused by the state entities that were put in care of the island and her inhabitants. We have been overlooked and abused as the community to the University of Georgia Athens, who last year recieved in gifts and donations 645 million dollar, and constructing over 1 billion dollar in building, and shelled out 200 million dollars in research. We in Hogg Hummuck community, and it is Hogg Hummuck,(Hogg is my slave given name as master had my family tend to the hogs, and my cousins named Bailey as they were the cotton bailers, and my family the Walkers who walked the live stock, etc.
Hogg Hummock being on the National Register of Historic Places is Federaly protected lands that the state and other intities have continually tied Hogg Hummock in the fundings of state and federal dollars in the 100's of millions, but the community is not afforded any of the benefits as a culture or a community. While at this very moment the state of Georgia is claiming another 1,376 acres of our clear title and deeded land as recorded in the Mcintosh county court house, (Darien, Georgia) valued at over on half of a billion dollars. If the article is to be written, please spread the word that at this very moment we are fighting for the survival of our culture, our people and our land.
Without the land there is no people. These key issues that I have raised are just the tip of the problem, to add insult the encroaching developers that the state and local governments have allowed to build outside of the federal laws and guidelines set in place, with astounding residential properties that have already been erected, until the ACHP (Advisory Counsel on Historic Preservation) began it's investigation. If the guy from DNR said he felt a part of the church for the first time, it must have been his first time there. Our people are a God fearing people and accept all that come through the Holy doors of any of the three churches on the Island with humbled love and open arms. If you felt you knitted black and white together, I can only respect your feeling, but the reality is you came in and left without making a difference to the plight of the people on the Island, black nor white. It is still the way you left it, economically deprived, and facing a systematic demolition of a culture/heritage. I invite you to come again, the word invite is the key point.
People have walked into our home for so many years without an invitation and misused, abuse and attempted to diplace my people for so long, we demand they stop. This demand is coming in the form of governmental assistance,
,legislative,congressional and federal as well as the hard efforts our legal team in the fist phase of this battle that has continued to repeat itself without change, but change is here and we are embracing it with the same love and open arms that we have for all mankind in church or outside church. Come back and ask for me. I will personally see that you know and see the truth, with no blanket, so you can then become a part of the solution, not just and onlooker with precieved thoughts of grandier.
With all Respect
Reginald H. Hall,
Descendant of the slaves of Thomas Spalding, Sapelo Island Georgia.

Hey John,
This is Marty Winkler, Noel Holston's wife.
You nailed the feeling of Sapelo exactly on the head.
I MADE Noel stand up and sing on NYE at the church service. I think he felt like, "What the hell am I doing getting up and singing in a little black church?!" I'm a professional singer, so I didn't have quite the same feeling. I'm also not from the South, so there was that issue as well. But we stood up and sang a Laurie Lewis song called "The Rope." And the church rocked with approval afterwards, so I knew I'd made the right call.
A DNR guy came up to me at the barbecue afterwards and told me that that was the first time that he'd felt like he was a part of that church. So I felt like we had 'knitted black and white together' for a little bit.

Thanks for a great piece on the island. I want to go back as soon as we have time.
Be well,


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This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on January 11, 2009 4:27 PM.

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