Sapelo Island: Descendants of African slaves on Georgia island fear losing culture and assets after change in zoning laws


Descendants of African slaves on Georgia’s Sapelo Island – one of the state’s last intact Gullah Geechee communities – fear their cultural heritage and property could soon be lost after city officials voted to a change to the island’s zoning laws.

Historians believe Hogg Hammock, on Sapelo Island, is one of the last surviving Gullah Geechee communities in the Georgia Sea Islands. The Gullah people are descendants of Africans enslaved on the coastal plantations of the South and retain many of their African cultural traditions and languages.

On Tuesday, the McIntosh County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of changing the zoning ordinance in Hogg Hammock. The new ordinance calls for increasing the maximum square footage of a heated and cooled home from 1,400 to 3,000, according to a statement released last week by McIntosh County Executive Patrick Zoucks ahead of a public hearing on the ordinance .

The square footage limit “was imposed in what appears to be a good faith effort to control property values ​​and deter the construction of large residences.” Unfortunately, there has been little research into the applicability of this provision,” Zoucks wrote, noting that it is “impossible” to control whether people add heating or cooling to their homes after they move in.

Sapelo Island descendant Josiah “Jazz” Watts, 52, told CNN the county’s zoning plan “shocked all of us,” saying residents fear the new changes will allow the wealthy to build properties in the community and result in high property taxes.

“We were not given the opportunity to be included in the process of a zoning ordinance that would directly affect us,” Watts said Wednesday. “The people who will be most negatively affected by all of this are the Geechee descendants on the island.”

Watts added that a number of residents are older and on fixed incomes: “Where are people going to find the extra income to pay this tax?” You won’t be able to do it.

Slaves were brought to Sapelo Island in 1802 and their descendants still live in the Hogg Hammock community, which spans nearly 400 acres and is accessible only by boat or ferry, according to the Cultural Society and revitalization of Sapelo Island.

Maurice Bailey, local historian and ninth-generation Hogg Hammock resident, said only 29 original descendants remain in the community. He estimates that descendants own 63 percent of the property and 75 percent of the land area on Sapelo Island.

“People have seen their communities taken away from them. And they’ve been fighting for this community for a long time,” said Bailey, who is also president and CEO of the Save Our Legacy Ourself organization, which aims to preserve the heritage of the Geechee people.

But now, he said, many Hogg Hammock residents are discouraged.

They are considering selling their land because “they can’t win,” he said. “We wouldn’t be in this mess if we didn’t start selling land to outsiders. »

Bailey said her mother, famed Gullah Geechee writer and activist Cornelia Walker Bailey, frequently warned against selling their property and cultural heritage. “She always said, ‘Don’t sell your land. If you really want to keep what you are, don’t sell your land,” he said.

McIntosh County Board of Commissioners Chairman David Stevens and Zoucks, McIntosh County Executive, did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.

In his statement, Zoucks said the proposals contained in the zoning regulations are in the “best interest” of Hogg Hammock residents and the county.

Watts said he and other community members plan to appeal the zoning ordinance. “We’re fighting because… it’s just wrong,” he said.

Sapelo Island residents are not the only ones fighting what critics call an expropriation of Black-owned land.

Josephine Wright, a 93-year-old black resident of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, is in a legal dispute with a real estate developer seeking to build a residential complex next to her family’s land.


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