The Heart of Sapelo

Imke Lass
by Chris Dixon - Georgia - June/July 2015

Cornelia Bailey, the matriarch of the last pocket of Gullah Geechee culture on Georgia's Sapelo Island, is on a mission to give this unique community a future

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Cornelia Walker Bailey sweeps her arm toward a forest of thick wire grass and towering loblolly pine. “In the past, all this was sugarcane field,” she says in a singsong patois that’s equal parts Deep South and West Indies. “My great-great-grandfather Alec Walker used to plant cane right there. My father as a little boy stayed with him, and his oxcart would carry a whopping load of cut cane from here in Hog Hammock all the way up to Chocolate. Then another whopping load. This is a big island, so you only had time to do two loads a day. That’s right.”

It’s not too difficult to picture that scene. On Georgia’s Sapelo Island, unlike nearly every other barrier island in the South, the primeval coastal landscape and a three-hundred-year-old African American culture endure, interwoven like strands of a wire-grass basket. Bailey is an author, innkeeper, shopkeeper, historian, farmer, and the island’s unofficial matriarch. She’s tall, with close-cropped gray hair and a hearty laugh. Her purple T-shirt reads DAUGHTER OF A FIELD NEGRO.

As a steward of the Sea Islands’ deep-rooted Gullah Geechee culture, Bailey, who is sixty-nine, bears the torch of Sapelo Island ancestors she can trace clear back to West Africa. She also shoulders a burden of history, fighting against powerful currents to ensure that families who live in Hog Hammock, now a shrinking community of around fifty, might cling to this place of their ancestors far into the future. It’s a prospect that has become increasingly daunting. In the last decade, real estate speculation helped spark a four- or fivefold rise in property taxes. There’s also little opportunity to make a living; the young move away, the old eventually pass away. Turning the tide means convincing beloved neighbors to remain on—or return to—this quiet outpost of forest, dune, sea, and salt marsh, and providing them a means to do so. Saving Sapelo’s last permanent community may be a long shot, but Cornelia Bailey is no quitter. She and others who are committed to preserving Hog Hammock’s distinctive culture have been plotting a new future for Sapelo. This summer, sugarcane—a plant no one has grown commercially here in a hundred years—will join heirloom Sapelo red peas on the land Bailey’s forebearers worked long ago, part of a grander vision to reverse the settlement’s fortunes by looking to the island’s agricultural past.

Left to right: Island oranges; dolls made by a local artist; Sapelo red peas.

Separated from the mainland by the nine-foot tides and big water of Sapelo and Doboy Sounds, Sapelo Island is reached only by boat, typically a twenty-minute ride aboard a Department of Natural Resources ferry from a landing near the tiny seaport of Darien. Sapelo is less known than nearby barrier islands such as Tybee, St. Simons, and Jekyll, but at eleven miles long and with 16,500 protected acres, it’s Georgia’s fourth largest. Its shore is home to miles of empty beach, whose blinding white dunes rival those of Pensacola. On its inland reaches, borders between land, marsh, and sound blur; open water gives way to bottomless pluff mud and seven-foot-tall spartina grass. Farther in, slightly elevated islands called hammocks indicate the transition to higher ground with salt-stunted oaks and scrubby saw palmettos. A dense line of trees rooted in sandy soil marks Sapelo proper: a surreal landscape of pine-shadowed wire-grass savannas, open fields, and an impenetrable riot of Spanish bayonet, bay, holly, and palmetto, all lorded over by venerable live oaks with wizard beards of thick Spanish moss.

Nearly every coastal animal species in the South lives here. White and brown shrimp and fiddler and blue crabs feed redfish, which in turn feed ospreys, southern bald eagles, wood storks, sharks, and bottlenose dolphins. The pluff mud supports clams and huge banks of oysters, their beds delicately trodden by white ibis, snowy egrets, and great blue herons, a bird islanders call “PoJo”—“Po” because they look skinny and impoverished, “Jo” because they resemble everyday working joes. Alligators lurk in freshwater, and wild hogs and huge Brahma bulls roam forests. “Two thousand pounders,” Bailey says. “Cumberland has its wild horses, Ossabaw has pigs and donkeys. We’ve got wild cows.”