Arts & Culture

Remembering Cornelia Bailey

The remarkable matriarch of Sapelo Island’s Gullah Geechee culture died Sunday at 72

Photo: Imke Lass

Cornelia Bailey near her home on Sapelo Island in 2015.

If in the end, your life is judged by the people whose hearts you touch and the good you do, Cornelia Bailey should be canonized a Southern saint. Bailey died this past Sunday at age 72. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Born in 1945 on the lush and mystical Sapelo Island, off the central Georgia coast, Bailey came of age in a wooden cabin without running water or electricity on an island that was, and still is, only reachable by boat. Her parents, like nearly everyone else who lived there, were the direct descendants of slaves who once worked the island’s vast plantations. Her family was very nearly self-sufficient. Sapelo provided fish and game and other sustenance—from wild oranges and sparkleberries to cultivated red peas and sugarcane.

But through the generations, many people Bailey grew up with died or moved off the island for more opportunities. Others from “off” saw their own opportunities in buying up land inside Hog Hammock, the sole African-American community that would remain intact as the rest of the island eventually came under the protective purview of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Hoping to save Sapelo’s Gullah Geechee culture, Bailey became both matriarch and cultural ambassador. She wrote a remarkable book about growing up there, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man, and co-authored other books about Sapelo. She worked to keep land within families. She helped build an inn, The Wallow, on her family’s property to help teach visitors to the island about its unique culture, and she welcomed journalists who wanted to hear the stories of the island and its struggles and to meet Sapelo’s remarkable people. She also collaborated with concerned outsiders like Bill Thomas, an Atlanta doctor, and his wife, Annita, to help improve the prospects for the community.

Several years ago, Bailey teamed up with the Thomases, Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins, University of South Carolina professor David Shields, and Clemson geneticist Steven Kresovich on efforts to reintroduce Sapelo Red Peas and Purple Ribbon sugarcane to the island, and to bring them to markets outside of Sapelo.

Photo: Chris Dixon

Cornelia Bailey visits with Bill Thomas, an Atlanta physician who has helped with efforts to preserve Sapelo’s culture.

“The biggest thing I got from Cornelia was that sometimes in order to go forward, you’ve got to go backward to the old way of doing things,” Thomas says. “She focused on Sapelo’s culture and the old ways, and using that as a focal point to give this place, and its culture, a future. She’s one of those people who comes along very rarely in life.”

“There’s always been a part of Cornelia who could see Sapelo’s culture slipping away, and she wanted to make people aware of the story,” says Michelle Johnson, the author of Sapelo Island’s Hog Hammock. “She didn’t want it to be something you read in a book or saw in a museum. She wanted it to be alive. She and I bonded over that feeling of holding on to the past, of being aware of the things our ancestors did to make it possible to be here. There’s an old African proverb: When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground. Many have interviewed Cornelia and heard her stories, but there’s no way to get all the information she wanted to share. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what’s gone. She had such an impact on my life. She made me see the world in a different way.”

If you ever had the opportunity to sit at her kitchen table and talk with Cornelia Bailey, as I was lucky enough to do on several occasions, you were truly blessed. She was a Southern saint and a national treasure.

Chris Dixon interviewed and wrote about Cornelia Bailey for the June/July 2015 issue of Garden & Gun. Read the story here.