Sapelo Island’s Geechee residents worry state Senate bill could disenfranchise them
By Alexandra Martinez, Prism
The Georgia General Assembly quietly passed a bill on March 2 to modify the rules of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority without the input of the island’s Geechee residents, descendants of enslaved Africans on Sapelo Island. A group of Republican representatives introduced House Bill 273, and it passed unanimously; the bill now moves on to the Senate Committee for Natural Resources and the Environment for a vote.
The Sapelo Island Heritage Authority routinely votes on issues that directly affect the community, including the ferry system, the community center, and most importantly, land that is up for sale—of which the board has the right of first refusal.
The bill will change the makeup of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority board, originally led by the governor, and will make Commissioner of Natural Resources Mark Williams the new chairman. The governor will become the vice chairman. The Commission on Human Relations from the governor’s office will also vacate its seat, leaving one empty seat for the taking. Presently, two Geecheedescendants are on the board, meaning non-descendants could easily outnumber them if the last seat goes to a non-descendant.
Maurice Bailey, the founder, president, and CEO of the nonprofit Save Our Legacy Ourself, said Williams has always insisted that he will “try to do the right thing,” but Bailey remains concerned that he could one day be influenced by friends who have purchased land on the island. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Williams received over $22,000 in donations from finance and real estate-related entities during his 2012 state House of Representatives run. Bailey said their land could soon be sold off if the board is dominated by developer interests over descendant preservation.
During the presentation of the bill on March 2, Rep. Buddy DeLoach said the seat will be given to a resident of the community on Sapelo Island. But according to Bailey, the descendants on the island were not informed of the bill, and Bailey only learned of it through a contact on the Capitol floor. Bailey is concerned the bill will open the door to more displacement through gentrification and give residents more power over the future of Sapelo than the descendants of the enslaved people who have spent centuries laboring and caring for the land.
“The issue we have with ‘residents’ is we have a lot of people that came in to gentrify the community that do not have our best interests at heart, and they have established themselves as residents,” Bailey said. “They have sent paperwork into the state to establish themselves as residents, although this is not their full-time home.”
Bailey said if more residents are appointed to the Sapelo Island History Authority board, the descendants will be outnumbered and left with little voting power to protect their community.
“We didn’t worry about that in previous years,” Bailey said. “But now we’re being pushed off our land in various ways and pushed to change our ways of Sapelo. This is very concerning.”
The Geechee community has been on Sapelo Island for 13 generations. It is a rural island with only 30 descendants of the original 44 enslaved families remaining, but it is the last island of its kind along Coastal Georgia. Bailey is carrying the torch of cultural and historic preservation that his mother, Cornelia Walker Bailey started decades prior. When asked if he has considered taking the last seat on the board, Bailey said Gov. Brian Kemp overstepped the will of the descendants and made his own selection of who would represent the descendants on the board.
“He picked people that he can control,” Bailey said. “If we lose that power, we lose our heritage, we will lose who we are.”
On Sapelo Island, where Bailey estimates the permanent population size is less than 100, maintaining a majority population of descendants has proved challenging. There are few jobs, few people to cultivate relationships with, and no schools to keep young people on the island.
People travel the island mainly on dirt roads, and the only way to access the island is via a cash-only, exact change-preferred ferry boat. Historically, that has driven folks away from the island to seek opportunities for education and employment. As the elders on the island pass away, the question of who will preserve their culture’s history is at the forefront of Bailey’s mind. But now, Bailey says developers and non-descendants who idealize the isolation and beautiful beaches on the island are buying land, hoping to push out the locals and make a profit for themselves.
“People love the idea of isolation. It draws people with big pockets to try to come into the community,” Bailey said. “This is our last opportunity to hold on to our culture, our heritage. Some people still remember seeing land being taken away from them, their rights being taken away from them, jobs being taken away. We have a long history but yet a short history. This is our last stand.”
According to Neesha Powell-Ingabire, a journalist writing a book that recovers undertold Black history in coastal Georgia, Sapelo’s history is not even familiar to Georgia locals. Powell-Ingabire grew up in nearby Brunswick and saw signs pointing to Sapelo when she would go to church, but never knew its historical significance. It wasn’t until she began reporting on environmental justice that she learned of the island’s importance as a direct line of heritage to enslaved African people.
“I think only in recent years, people are realizing how unique the culture is because it did come directly from enslaved Africans,” Powell-Ingabire said. “They were able to preserve parts of their culture from West Africa and we just didn’t learn any of that. We didn’t learn that being Gullah [or] Geechee, being Black, and being from Coastal Georgia was something to be proud of. That was intentional. That is institutionalized and systemic racism, just ignoring those parts of history and telling the same stories about the white folks that we always hear about who created this capitalist, white supremacist society.”
Bailey says changing the governing board could directly impact descendants by further erasing their history and lineage. With only 30 descendants left on the island, Bailey says they feel the impacts immediately when change happens.
“It’s disheartening to see this and be powerless because of the area that you live in,” Bailey said. “They don’t respect us. They say a lot of times, they’ll simply wait for older people to die and hope that they can take the land over from the younger generation.”
Bailey spoke to Rep. DeLoach on March 8, but he said DeLoach refuses to meet with the descendants as a group and instead will speak to them individually.
“That’s a clear sign of divide and conquer,” Bailey said. “It will create confusion so we won’t be on the same page. They’re trying to dismiss what we want to fight for.”
This is not the first time legislators have attempted to siphon descendant voices from the community. In 2021, a bill sought to approve the private sale of a rice plantation and develop a beer distillery in Darien, about 20 miles west of Sapelo. Bailey said it was a warning of what could happen in Sapelo if their land gets into the wrong hands. The Bill failed to pass after descendants wrote to their local politicians and stirred public interest. Bailey hopes they can gain similar momentum this time and ensure that descendants’ placements on the board are prioritized.
“The problem on Sapelo is we are so small that everything stays within the local government bubble, it doesn’t make it to the state level, it doesn’t make it to the national level, because they squash everything,” Bailey said. “We just want to make sure people know that if this happens, it could be damaging to the community.”
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.