For over 200 years, you and your African ancestors lived on an Atlantic coastal island somewhere between North Carolina and Florida. Investors and developers begin visiting. They are interested in buying and building on your island. The possibility of your idyllic beach turning into the latest exclusive golf community or spring break destination is no longer a bad dream but a reality. What do you do?
Well if you are Gullah and live on Sapelo Island, Georgia, you form a non profit organization to preserve and revitalize your community and you call it Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society. Founded in 1993, SICARS was established to gain control over the future of Sapelo’s Gullah population residing in the Hog Hammock community.
For many of us Julie Dash’s 1991 independent film, Daughters of the Dust was our first glimpse into the Gullah island culture. Stretching up and down the Atlantic coastline from North Carolina to Florida, these islands include: James, Johns, Edisto, St. Helena, Hilton Head, Daufuskie, Wilmington, Pin Point, Cumberland, Jekyll, Ossabaw, Sapelo, St. Simons and Amelia Islands.
Much of the dialogue in the film, praised for its lush imagery, was in Gullah. Gullah is a West African-English Creole. Still spoken today, many of the words can be matched to ethnic groups in West Africa. Because of the isolation of these islands these African-Americans retained much of their African culture.
Mass tourism and resort development have virtually changed the face of all the islands where the Gullah people historically lived. Sapelo, off the coast of Georgia, has the last intact Gullah community. Here many of the descendants can trace their ancestry back to Bilali Muhammad, an enslaved African brought to the island in 1802. Bilali could speak, read and write Arabic and spoke French and Fulani. The descendants live in the Hog Hammock community whose 434 acres are nestled in the south central area of Sapelo.
Sapelo Island is only accessible by ferry which departs the mainland three times a day. The 30 minute ferry ride has aided this particular Gullah community in retaining much of its autonomy. However, residents of Hog Hammock regularly venture into the mainland for school and work. After high school many of residents leave for greater opportunities on the mainland or elsewhere. This proves to be a great challenge for the descendants living on the island because the demographics have shifted to an increasingly retired senior population.
SICARS volunteer and descendant, Netty H. Evans was born on Sapelo. She is a descendant because her mother and grandmother were also born on the island. “More and more people are coming back home to Sapelo,” says Evans. She tells of two couples, one from New Jersey and the other from Boston who are currently building homes on the island. This is inspiring because it ebbs the flow of descendants leaving the island and shores up support for preserving Hog Hammock.
SICARS educates the surrounding mainland communities and the state of Georgia on the importance of their support in preserving the Gullah community through their Annual Cultural Day festival. Every October a day is set aside to celebrate the rich history and legacy of the descendants of the people of Sapelo Island. There is music, great food, cultural customs and traditions like sweet grass basket making, net casting, oral history and story telling, quilt making, and so much more.
“Singing and dancing, arts and crafts, people come from all over the world,” says Evans.” “They line up for the smoked mullet and the low country boil shrimp and grits.”
SICARS’ three main initiatives are community education, land use and community planning, and sustainable economic development. Through the efforts of SICARS, the Hog Hammock Historic District of Sapelo Island was entered into the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of Interior in 1996.
The Hog Hammock Library recently opened on the island. It is an affiliate of Georgia’s regional library system providing educational resources and hands-on cultural experiences for the Hog Hammock community as well as Gullah descendants around the world wanting to learn more about their heritage.
Some of SICARS completed projects include the restoration of 143 year old First African Baptist Church with the assistance of Savannah College of Arts and Design and the Georgia State Preservation Division of the Department of Natural Resources. Another is the development and implementation of a community land trust as well as the adoption of a detailed land use plan.
SICARS and Hog Hammock’s Gullah community activism provide a wonderful example of preservation for other African communities facing similar challenges around the globe. They have maintained ownership of their land for over 130 years. Although that is great cause for celebration the descendants of Hog Hammock are mindful of the future and the implementation of solutions to ensure the preservation of their way of life.