Wall Street Times

Sapelo Island’s Gullah Geechee Legacy at Risk: Concerns Over Changing Zoning Laws

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Descendants of enslaved Africans on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, home to one of the last intact Gullah Geechee communities in the state, are facing mounting concerns about the preservation of their cultural heritage and property. These worries stem from recent changes in the island’s zoning laws, a move that has raised questions about the future of this historic community.

The Last Gullah Geechee Stronghold: Hogg Hammock’s Significance:

Historians recognize Hogg Hammock on Sapelo Island as one of the few surviving Gullah Geechee communities in the Georgia Sea Islands. The Gullah people, whose roots trace back to African ancestors enslaved on coastal Southern plantations, continue to maintain their unique cultural traditions and languages.

The Zoning Decision: A Closer Look:

On a pivotal Tuesday, the McIntosh County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of altering the zoning ordinance in Hogg Hammock. The key amendment in this new ordinance involves increasing the maximum square footage of a heated-and-cooled house from 1,400 to 3,000, a change that has sparked significant debate and concern.

Enforceability Challenges:

The original square footage limit was introduced with the intention of controlling property values and deterring the construction of large residences. However, according to McIntosh County Manager Patrick Zoucks, enforcing this provision proved “impossible,” particularly when it comes to monitoring the addition of heating or cooling systems after residents move in.

Community Concerns: Impact on Residents:

Sapelo Island descendant Josiah “Jazz” Watts, expressing the sentiment of many residents, conveyed shock and frustration at the county’s zoning plan. The fear is that these changes may pave the way for the wealthy to build properties within the community, leading to soaring property taxes and putting a strain on longtime residents, especially older individuals on fixed incomes.

A Community’s Historical Roots:

The history of Sapelo Island runs deep, dating back to 1802 when enslaved individuals were brought to its shores. Their descendants continue to inhabit the Hogg Hammock community, a nearly 400-acre area accessible only by boat or ferry, according to the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society.

The Precarious State of Hogg Hammock:

Local historian Maurice Bailey, himself a ninth-generation Hogg Hammock resident, estimates that only 29 original descendants remain in the community. These descendants collectively own 63% of the properties and 75% of the acreage on Sapelo Island. However, they face mounting challenges and decisions, with some considering selling their land due to the perceived uphill battle.

Preserving Heritage: A Call to Action:

Bailey, who also heads the Save Our Legacy Ourself organization, dedicated to preserving the Geechee heritage, emphasizes the importance of not selling their land and cultural inheritance. He cites the wisdom of his mother, Cornelia Walker Bailey, a renowned Gullah Geechee writer and activist, who consistently cautioned against such actions.

Official Response and Future Actions:

Despite community concerns, McIntosh County Board of Commissioners Chairman David Stevens and County Manager Patrick Zoucks have not yet responded to requests for comment. In response, community members, led by Josiah Watts and others, plan to appeal the zoning ordinance, believing that this battle is about what’s right and just.

Beyond Sapelo Island: A Broader Struggle:

Sapelo Island residents are not alone in facing the challenges of what some critics call the expropriation of Black-owned land. Across the region, individuals like 93-year-old Josephine Wright on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, are engaged in legal disputes with property developers, underscoring the broader implications of these issues.