The staying power of the Gullah Geechee community

What does the future hold for Sapelo Island's Hog Hammock community?

The staying power of the Gullah Geechee community
St. Luke Baptist Church in Hog Hammock

Photograph by David Goldman/AP

Once you’ve taken a left turn at Landing Road from Highway 99 southbound, roll down your car windows. As you drive east toward the Sapelo Island Visitors Center near Darien, you’ll pass beneath arching oak branches draped in long, lingering Spanish moss, and you’ll begin to notice a different kind of breeze—the rare sort of air that fills lungs with wistful history. But a fog of encroachment is making the future murky for the island’s Hog Hammock community.

It’s hard to overstate the natural splendor of Sapelo Island. There’s lush green marsh that forms above the surface of the Duplin and Sapelo rivers like a pin impression of Poseidon’s hand reaching from the waters below.

There are countless oyster shells—many are inland, in shell rings dating back thousands of years to Native tribes organized around fishing, while tens of thousands more were delivered in recent years after being recovered from seafood restaurants. They now line the shore, thanks to the sustainable coastal preservation efforts of groups like Athens-based Shell to Shore. A variety of cabbage palms, slash pines, resurrection ferns, magnolias, and more flora grows blissfully wild in the island’s inner forestry. You’ll also find swaying sea oats leaning from breathtaking dune lines along Nanny Goat Beach. It’s genuinely gorgeous.

You’ll also find signs of an indeterminate future for Hog Hammock, the last of what used to be 15 Saltwater Geechee settlements on the island. The Geechee are descendants of West Africans who were enslaved and taken to Georgia’s sea island plantations. When Richard J. Reynolds Jr. bought much of the island in the first part of the 20th century, he forced them to consolidate into one location. Hog Hammock now represents the world’s only intact, documented Saltwater Geechee community. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 and is part of the official Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

Since the 2017 death of Cornelia Walker Bailey, Sapelo’s proud doyenne, who gained national attention for her willingness to fight displacement of her people, the community is still figuring out what leadership looks like.

Prior to her passing, there were highly publicized attempts to help Hog Hammock residents profit from the increasing nationwide popularity of Gullah Geechee cuisine, including food- and farming-related initiatives like the Sapelo Island Red Pea Project, and Sapelo Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane Syrup, created with help from the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation in conjunction with Clemson University. Yet today you’d be lucky to find a bottle of the dark, sweet syrup for sale, online or otherwise. The same goes for a bag of Sapelo Island Red Peas, although Anson Mills sells red cowpeas named instead for Sea Island. (Bailey’s short-term rental property, the Wallow, is currently closed. But, according to her son Maurice, it will be available to visitors again this fall.)

Meanwhile, short-term rental properties are popping up in Hog Hammock’s privately owned, 434-acre section of Sapelo—some tout their Black owners’ Gullah Geechee heritage in their Airbnb descriptions, and others make no such efforts.

Sharon Grovner, a descendant of a family whose heritage dates back for almost 10 generations on Sapelo, leads driving tours around the island. She shares historical information from a personal perspective, from her mother cooking during a presidential visit by Jimmy Carter, to working at the Reynolds Mansion until she retired a few years ago. Groups of 16 to 25 people can rent the entire manor, which is now owned by the state. Also available to groups is Cabretta Campground, where 10 to 25 guests can enjoy direct beach access, biking and hiking trails, and fishing.

Grovner estimates that Sapelo has 30 to 60 people living there at any given time, including descendants, visitors, and state employees. At certain points of our tour, such as in front of the school Reynolds built for local children, Grovner provided samples of local herbs like Aralia spinosa, a thorny tree known as “devil’s walking stick” and also “the toothache tree,” as its leaves release novocaine-like pain relief when chewed. Grovner invited me to take a few branches of the abundant wild bay leaves surrounding the island’s main dirt road. She encouraged me to use the leaves in a pot of soup when I returned to my home kitchen.

In addition to the tours, Grovner and her husband prepare meals for Sapelo guests by request. Those can include mainstream meals like meatloaf, fried seafood, and Lowcountry boils, or what she calls “cultural dishes.” She says whitetail deer, which those taking quota tours with the Department of Natural Resources can hunt on the island, have excellent meat, although she insists the island’s feral hog tastes best. There’s also local possum and raccoon, which her husband catches, then skins and cleans before cooking three different ways: first boiling, then briefly frying, then finally placing in a covered pot with sweet potatoes and onions to braise. She remembers one visiting guest who was hesitant to try it, but, after being convinced to place an order, called the next day to say her husband was asking for a second helping. “We still have those things; we still live off the land,” she adds.

Our tour also included passing the tabby houses of enslaved West Africans at Chocolate Plantation (which got its name from a Guale Native American village called Chucalate) and Behavior Cemetery, where only Sapelo descendants can be buried (currently closed to the public due to visitor vandalism). We also passed the small Sapelo Go general store and Lula’s Kitchen, the island’s only restaurant, which is owned by Grovner’s mother, Lula Walker, and available only by reservation.

Jasper “Jazz” Watts, another descendant of Sapelo Island, is a Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor commissioner, and works as a justice strategist with One Hundred Miles, an advocacy nonprofit aiming to educate and engage the public on protection and preservation of the Georgia coast. He said while Ms. Bailey’s death was felt deeply in Hog Hammock, members of her community are collectively leading themselves, raising funds to pay increasing taxes, and working together to put laws in place to protect Hog Hammock.

He has a gentle but serious demeanor, with the eyes of a man who dedicates his life to community work. As he walked toward his car, carrying a shoulder bag full of documents in packed, neatly arranged file folders, he also seemed to carry a sense of duty to the land his ancestors held for him. Watts works to ensure Hog Hammock’s voices are being heard by McIntosh County officials in ongoing disputes over issues like property tax increases and whether island residents are receiving government services equal to wealthier, white areas of the county—particularly imperative given that the State of Georgia owns 97 percent of Sapelo.

We talked for 45 minutes on the ferry while heading back to Darien from the tour, about the unique importance of Hog Hammock and the ongoing threat of displacement. As he reminded me, with weariness in his eyes and voice, that Ahmaud Arbery was a descendant of Sapelo Island, Watts portrayed a dogged determination to stand up for Sapelo, Hog Hammock, and the ancestors he and others like Grovner represent.

“The challenges that our communities face, we all face together,” Watts said. “That says to the world that this place is protected, not by just an organization or any person, but a wide array of people, and it takes all of us working together to be able to protect the culture, the heritage, and the land.”

Back to Exploring Georgia’s Enchanted Islands

This article appears in our August 2023 issue.