The Georgia General Assembly on March 2 quietly passed a bill amending 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, which passed unanimously. The bill will now go to the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee for a vote.
The Sapelo Island Heritage Authority regularly votes on issues that directly affect the community, including the ferry system, the community center and most importantly, land for sale – where the Board has first refusal. The bill will change the composition of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority’s board, which was initially chaired by the governor, and appoint natural resources commissioner Mark Williams as the new chair. The governor becomes vice chairman. The Human Relations Commission in the Governor’s Office will also be vacated, leaving only one seat vacant. There are currently two Geecheed progeny on the board, meaning that if the last seat goes to a non-progeny, non-progeny could easily outnumber them.
Maurice Bailey, founder, president and CEO of the nonprofit Save Our Legacy Ourself, said Williams has always insisted he will “try to do the right thing,” but Bailey remains concerned he will one day be influenced by friends who could have done so bought land on the island. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Williams received over $22,000 in donations from financial and real estate companies during his 2012 run for the House of Representatives. Bailey said her land could soon be sold if the board is dominated by developers’ interests over progeny preservation.
During the March 2 billing session, Rep. Buddy DeLoach said the seat would be assigned to a resident of the Sapelo Island community. But according to Bailey, descendants on the island were not notified of the bill, and Bailey only found out about it through contact at the Capitol. Bailey fears the bill will open the door to more displacement through gentrification and give residents more power over Sapelo’s future than the descendants of the enslaved people who worked and tended the land for centuries.
“The problem we have with the ‘residents’ is that we have a lot of people who have come to beautify the community who don’t have our best interests at heart and have established themselves as residents,” Bailey said . “They have sent papers to the state to settle as residents, even though this is not their full-time residence.”
Bailey said if more residents were appointed to the Sapelo Island History Authority’s board, the descendants would be outnumbered and have little voting power to protect their community.
“We haven’t worried about that in years past,” Bailey said. “But now we are being ousted from our land in different ways and pushed to change our way in Sapelo. This is very worrying.”
The Geechee community has lived on Sapelo Island for 13 generations. It is a rural island where only 30 descendants of the original 44 enslaved families remain, but it is the last island of its kind on the coast of Georgia. Bailey carries on the torch of cultural and historical preservation established decades earlier by his mother, Cornelia Walker Bailey. When asked if he considered taking the last seat on the board, Bailey said Governor Brian Kemp overstepped the will of the descendants and decided for himself who would represent the descendants on the board.
“He chose people to control,” Bailey said. “If we lose that power, we will lose our heritage, we will lose who we are.”
On Sapelo Island, where Bailey estimates the permanent population size at fewer than 100, maintaining a majority population of offspring has proven difficult. There are few jobs, few people to relate to and no schools to keep young people on the island. People travel the island mainly on dirt roads and the only way to get to the island is by ferry, which is cash only and only asks for change. Historically, this has resulted in people moving away from the island in search of opportunities for education and employment. As the elders die on the island, Bailey’s primary concern is who will preserve the history of their culture. But now, says Bailey, developers and non-descendants who idealize the island’s remoteness and beautiful beaches are buying land in hopes of displacing the locals and turning a profit themselves.
“People love the idea of isolation. It attracts people with big pockets who are trying to enter the community,” Bailey said. “This is our last chance to hold onto our culture, our heritage. Some people still remember having their land taken away, their rights taken away, jobs taken away from them. We have a long history, but a short history nonetheless. This is our last stand.”
According to Neesha Powell-Ingabire, a journalist who is writing a book chronicling the history of Black people on the Georgia coast, the history of Sapelo is not even known to Georgia natives. Powell-Ingabire grew up in nearby Brunswick and saw signs pointing to Sapelo when she went to church, but never realized its historical significance. It wasn’t until she began reporting on environmental justice that she learned of the island’s importance as a direct heir to enslaved African populations.
“I think it’s only in the last few years that people are realizing how unique the culture is because it came 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 anything from it. We didn’t learn that because we were Gullah [or] Geechee, being black and hailing from the Georgia coast was something to be proud of. That was on purpose. This is institutionalized and systemic racism, simply ignoring those pieces of history and telling the same stories about white people that we always hear about who created this capitalist, white supremacist society.”
Bailey says a change on the board could have a direct impact on the offspring, as their history and lineage would be further erased. With only 30 descendants left on the island, Bailey says they feel the effects immediately when changes occur.
“It’s disheartening to see that and be powerless given the area you live in,” Bailey said. “They don’t respect us. They often say they will just wait for the elderly to die and hope they can take over the country from the younger generation.”
Bailey spoke to Rep. DeLoach on March 8, but he said DeLoach is refusing to meet with the descendants as a group and will instead speak to them individually.
“It’s a clear sign of divide and conquer,” Bailey said. “It’s going to create confusion so we’re not on the same page. They try to dismiss what we want to fight for.”
This isn’t the first time lawmakers have attempted to siphon offspring votes from the community. In 2021, a bill aimed to authorize the private sale of a rice plantation and set up a beer distillery in Darien, about 20 miles west of Sapelo. Bailey said it was a warning of what could happen in Sapelo if her land falls into the wrong hands. The bill failed to pass after descendants wrote to their local politicians and sparked public interest. Bailey hopes they can achieve similar momentum this time around and ensure progeny placements take precedence on the board.
“The problem on Sapelo is that we’re so small that everything stays inside the local government bubble, doesn’t make it to the state level, doesn’t make it to the national level, because they suppress everything,” Bailey said. “We just want to make sure people know that if this happens, it could harm the community.”