Two hundred years ago, Sapelo Island was a plantation community, home to hundreds of West African slaves and their white owners. After the Civil War — when the rice and cotton plantations were burned down — the owners fled to the mainland and freed slaves stayed behind. Now, life-long resident Cornelia Bailey says development could erase what fire and slavery combined to create: the unique culture known as Geechee and a dialect spoken by only a handful of people in the world.
"Geechee culture consists of people, their dialect... their way of life, the way they do things, how they express themselves," Bailey says. "But it's always centered around land."
And when it comes to land, residents on Sapelo only have a 10-mile by four-mile stretch to work with — and 99 percent of that is owned by the state of Georgia and protected from development.
Back when she grew up, Bailey says there were five community centers, two schools and even midwives to shepherd a growing population. But she says that all changed when people started leaving the island in waves during the Great Depression. Hard times had come, even to tiny Sapelo, and generations left for Miami, New York and Savannah looking for jobs and to support their families.
The creep has continued. "In 1974, there were 150 people," Bailey says. "Now, this is 2008 and we're down to 60 folks."
Nowadays, though, Bailey says there's an even more urgent cause for attrition than lack of jobs — developers. "People are being offered a large amount of money," she says. "Some people are selling, because they don't think anything of it."
Those willing to part with their slice of historic Sapelo Island, Bailey says, live elsewhere and hold deeds to property that's been handed down from generation to generation. She doesn't totally begrudge the sellers; they do not live on their land, she says, and are just trying to make a better life for themselves in their new homes.
But the consequences could be tragic. "It's hurting everybody else," Bailey says. "When they're selling the land, they do not offer it to their kinfolk, they don't offer it back to the community."
To stem the tide, Bailey says she is part of a community effort to build a visitors retreat and educational center. She says the state of Georgia will be considering an appeal to set aside 25 acres of protected land for the project.
But, truth be told, visitors aren't what she's looking for. "Tourists come, but they don't spend more than an average of $10 or $20," she says. "They come to Sapelo on a three-hour tour."
Indeed, more important than what visitors add to the coffers, what really concerns Bailey is the threat non-natives pose to the culture — and she says she's particularly concerned about the influence of anyone who isn't African American. "If I'm racist for protecting my culture and my history and my land, then so be it. I don't apologize for that," she says. "I just want to hold on to what's ours."
Bailey is clear in her goals and logic: "Culture is no good without land," she says. "We're holding onto the land, so we can hold on to the culture."