Sapelo Island: Descendants of enslaved Africans on Georgia Island fear losing their culture and some property after change in zoning laws | ET REALITY



Descendants of enslaved Africans on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, one of the last intact Gullah Geechee communities in the state, fear their cultural heritage and property will soon be lost after city officials voted to change laws zoning of the island.

Historians believe that Hogg Hammock, on Sapelo Island, is one of the last surviving Gullah Geechee communities on the Georgia Sea Islands. The Gullah people are descendants of Africans who were enslaved on coastal plantations in the south and retain many of their African cultural traditions and languages.

On Tuesday, the McIntosh County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to change the zoning ordinance in Hogg Hammock. The new ordinance includes increasing the maximum square footage of a heated and cooled home from 1,400 to 3,000, according to a declaration released ahead of a public hearing on the ordinance last week by McIntosh County Administrator Patrick Zoucks.

The square footage limit “was imposed in what appears to be a good faith effort to control property values ​​and prevent the construction of large residences. Unfortunately, there was little consideration for the applicability of this provision,” Zoucks wrote, noting that it is “impossible” to control whether people add heating or cooling to their homes after moving.

Josiah “Jazz” Watts, 52, of Sapelo Island descent, told CNN that the county’s zoning plan “surprised us all,” saying residents are concerned the new changes will allow the wealthy to build properties in the community and generate high property taxes.

“We were not given the opportunity to be included in the process of a zoning ordinance that will directly affect us,” Watts said Wednesday. “The people who will be most negatively affected by all of this are the Geechee descendants on the island.”

Watts added that several residents are older and on fixed incomes: “Where are people going to get the extra income to keep paying that tax? “You won’t be able to do it.”

Residents, homeowners and supporters of the Hogg Hummock community on Sapelo Island fill a courtroom in Darien, Georgia, on Sept. 12, 2023, as McIntosh County commissioners meet to approve zoning changes.

Slaves were brought to Sapelo Island in 1802 and their descendants still live in the Hogg Hammock community, which spans nearly 400 acres and is only accessible by boat or ferry, according to the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society.

Maurice Bailey, a local historian and ninth-generation Hogg Hammock resident, said only 29 original descendants remain in the community. He estimates that descendants own 63% of the property and 75% of the acreage on Sapelo Island.

“People have witnessed their communities being taken away from them. And they’ve been fighting for this community for a long time,” said Bailey, who is also president and CEO of the Save Our Legacy Ourself organization, which aims to preserve the heritage of the Geechee people.

But now, he said, many Hogg Hammock residents have become discouraged.

They are thinking about selling their land because “they can’t earn,” he said. “We wouldn’t be in this whole mess if we didn’t start selling land to outsiders.”

Bailey said his mother, noted Gullah Geechee writer and activist Cornelia Walker Bailey, frequently warned against selling her property and cultural heritage. “She always said, ‘Don’t sell your land. If you really want to keep who you are, don’t sell your land,’” she said.

McIntosh County Board of Commissioners Chairman David Stevens and Zoucks, the McIntosh County administrator, did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.

In his statement, Zoucks said the proposals in the zoning regulations were “in the best interests” of Hogg Hammock residents and the county.

Watts said he and other community members plan to appeal the zoning ordinance. “We’re fighting because… it’s just wrong,” he said.

Sapelo Island residents are not the only ones fighting what critics have called a seizure of black-owned land.

Josephine Wright, a 93-year-old Black resident of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, is in a legal dispute with a real estate developer seeking to build a residential development next to her family’s land.

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