Sapelo Island: Residents fight back to preserve culture

Observations

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On Sunday mornings, the Sapelo Island ferry pulls up to the dock and lets off a stream of residents decked in dresses, hats, and suits.

Shaking hands and trading smiles, the dozen or so pile into a church bus that arrives just for them. They’re heading to St. Luke Baptist Church for a morning of worship.

The sun beams through a cloudless sky on a warm September day as churchgoers greet each other at the door and welcome each other home. Several children run about the yard before Sunday school starts, trying to catch the lovebugs floating in the air.

During the service, there’s a palpable tension in the air as church members hold hands during prayer and clap during worship.

“You don’t know what I’ve been through this week. I know something’s on your mind, too,” the pastor shouts out to the group. “We’ve got to yell to the Lord this morning. We’ve got to make Him hear us.”

A string of “Amens” echo in the chapel.

At the luncheon that follows the service, the subtle tension continues. There’s something on everyone’s mind, and they’re ready to talk about it.

It’s taxes.

The tax battle

Sapelo Island’s Gullah-Geechee community is trying to maintain its cultural presence while fighting off new property assessments that may cause property taxes to jump as much as 600 percent. This sudden increase could force some to sell their family homes.

Fewer than 50 residents — all descendents of slaves shipped from West Africa to work the rice and tobacco fields on the island — keep the historic identity intact today. With 97 percent of the island owned by the state, the islanders are proud to claim their remaining chunk of space in Hog Hammock.

McIntosh Island reappraised the homes earlier this year to address errors in previous property appraisals. A few residents have sold property to developers and newcomers who built high-end vacation homes, so property values and taxes increased.

Dozens of homeowners have hired lawyers to freeze the assessments and fight for the services that aren’t provided to match the property tax costs. With no police or fire personnel, doctors or hospitals, schools or post offices or even grocery stores, islanders argue they shouldn’t be charged. They must take the 20-minute boat ride for work or school, and the three daily round trips often limit job opportunities for parents and afterschool activities for kids.

“All these years of getting nothing, then all of a sudden they want to lay this tax on you and still not give you anything,” said Cornelia Bailey, the island’s self-appointed historian and spokeswoman. Her book God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man serves as a memoir and history of the last generation to be born and educated on the island.

Bailey’s taxes on a piece of one-acre property jumped from $600 to $2,300 a year. She’s the ninth generation of her family on the island, and she plans to stay.

“We have a legacy most people would die for,” she said. “We’re fighting to keep it — even for the unborn.”

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Regrowing the culture

As part of the effort, Sapelo Island residents are reaching out to non-islanders for awareness and support.

Residents and supporters have looked into community land trust and community development solutions, whereby a nonprofit corporation manages the land on behalf of residents. They’ve set up a Sapelo Ancestral Land Trust and welcome donations through Atlanta-based group Gullah Geechee Culture Initiative.

“Developers are destroying the barrier islands by building as big as they can and as high as they can,” said Reginald Hall, an initiative worker and Sapelo property owner who saw taxes increase 500 percent. “There’s environmental justice and social responsibility at play here.”

In addition, the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society held its 18th annual Cultural Day Festival in mid-October, which featured storytellers, native food vendors, gospel choirs, arts and crafts, and African dancers.

“It’s been great to see people from other places buy tickets to help support the island and people keeping their land,” said Julius Bailey, Cornelia’s grandson. “This year’s event brought a lot of money in.”

The cultural society also works with marine biologists to promote research about the island.

“People come catch fish to do research, and others focus on dolphins and migration,” he said. “All of that helps to bring attention to the island.”

Community members often welcome college classes that visit the island through the University of Georgia Marine Institute. Founded on the island in 1953, the institute offers its student dorms to small university groups across the state, most often in the sciences.

“The institute helps out as well,” Bailey said. “When the community needs help, they call two friends, and those people call two friends. It really spreads the word.”

Bailey volunteers at the society during the day and takes online graphic design classes through the Art Institute of Pittsburgh at night. He makes it a priority to give back while he can.

“It’s been fun and rewarding to be here, where many of my relatives live,” he said. “It’s helped me to learn more about what’s going on with the island and the properties.”

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