Sapelo Sessions

The Sapelo sessions is an ongoing series of workshops and field visits on Sapelo Island, Georgia, focusing on marine and marsh environments, local cultural preservation and environmental literacy. For more information on the Sapelo session project click here.


Why Sapelo by Andrea Beltran


Residents Fight Back to Preserve Culture by Carolyn Crist

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.”

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.”

My Experience in Wonderland by Bree Preuitt


Saving Sapelo Island by Geetha Parachuru


Adventure on Sapelo Island by Gil Golan

I began to peddle faster and faster, but I saw no end to the road ahead of me. I was alone on the only paved road on Sapelo Island, not even sure where I was headed.

Earlier on that bright Sunday morning my classmates and professor departed to attend the local Geechee-Gullah people’s church service. I jumped at the opportunity to forgo the church service and have a solo-adventure. After my classmates and professor left me alone in our bungalow, I went outside, mounted my bike, and set off to explore the Island.

The first stop on my journey was the University of Georgia Marine Institute. When I arrived I left my bike under a tree and began to look around the Institute. As I continued onwards through the Institute’s grounds I saw a number of rusted out overgrown cars and decaying buildings. Every man-made object there was as much a part of the island as the trees or the rocks. Every time I saw something man-made, just beyond it would be something natural, unaffected by humans like the expansive saltwater marsh.

I returned to my bike and set off on the path towards the Reynolds Mansion. The mansion originally belonged to the plantation on Sapelo Island in the 1800s and was restored and bought by Richard Reynolds in 1934 (See Link Below). I parked my bike in the small lot next to mansion and continued on foot. I walked around the mansion admiring the various statues, well manicured landscape, and other features of the grounds. I made my way down the path to the front of the mansion grounds. I then noticed an almost eerie strangeness to the mansion. There it stood, surrounded by trees draped in spanish moss and illuminated by beams of sunlight passing through the foliage. It existed in harmony with the nature around it. I returned to my bike and ventured onto a path I was unfamiliar with.

After some time I realized I was headed west, back towards the main road. I peddled slowly and observed the serenity of the forest around me. I was on my own, with no sign of any other humans around me. I thought for a second that I saw someone ahead but it was only a deer utilizing the path for a moment before disappearing back into the forest. I stopped the bike and shut my eyes. I took in a deep breath and listened to the chirping of the birds and buzzing of the insects. Despite my solitude I didn’t feel like I was on my own. I felt like the mansion; Like I was part of the island.

I eventually reached the main road and somewhat of a crossroads in my adventure. I could turn left and return our bungalow, or I could turn right and head north to the Hog Hammock community, home of the native Geechee-Gullah people. I took a risk turning right because I had no idea how far away or even where exactly Hog Hammock was. With no clear idea of where I was headed, I ventured forth with the island as my companion. I peddled faster and faster and continued on with no end in sight. Despite the sweltering heat, my waning energy, and quickly diminishing water level I pushed on. Just when I felt turning back was my only option, I saw it, Hog Hammock.

Finally reaching my destination reinvigorated me to explore and push on. I had never seen a town quite like Hog Hammock before. Brightly painted cottages and trailers with fences or paths dividing the properties covered the landscape. I then came across one of Sapelo Island’s most important landmarks, “The Trough,” a bar. As I approached the bar I heard a voice behind me say “It’s closed.” The voice came from a little boy who was fishing on a small wooden bridge across from the bar. I turned around, smiled, and said “Too bad, huh?” The boy seemed busy with something and he didn’t bother responding to my remark. I approached him and asked him what he was doing. He explained that he was fishing for crabs with a string tied to a piece of raw chicken. I asked him a few questions but he seemed reluctant to answer me. I couldn’t blame him, I can’t imagine he saw too many people from outside of Hog Hammock. I wanted to ask him more questions, but before I could, someone came by on an ATV and asked the boy to help him find a cow that had escaped. It saddened me that my conversation with the boy abruptly ended. I was so curious about what his life on the island was like.

The bike trek back to our bungalow was far less exhausting than the initial ride to Hog Hammock. I took it slow and contemplated my adventure. I thought about the Marine Institute, the mansion, the deer in the forest, and of course the little boy fishing in Hog Hammock. I started to realize how important a place like Sapelo Island is. Everything on the island, manmade or natural, lives in harmony and survives because of the lack of development and abuse from the modern world. Places like Sapelo Island need to survive and serve as a reminder that the natural environment has just as much stake in this world as humans do. Perhaps if more people knew about places like Sapelo Island they could learn that humans can live symbiotically with the environment.


More information on the Reynolds Mansion: