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Letter From Sapelo Island, Georgia: The Last Surviving Gullah Community

Former slaves set up the community of Hog Hammock so that, separated from the mainland, they could farm, raise livestock, and preserve elements of their African heritage, including the English Creole/African Gullah dialect.
The R.J. Reynolds mansion on Sapelo Island, Georgia.

The R.J. Reynolds mansion on Sapelo Island, Georgia.

The 8:30 a.m. Wednesday ferry winds through the brackish green and brown of Doboy Sound, just off the Georgia coast, and sidles up to the barnacled dock at Sapelo Island. The boat's engine falls silent, revealing the sound of rustling cordgrass and lapping waves. The beach, strewn with oyster shells deposited by the outgoing tide, comes into view.

The brief calm is trampled by footfalls on wooden planks. A few are from the heavy boots of state employees, researchers from the University of Georgia Marine Institute and representatives of the state's Department of Natural Resources. The department runs 97 percent of this 16,500-acre barrier island, including a vast wildlife management area and estuarine research reserve. The DNR also operates the ferry, which only makes the seven-mile voyage from the mainland three times a day, and which, unless you own a boat or plane, is the only way on or off of Sapelo. Visitors pay $5 for the ride and must be invited as part of a pre-arranged tour.

Today, most of the guests trickling down the ramp are part of a luxury coach tour from North Carolina, distinguished as much by their white hair, hiked-up khakis and capris, and syrupy Southern drawls as by the name tags hanging from matching blue lanyards. J.R. Grovner is waiting for them on the pier, wearing a bright, orange shirt and tattered, ostrich-skin cowboy boots. The boiler-chested, 38-year-old tour guide uses his 6-foot-2 frame and thunderous bass voice to corral and account for the 54 Carolinians and ensure they don't accidentally wander onto the wrong tour bus. "My competition is the state of Georgia," he later says. "They hire their own people who only work for a few hours a week as naturalists on the island. They don't know [the island]. They can't tell you the real history."

Grovner is a strong branch of that history. After English settlers and French farmers crowded out the Creek Indians, they eventually sold most of Sapelo to planters who transformed the densely wooded wetlands into a sprawling 19th-century sugar and cotton plantation powered by 370 slaves. After the Civil War, descendants of West Africans, known as Gullah/Geechee, left the coast between North Carolina and Florida, where they had been enslaved, and settled on the barrier island. Around 350 newly freed slaves purchased land and set up communities with names like Raccoon Bluff, Lumber Landing, Belle Marsh, and Hog Hammock, where—separated from the mainland—they could farm, raise livestock, and preserve elements of their African heritage, including the English Creole/African Gullah dialect. "Most all of us who live in Hog Hammock are descendants of slaves," Grovner says from the driver's seat of one of his repurposed school buses, sweat beading on his bald head. "Most of us can trace our family history back about 12 generations."

Hog Hammock is the last surviving Gullah community. Grovner pulls the bus off of the pavement onto a rutted, dirt lane. Moss-draped limbs of giant live oak scratch at the metal roof, and dust floods in through the windows on waves of muggy air. The first stop on the tour is on the right, a shaded garden of stone and wood markers behind a concrete sign that reads Behavior Cemetery. The burial ground is believed to pre-date the Civil War and, Grovner explains, is the resting place of much of his own family, dating back to his great-great-grandmother, a former slave. He stops the bus and encourages his passengers to step out and take photos from outside the chain-link gate. "The reason we've got the fence there is because everybody's dying to get in," Grovner quips to an amused audience.

But the real reason for the fence is to prevent tourists from looting sacred flowers, beads, masks, and other personal belongings of the deceased left as part of the Gullah tradition. In fact, Behavior was once one of several Gullah cemeteries on Sapelo before the 1930s, when tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds bought much of the island as his private vacation getaway and hunting resort. By 1960, Reynolds had consolidated almost all of the Gullah holdings on the island into one community in Hog Hammock. He built homes, a new school, and a church for the townspeople. But outside the town, Reynolds plowed over the lands, virtually erasing the Gullah culture. Many ancestral graves around these abandoned towns were lost.

By the time Grovner was born in 1979, Hog Hammock's population had dropped from 211 in 1963 to less than 175. He was the only child his age, growing up around elders who still spoke the English dialect of Gullah—"oman" meaning "woman," "comeya" for "come here." Since the local school had closed in 1978, Grovner bused-ferried-bused an hour each way to Darien, where teachers quickly corrected his grammar. There was no industry on Sapelo, and a commute was impractical, so when a mainland white was hired over 18-year-old Grovner for a job on the ferry, Grovner joined generations of Sapelo natives in finding a job and building a life on the mainland.

A historic building in Hog Hammock, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.

A historic building in Hog Hammock, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.

Grovner always kept a foot in the old world, occasionally taking visitors around the island, first in his mom's car and then in a van. Eventually, he went all in and bought a bus. Today, Grovner drives the Sapelo Sights bus through Hog Hammock, past the humble, single-story clapboard homes, some of which were built by his ancestors and passed down. He passes the First African Baptist Church and drops them by the one-room general store, where they can buy a soda and a postcard featuring Grovner's mother, a basket weaver, plying her trade. Outside the store, Grovner's barefoot cousins boil fresh oysters in a pot over a gas burner, serving them over a fold-out table.

Grovner leaves out the fact that Hog Hammock is dying: that six years ago, their state taxes jumped more than 500 percent, despite the fact that Sapelo still lacked basic services like reliable running water, curbside trash pick-up, a police or fire department, a school, or medical services. He doesn't openly say that he and his neighbors think that the state is more interested in pushing them aside in favor of research, or, worse, pricing them out and selling the land to wealthy developers; that it seems as though the government is dragging its feet, waiting for the aging population of Hog Hammock, now down to just 43, to die and vanish forever.

In December of 2015, Grovner and more than 50 landowners on Sapelo filed a civil suit against the State of Georgia and McIntosh County that is still pending in federal district court. In the meantime, the taxes have been eased and some dirt roads have been newly graded. The town now has an unreliable fire truck, a new trash compactor at the central dump, and a new water tank (though no new pipes). "We're forcing change," says Reginald Hall, resident and co-complainant. "We're putting our foot back on the neck of the caretakers."

Grovner is content to run his tour company and to teach mainlanders all the things about Sapelo and Hog Hammock that are worth saving. He welcomes them as family. And he crams in as much history as possible before rushing them back through the woods to catch the last ferry.