‘This is our last stand’: House Bill could have impacts on Sapelo Island

Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 11:20 PM EDT
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SAPELO ISLAND, Ga. (WTOC) - Some remaining descendants of enslaved families on Sapelo Island are fighting to protect their land all the way to the Georgia State Capitol.

For Gullah-Geechee residents, this land is sacred.

That’s part of why you can only access it by state ferry or a private boat.

“We don’t have that many families left. According to last names, of the 44 families, you might have seven left,” said Maurice Bailey, President of Save our Land Ourselves.

But those remaining, like Bailey, said they are fighting not to be pushed out.

“We been here since our families were enslaved on Sapelo. We have a rich heritage and we’re being squeezed because this community is the only part of Sapelo that can be developed. It’s over 16,000 acres on Sapelo Island. Our community is 434 acres.”

The state’s Sapelo Island Heritage Authority was created in the ‘80s to save one of the last Gullah-Geechee communities, Hog Hammock, from people who wanted to buy up the land. The board has first refusal, meaning the first chance to make an offer before a developer or outsider tries to come in.

But Bailey and other descendants sent a letter to house representatives telling them why they feel House Bill 273 could undo all of their progress.

“That leaves the door open for anyone to come in who are not descendants and weigh in on property in the community.”

The bill changes the makeup of the once governor-led board moving the governor to vice chairman and initially allowing two “residents,” not slave descendants, to join the current members.

“What we did today is we agreed to change that language from two residents to two resident descendants and I hope that makes everyone happy,” said Rep. Buddy DeLoach.

DeLoach is one of the bill sponsors. Bailey and another Gullah Geechee descendant want “descendant” clearly defined and they’re worried that language could change again. They want only elected officials on the board, allowing the Gullah- Geechee to hold the majority.

“There’s not a lot of land left on Sapelo so we are afraid of this last community disappearing. Once the community’s gone, the people gone, the houses gone...we have nothing to reference to.”

Some legislators want them to realize they take pride in protecting Hog Hammock history too.

Rep. DeLoach said: “There are an awful lot of people determined to protect the heritage of Hog Hammock and all of Sapelo.”

But right now they still believe they only have a partial win.

“This is our last stand. Our last opportunity to hold on to the land we have on Sapelo.”

House Bill 273 unanimously passed out of the senate committee and heads to senate rules. DeLoach said he will try his best to make sure the language remains.

He also said he plans to ask the newly appointed chair to meet with everyone to put people at ease and communicate how they will do their best to protect their heritage.