The History of Sapelo Island

Sapelo Island is famed for its rich history, but many accounts are confusing or gloss over important details. For instance, Georgia Coast Atlas refers to creator of Sapelo Island Research Foundation and co-founder of the University of Georgia Marine Institute, R.J. Reynolds, Jr., as a businessman. Another article refers to one previous island owner as “an agricultural innovator, amateur architect, astute businessman and leading citizen” despite owning hundreds of slaves.

A more accurate description of R.J. Reynolds, Jr., would probably mention that he was heir to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, and grandson to a slave-owning tobacco farmer. R.J.’s position as a tobacco heir is strikingly symbolic of his impact on the island’s Afro-descendant communities, given the disproportionate negative consequences of tobacco on African Americans and the negative impact of his land ownership on the Geechee peoples. The Geechee peoples are descendants of West Africans enslaved along the lower Atlantic coast of the United States to farm rice, indigo, and cotton. Consolidation of land on Sapelo Island by R.J. Reynolds, Jr. from the 1930s to the 1950s ended in the erasure of fourteen neighborhoods and the displacement of the Geechee peoples to Hog Hammock, which is the only remaining original neighborhood. The once-thriving population of 500 slave descendants at Hog Hammock in the 1950s is now less than thirty, according to the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Despite all of this, Reynolds Mansion still bears his name.

“These [exploitative] tactics [by big tobacco] have serious consequences. African Americans have higher death rates from tobacco-related causes compared to other racial and ethnic groups – with more than 39,000 dying from tobacco-related cancers each year. The health consequences are especially severe now as COVID-19, which is also disproportionately affecting Black Americans, can carry greater risk of severe illness for tobacco users.”

Truth Initiative
Sapelo Island coastal marsh.

A small number of Hog Hammock community members brought a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, and McIntosh County in 2016. Their grievances against the defendants included violations of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Fourteenth Amendment. The goals of the lawsuit were to improve public services on the island, give back and protect Geechee lands, and provide reparations for continual discrimination suffered by the community up until present. After five years, a settlement of $750,000 and improvements to the dock and ferry was reached on the lawsuit. All claims against Sapelo Island Heritage Authority were dismissed. Claims are still pending against McIntosh County. The majority of Hog Hammock community members did not want to be involved in the lawsuit.

“The State’s ownership stake is based on a history of fraudulent land transfers and land theft by white millionaires throughout the twentieth century…Through various coercive and exploitative tactics, Reynolds claimed ownership to all of the Island except portions of Hog Hammock, where he forced all of the Gullah Geechee descendants to live.”

Courthouse News Service

This isn’t the first time that external organizations have sought after the Geechee’s ancestral lands. Back in 2009, Sapelo Island Heritage Authority tried and failed to acquire a small tract of land in Walker versus Sapelo Island Heritage Authority. The Authority presented a deed from 1949 which granted the entire island of Sapelo from Sapelo Plantation, Inc. to R.J. Reynolds. The Justices ruled that the Walkers were allowed to keep their land despite not having a physical deed due to their continuous farming of property, the erection of fences, and the construction of buildings which indicated possession.

Sapelo Island lighthouse in the distance.

Today, the Geechee culture enchants tourists and can be learned about on a Sapelo Island Tour. Passing by the rolling dunes of sand, historic cottages, or quiet marshes, it may be easy to forget the struggles that island residents face. Recognition of the Geechee is important, but it is only a first step towards dismantling systemic racism and discrimination that have taken place for a long time on the island. Writers must also be honest when relaying the history of Sapelo Island. Descriptors like “innovator” and “businessman” are not accurate when describing former island owners who stole from, lied to, coerced, and exploited island residents. The truth may be difficult, but it is what people deserve.

All images are mine from a recent trip to the island for fieldwork! I would love to hear your thoughts on barrier island life and culture in the comments below.

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