(CN) – Residents of what is believed to be the last intact community of descendants of enslaved West Africans claim in a federal lawsuit that the state of Georgia is systematically driving them from their barrier island home to make way for vacationers and second-home buyers.
Living on a small, designated portion of Sapelo Island, the fourth largest of Georgia’s coastal islands, located about 70 miles south of Savannah, the Gullah-Geechee people are federally recognized as a distinct culture with their own indigenous Creole language, heritage, and culture.
They are the descendants of slaves freed 151 years ago, and they’ve lived continuously on the barrier island since shortly after the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War.
But in recent years, a land struggle has broken on the 16,500-acre island.
Long a tourism draw, thanks in part of presence of the Richard J. Reynolds Wildlife Management Area and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve both properties administered by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources it is now in the cross-hairs of developers, who are building large homes for wealthy mainlanders, and driving up the cost of living on the island in the process.
“Like the islands of Hilton Head, South Carolina and St. Simons, Georgia before it, Sapelo Island struggles to resist the pressures of development that threaten to convert the Island from a community that has been home to the same families for nine generations into a vacation destination spot with luxury second homes and resorts,” according to lawsuit filed by nearly all of the remaining Gullah-Geechee residents of the island in Atlanta Federal Court.
“You’re looking at the deprivation of our human and civil rights through public corruption,” said Reginald Hall, a plaintiff in the case.
“The state is violating land ownership rights outside of what the Constitution of the United States of America has written,” he said.
Hall, whose grandfather was a church deacon on the island and its first postmaster, serving from 1918 to 1936, has long fought the discouragingly uphill battle to prevent the erosion of the Gullah way of life.
Today, Sapelo Island’s Gullah-Geechee community consists of just 36 individuals who live on 434-acres known as Hog Hammock. There is no local economy to speak of, no employers providing opportunity and a future, and so most of the island’s families have watched their youngest members look elsewhere for work and education.
Eventually, the single ferry line that serves the island takes them away for good.
Hall and his fellow plaintiffs say the exploitation they now complain of in court was originally inflicted on their ancestors, and goes back at least many decades, when the state of Georgia first claimed ownership of 97 percent of the island.
“The State’s ownership stake is based on a history of fraudulent land transfers and land theft by white millionaires throughout the twentieth century,” the complaint says.
Among the plaintiffs’ villains are Howard Coffin and R.J. Reynolds Jr., rich industrialists and entrepreneurs who discovered the charms of the area in the early 20th century and soon turned Sapelo Island “into their own personal playgrounds,” the complaint says.
“Through various coercive and exploitative tactics, Reynolds claimed ownership to all of the Island except portions of Hogg Hummock, where he forced all of the Gullah-Geechee descendants to live,” it continues.
The ongoing pressure against Sapelo’s Gullah-Geechee comes from all sides, the plaintiffs say.
They are particularly aggrieved by McIntosh County, under whose jurisdiction the island falls, but which, they claims provides no services to the Gullah-Geechee despite the fees and taxes they pay to it.
“The Island has no school, no firehouse, no medical services, and no police. The County does not adequately maintain the roads and does not contribute to any water or sewer system,” the complaint says.
The plaintiffs claim that from 2011 to 2012, the county raised property taxes on the Island by as much as 1000% for some parcels.
“The 2012 appraisals were based on an analysis that was flawed on numerous levels and led to taxes that the Gullah-Geechee residents could not afford,” the complaint says.
“The County tax hikes were part of a larger systemic effort to drive the Gullah-Geechee from the Island and clear the way for a mostly white vacationer population on the Island,” the plaintiffs say.
Meanwhile, they claim, the county maintains a zoning ordinance for the Island “that is, on its face, designed to protect the Gullah-Geechee community.”
In practice, however, it has mostly benefitted white developers, whom the county “has regularly allowed mostly white developers to come to the Island and build expansive vacation homes in direct contravention of the zoning requirements,” the plaintiffs say.
In 2006, Congress designated the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, extending from Wilmington, N.C. to St. Augustine, Fla., and created a commission to protect and preserve the culture.
Hall’s father was one of the first members of the Corridor Commission. However, Hall says he’s seen the state use fear tactics to push the Gullah-Geechee people off Sapelo in order to gain the remaining land.
“They cut you off from the main land. You’re oppressed for so long by the people who are trying to steal your land; it’s a systemic effort,” Hall told Courthouse News.
Hall likens the state-run ferry to and from Sapelo Island to a slave ship. “The ferry’s operational times are at the whim of the state. Our kids can’t go to after-school programs because if they miss the ferry, they have to sleep on the dock. If we have jobs, we have to ensure it coincides with the strict ferry schedule.”
The ferry has two to three departure times per day and does not have access for people with disabilities, which some Gullah-Geechee on the island have, including a wounded veteran, Hall said.
The plaintiffs maintain the state, county, and the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority “are engaged in a policy of malign neglect of the Gullah-Geechee on Sapelo Island: denying services, withholding resources, increasing costs, consolidating land, and otherwise limiting the use and enjoyment of Gullah-Geechee homes and lands.”
There is a tourism industry on the island, which is run by the state and operated by several locals. Hall says, “To speak colloquially, the state needs to keep a few ‘good negroes’ around in order to keep the smokescreen of cultural tourism booming and credible.”
The plaintiffs seeks compensatory damages, and declaratory and injunctive relief on claims the defendants have violated 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, in addition to subjecting them to monetary loss, humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, and emotional distress.
They are represented by Reed Colfax of Relman, Dane & Colfax in Washington D.C.
Colfax told Courthouse News, “This is another example of race discrimination in housing … this case was particularly significant given the length of time and the number of people its affected. The existence of a particular culture is at risk.”
Colfax said he and his clients have three primary goals in filing the lawsuit.
One is to get better services for people on the island, including operating the ferry in such a way that the Gullah-Geechee can live on the island and have livelihoods on the mainland.
“The second is to have Sapelo Island Heritage Authority and the state allow the Gullah-Geechee to have land that is rightfully theirs that’s been in their families for generations,” Colfax said. “The third is compensation for the decades of discrimination that this community has suffered up to this point.”
Courthouse News reached out to the office of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, but neither returned phone calls seeking comment on the lawsuit.
A spokesperson with the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources declined to comment due to the pending nature of the litigation.
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