Black History 365: Sapelo Island

Gullah Geechee community reaches a deal with Ga. county in a fight for services

Sapelo Island, sitting off the coast of Georgia, has been home to one of America’s last intact Gullah Geechee communities. The Gullah Geechee is a community of descendants of enslaved people who arrived before the start of the Civil War. The island was also the focus of a legal battle between its residents and local and state governments.

The Gullah Geechee community filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia and McIntosh County in 2015, complaining that they were neglected, taxed unfairly, and had their civil rights violated. In the suit, the Sapelo Island residents said they’ve been lacking basic resources like fire or police services and a ferry system that doesn’t run enough to link the island and mainland Georgia effectively.

Reginald Hall, one of the descendants who live on Sapelo Island, is an advocate for the community. On Thursday, Hall talked with Morning Edition about the current condition the Gullah Geechee community has been dealing with.

“At this very moment, we’re on the island at our own risk because we don’t have proper emergency services,” Hall said.

In addition to the lack of presence from a police or fire department, Hall also says that trash pickup on the island has been irregular, and old dirt roads have been poorly maintained.

The lack of services has had a devastating effect on the Gullah Geechee population that lives on Sapelo Island. At the turn of the 20th century, there were nearly 1,000 residents living on Sapelo Island, according to Time magazine.Now only 29 descendants are living on the Island, Hall says.

“There is a clear picture. When you have 29 Black family members left on an island surrounded by marsh and beautiful ocean,” Hall said. “Who in their right mind would purposely get up and leave that land?”

Hall says that people left the island because McIntosh County did not invest much money in essential services for the island, even though Sapelo residents have paid taxes similar to the mainland.

“My question is, when do you stop oppressing?” Hall said. “Let us live.”

Recently Hall and other residents of Sapelo Island have received some good news. In 2020, Georgia agreed to improve the docks and passenger ferry service.

Gullah Geechee community also reached a $2 million settlement with McIntosh County. The county has also committed to providing better emergency, medical, fire and road services to the island.

Hall hopes that the settlement and new commitments from both the local and state governments is the start of a bigger vision that Hall has for Sapelo Island.

“Bringing our children back home and our grandchildren back home and to sustain for the next 10 generations as we already have,” Hall said.

NPR’s Nell Clark and Reena Advani produced and edited this story for radio.