Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and thanks for being with us. Do you remember the 1991 film made by Julie Dash?
Julie Dash: Daughters of the Dust.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Daughters of the Dust told the story of three generations of Black women in 1902 as they prepared to migrate from a sea island off the coast of South Carolina to move up north.
Julie Dash: Outsiders call them Geechees or Gullahs. They were different from other Black Americans.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The Gullah, also known as Geechee or Gullah-Geechee, are descendants of enslaved West and Central Africans, who were brought on slave ships to the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
Julie Dash: They had their own culture and language. They had their own gods.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Their descendants retained many of their ancestors African traditions reflected in their arts, culture, food, and religion.
Julie Dash: Their world was changing. They had to move forward or ceased to exist. The women with the carriers of their traditions and beliefs.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In 2006, Congress designated the Atlantic shores in sea islands from North Carolina to Florida as the Gullah-Geechee cultural heritage corridor. Today we're heading to one of those places right off the coast of Georgia, specifically to a place called Sapelo Island.
Reginald Hall: Sapelo Island is known as the fourth largest barrier island in the State of Georgia. Sapelo Island is located on the south coast between Jacksonville Florida and Savannah Georgia. Sapelo Island covers 17,650 acres, which is about the same size as Manhattan, New York.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is where a small community of Gullah-Geechee people are struggling to preserve their culture, land, and future.
Reginald Hall: Sapelo Island has had my family members from the times of enslavement as prisoners of war beginning back in the early 1800s. We're dated at 1802 by what is called a state genealogical research, but we know we go back to the middle late 1700s per a couple of our grave markers.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's Reginald Hall. He's part of the Gullah Geechee community on Sapelo Island, descendants of enslaved West Africans. Their ancestors worked on the plantations until emancipation when they bought their own land on the island.
Reginald Hall: Having been brought to this island, my family members from days of old are the ones who have nurtured this island from day one to beginning and now doing the same thing to present. In nurturing the island, that means we dug all of our ditches, we created all of our roads. The infrastructure that was placed on this island by the enslaved and our elders as ancestors was all created through our forced labor here on Sapelo.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, the Gullah-Geechee originally owned land all over the island and had several communities, but according to descendants of those original landowners, in the 1930s, the North Carolina Tobacco heir, RJ Reynolds Jr. used coercive and exploitive tactics to move the Gullah-Geechee onto one part of the island called Hog Hammock. That's where they remain today.
In the 1970s, Reynold's widow sold most of the island to the State of Georgia, which owns 97% of the island today. Descendants of the original Gullah-Geechee land owners and others own the other 3%. This is one of the last intact Gullah-Geechee communities in Georgia and the number of descendants on the island is declining every year.
Reginald Hall: Having an opportunity to live on this island is one of the most beautiful things you can imagine. The island herself is an open air museum and we at times refer to it as Africa in America because we still live on dirt roads. We've lived from this particular mass of land for over 230 years. On the island, we have a community that we live in now known as Hog Hammock community. Hog Hammock has now been reduced of our family members upwards in 2025 years from let's just say a middle ground of 500 people down to 26.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. According to Mr. Hall, there are now only 26 descendants living on Sapelo Island. Now, Mr. Hall was not born on the island, but he grew up visiting his grandmother. He was living in the Midwest in 2007 when his family called him back to his ancestral home to help his community.
Reginald Hall: Moving forward as my family members called me back home, it set into me as one of the deepest emotional feelings that the question was asked of me to take an assessment of our survival.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The Senate say their people are leaving the island because they're slowly being driven off by state and county entities that are denying basic municipal services. At the same time, they're increasing property taxes. Back in 2015, Mr. Hall along with 56 other Sapelo Island property owners filed a federal race discrimination lawsuit. They claimed that Macintosh County in the State of Georgia and the Sapelo Island heritage authority were "engaged in a policy designed to make plaintiffs' lives so uncomfortable that they'd abandon their homes and their land."
Reginald Hall: When you think of living on this island, we're not complaining about living on the island, we're complaining about those who have taken legislative duty as control over this island and the abusive tactics they have used to dismantle our quality of life, to disenfranchise our economic opportunities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In a statement to the AP, the county's lead attorney in the lawsuit denied the county had discriminated against Hog Hammock residents because they were Black. Now, Sapelo Island is located about seven miles from the mainland, and its remote location has helped descendants to preserve their Gullah-Geechee culture, but it's also made it difficult to live full time on the island. The only public access to and from the island is a state-run ferry which only runs three times a day. You can see how that would make it pretty hard for folks to hold jobs off the island, and so many end up working for the state institutions on the island.
Reginald Hall: We take a ferry across the water that is on a regulated schedule of time that is not conducive for our family members, meaning that's [unintelligible 00:07:11] schedule to set up for us not to truly have employment on the mainland and be able to come home to the island in any amount of time.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also, the docks to and from the ferry and the ferry itself are not wheelchair accessible.
Reginald Hall: The wooden docks that are so decrepit and splintery and have steel nails sticking out of them, these type of things are what deplete the possibility of our wheelchair-bound elders from even thinking to come home.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's also no school on the island no, medical services, no fire department, no trash collection, and on top of that, descendants lands are being threatened by developers and the resulting high property taxes. I want to go back to the lawsuit, because in his assessment, Mr. Hall filed open record request with the State of Georgia and McIntosh County.
Reginald Hall: Inside of that assessment, I realized that there were some real issues in terms of federal compliance violations, state compliance violations, some real issues inside of discriminatory actions, and moreover, some real issues concerning the unauthorized registrations of deeds, titles, and lands within the McIntosh County Superior Courthouse records of deeds. Inside of the assessment, we turned it into a full investigation and were able to conduct investigations, assessments, and interviews that has now led us through a federal litigation process against the State of Georgia and McIntosh County on two separate litigative levels.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In 2020, the state settled its portion of the lawsuit that descendants had filed in 2015. The state agreed to fix the aging ferry docks and to make both the ferry and the docks compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The settlement is estimated to cost about $19 million in infrastructure rebuilding and another $750,000 payout to descendants.
Earlier this month, descendants settled the federal lawsuit against McIntosh County and the county agreed to station an emergency medical vehicle and emergency medical equipment on the island. The county will maintain and install a helipad for emergencies and evacuations and provide a functional fire truck and firefighting training to residents who want to receive it. Also, the county is going to maintain the roads and reduce that trash collection fee that island residents pay.
Reginald Hall: Well, now inside of our newly settled agreement, they have to come and redo the roads, clean our ditches, and make it safe for the treaties not to fall on us. Those were four issues; roads, fire, EMS, and trash. We have to be satisfied because it was agreement that was agreed on by all parties, but inside of that satisfaction, we're still lacking a many of the services that we feel should be placed as part of the county representation.
Now, that being said, we're going to make it through and we're going to have an ability to say we can now develop ourselves, we can take it upon ourselves to have an ability to get the funding that does the rest of the world for not just our safety, but our quality of life.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, the agreement says that the settlement is not an admission or acknowledgment of liability by defendant McIntosh County. We also reach out to the county and to the state for comment, but we haven't yet gotten a response. Receiving the settlements and the updates to the island that will come with them is just one step in Mr. Hall and his family's plans for recovery. Their main goal is to bring their family members and their descendants home, but also to create jobs for them to come back to.
Reginald Hall: Our goal is, through legislation, McIntosh County and the State of Georgia in a collaborative effort to designate us as a landmark historic district, the preservation is truly our only salvation of existing on this island through the tax use.
Melissa Harris-Perry: With this historic district designation, Mr. Hall hopes to build a tourism industry on the island that's run by descendants.
Reginald Hall: As a request to the state that's claiming to own our land, we now are wanting to claim our lands back, that allows us then to say, "We have the lands to now build our museums, we have the lands now to put our horse ranch, we have the land to now develop our restaurants, our land recovery institute, our amphitheater," all of the things that it takes inside of tourism industry to say this community is ready to make the tourism dollars. We're not talking about on any level, but five-star educational opportunities of a culture of over 230 years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: They're looking for people who want to help this vision become a reality.
Reginald Hall: Well, we're not giving up. As you follow the story, you're going to see the rise of our people back on this island.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks to Reginald Hall for speaking to us about his community on Sapelo Island.
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