Deep-rooted concerns sweep across one of the last intact Gullah Geechee enclaves, nestled on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, as descendants of enslaved Africans fear potential loss of cultural heritage and property. This apprehension has arisen in the wake of city officials making changes to the island’s zoning laws.
Historians propose that Hogg Hammock, situated on Sapelo Island, is amongst the remaining Gullah Geechee communities within the Georgia Sea Islands. These are communities descended from Africans who, while enslaved on the southern coastal plantations, preserved many cultural traditions and languages from their ancestral lands.
The McIntosh County Board of Commissioners adjudicated a revision to the zoning ordinance in Hogg Hammock by a narrow 3-2 vote on Tuesday. This updated ordinance stipulates a shift in the upper limit for the square footage of a property with heating and cooling from 1,400 to 3,000, as revealed by McIntosh County Manager Patrick Zoucks ahead of the public hearing on this matter.
Zoucks confirmed that the square footage restrictions were previously imposed to modulate property values and inhibit construction of larger residences. He conceded that enforcing this provision had been considered minimally, rendering it practically unfeasible to oversee additions such as heating or cooling systems after residents had moved in.
Words of concern came from Sapelo Island descendant, Josiah “Jazz” Watts, 52, expressing shock and worry at the county’s zoning plan. Community members are profoundly anxious that these new modifications might entice the affluent to construct properties in their territory, skewing property values and influencing a rise in property taxes. They rue their lack of involvement in the decision-making process concerning an ordinance that would directly affect them.
Furthermore, many inhabitants are senior citizens with fixed incomes, posing the question of how they will manage possible hikes in their taxes. According to the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society, these are descendants of enslaved Africans who were transported to Sapelo Island in 1802, and still inhabit the Hogg Hammock community. This area, covering nearly 400 acres, is reachable only by boat or ferry.
Local historian and ninth-generation Hogg Hammock resident, Maurice Bailey, perceives a declining population, with only 29 original descendants in the community. He deduces that descendants collectively own around 63% of the properties and 75% of the overall acreage on Sapelo Island.
These residents are growing increasingly disheartened, feeling that their communities are slipping away. In response to these mounting pressures, some contemplate selling their land, viewing this situation as a battle they cannot win. Bailey also shared wise words from his mother Cornelia Walker Bailey, a celebrated Gullah Geechee author and activist, who frequently cautioned against parting with their land, regarding it as a tangible anchor of cultural identity.
Predictably, the county officials, including David Stevens, McIntosh County Board of Commissioners Chairman, and the county manager Patrick Zoucks, refrained from responding to requests for comment from the media. However, Zoucks did mention in one of his statements that he believed the proposed zoning regulations to be in the best interest of Hogg Hammock’s residents and the county at large.
Amid these unfolding events, Watts, along with other community members, have vowed to resist these changes, declaring plans to contest this zoning ordinance. This discord in Sapelo Island is not an isolated incident; similar conflicts continue on a wider scale, underscoring an ongoing struggle to retain Black-owned lands across the country.