Descendants of Enslaved Gullah-Geechee Community Faces Threat to Land Protections

Descendants of Enslaved Gullah-Geechee Community Faces Threat to Land Protections
  • PublishedSeptember 7, 2023

Historic Gullah-Geechee Community on Sapelo Island Faces Threat to Land Protections

In the quiet enclave of Hogg Hummock, situated on Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia, a close-knit community with deep roots faces a new threat. Descendants of enslaved people, known as Gullah-Geechee, who have resided in this cherished corner of Sapelo Island for generations, find themselves once again locked in a battle to protect their land and culture.

Last month, residents of Hogg Hummock were shocked when McIntosh County officials unveiled a proposal that would eliminate zoning ordinances safeguarding the community. These ordinances, established in 1994, were put in place to protect the Gullah-Geechee residents from escalating property taxes and the pressure to sell their land to developers.

The Gullah-Geechee people, whose ancestors worked on the island’s slave plantations, managed to preserve their African heritage and traditions due to their isolation from the mainland. The zoning rules enforced in 1994 were a crucial step in safeguarding their unique way of life.

However, the proposed changes to these zoning ordinances have raised concerns among the Hogg Hummock community. If enacted, these changes could attract wealthier newcomers eager to build large beach houses, leading to a spike in land values and property taxes. Such a development, residents argue, could ultimately drive out the Gullah-Geechee community.

Reginal Hall, a Hogg Hummock landowner with deep family ties to the island, expressed his concerns, stating, “It’s the erasure of a historical culture that’s still intact after 230 years. Once you raise those limits and the land value increases, we only have two to three years at most. If you talk about the descendants of the enslaved, 90% of us will be gone.”

Residents and landowners have mobilized to voice their opposition to these proposed zoning changes. A public hearing was scheduled, and McIntosh County’s five elected commissioners plan to vote on the matter in the coming days.

Sapelo Island, located approximately 60 miles south of Savannah, remains an island accessible only by boat, separated from the mainland. The state of Georgia has owned most of its 30 square miles of pristine wilderness since 1976. Hogg Hummock, nestled within the island, covers less than a square mile and consists of modest homes connected by dirt roads.

The Gullah-Geechee communities, found along the Southeast coast from North Carolina to Florida, have preserved their African heritage over the generations. Unique dialects, skills, and crafts like cast-net fishing and basket weaving have been passed down through the years.

In 1996, Hogg Hummock earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places, underscoring its significance in American history. However, to maintain protections for their community, residents rely on the local government in McIntosh County, where the majority of the population is white.

The existing zoning ordinance for Hogg Hummock limits homes to 1,400 square feet of heated and air-conditioned space, prohibits paving beyond building foundations, and requires a permit for demolishing any structure deemed eligible for the National Register.

The proposed changes seek to eliminate these limits on development and erase language recognizing Hogg Hummock’s unique historical and cultural significance. Instead, the revisions describe the community as having “limited water and/or sanitary sewer facilities.”

While county officials assert that the proposed changes are in the best interest of Hogg Hummock’s residents, many in the community view them as a threat to their heritage and way of life.

This conflict is not the first between Black residents of Sapelo Island and the county government. It underscores the ongoing struggle to balance development and the preservation of cultural heritage, with the residents of Hogg Hummock determined to protect their land and traditions for future generations.

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