Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles
By Amy Lotson Roberts & Patrick J Holladay
A review by Dwight A Moody
Two blocks over from Holly Street where I live on St. Simons Island and four blocks down, Atlantic Street ends at the marsh, on the western edge of St. Simons Island, on the eastern coast of Georgia. There, Dunbar Creek flows east and then north on its way to Frederica River which shortly feeds St. Simons Sound between our island and our neighbor to the south, Jekyll Island. The spot has a name—Ibo Landing, and it was here, where the land, the march, and the creek meet, that a small schooner called the York surreptitiously prepared to disembark its load of West Africans destined for a life of slavery. It was not to be, however; a dozen or more of these always-free Ibo tribesmen, now chained together to ensure their safe arrival, leaped together into the shallow water and drowned. The year was 1803.
This I learned from this marvelous 158-page book, signed for me by the author, island native Amy Lotson Roberts. She is a direct descendant of other enslaved West Africans brought to the island on the slave ship Wanderer in 1858—the last such ship to arrive in Georgia. Recipient of numerous awards as a community leader and historian, Ms. Roberts is the executive director of the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition (of which I am a proud member).
Every page of this book was an education for me, one long overdue and eagerly embraced. While entitled to include all the Golden Isles—the four barrier islands of the famed Glynn County: St. Simons, Little St. Simons, Sea Island, and Jekyll—the narrative focuses mainly on St. Simons, the most inhabited, and its mainland counterpart, the city of Brunswick, Georgia. History, sociology, architecture, religion, economics, and politics all play their role in the often noble, sometimes tragic narrative of this geographic area. Ministers Charles and John Wesley, governor James Oglethorpe, journalist Robert Abbott, football player Jim Brown, and author Eugenia Price (not mentioned in the book) are a few of the famous people who at one time or another made St. Simons their home.
Our barrier island is one of many that stretch from Pender County, North Carolina (the Outer Banks) to St. Johns County, Florida (Jacksonville). Many are still uninhabited, without bridge access to the mainland; and it was this factor—this isolation—that allowed the history and culture on these islands to find its own way, free of surrounding influences, and remain the most authentic representation of the pre-slavery life and language of the West Africans brought to this country. It is known as the Gullah Geechee heritage but, as Roberts and Holladay, explain, nobody really knows where this designation came from and what the words really mean; they give their judgement on pages 19 and following.
As a minister, I was especially drawn to the religious history of the Gullah Geechee people. Some West Africans brought to America to be slaves were already Christian; others were Muslim. All were shaped by the native religions of their homeland and also, later, by their encounter with white American Christianity. It gave rise to three Baptist churches and one African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation, each with their own building still in use, and a holiness congregation no longer active, their building on South Harrington Road now abandoned.
The AME church situation is a perfect case study of so much of the social and economic dynamics. The small building called St. Luke’s AME church on east George Lotson Lane was sold last month to a developer; in exchange, the congregation (now numbering only three families) was given a prime lot on the west side of the Island on which to locate a new building. “The African American residents on St. Simons Island are being displaced, aren’t they?” I said to Ms. Roberts as she signed my copy of this book. She shook her head slowly and sadly, silently recognizing the realities of our day and also the urgency of preserving the places and the memories that have shaped our island from the beginning. We were sitting at the time in the restored Harrington School which serves as the epicenter of research, education, and celebration of the Gullah Geechee heritage for the entire eastern seaboard.
I’m glad to have met her, in this place, and to have received from her this book and the education it has provided me. It is never too late to learn, but I wish I had been so educated a long time ago. I would have been a much better minister of the gospel.