A Journey to Sapelo Island Where History and Culture are Still Alive

Looking for a weekend getaway to explore your heritage? Well, Cuisine Noir has just the place for you to visit, Georgia’s Sapelo Island.  Encompassing some of the most pristine natural areas in the state alongside the well-preserved historic island, this area offers a breathtaking experience along with rich historical lessons.  Come along and take the road less traveled!

As we arrived at the dock on a cool, breezy, early October morning, I couldn’t wait to meet my private tour guide, board the ferryboat in Meridian, Ga. and land on Sapelo Island, the almost exclusively African-American island.  Surrounded by acres of pristine marsh, the 30-minute ferry ride to the island was spectacular.  In my heart, I had already painted a picture of “my people” and claimed the island and culture as my own.  I had imagined the joy and pain, the free and the enslaved, the past and the present, the isolation and mystique. I was remembering Sapelo Island.

Gullah Cuisine

Before visiting Sapelo Island, our search began for Gullah cuisine.  We drove five hours from Atlanta to Hilton Head, S.C., to eventually dine at Dye’s Gullah Fixins.  Gullah cuisine is soul food.  Dye Scott-Rhoda, owner and outland Gullah-raised in Ridgeland, S.C., is proud of her heritage and says she mastered the skill of cooking by the time she was 12-years-old. Rhoda hails her restaurant as the only authentic low country restaurant in Hilton Head.  With recipes passed down through generations, Rhoda loves cooking and promises the seafood is caught locally and everything is made from scratch. She is currently being considered for her own food show.

The menu includes a Gullah buffet consisting of a low country boil (shrimp, crabs, corn, potatoes and sausage) combination with a Cajun seasoning, country fried chicken, collard greens, candied yams, cornbread with sweet potatoes, fried catfish, ribs, lima beans, macaroni and cheese and hot desserts right out of the oven.  Dishes that I especially enjoyed included the popular one-pot wonder – the low country boil, the tender cornbread that melted in your mouth, and the mouthwatering fried catfish.  My friend enjoyed the lightly battered fried chicken. The bread pudding with warm toasted caramel sauce dripping off the top was my favorite.

Other items that Dye’s Gullah Fixins serves but are not on the buffet includes blue crab burgers, shrimp burgers, jumbo crab cakes, My Daddy Tuke smothered shrimp and grits, seafood platter, Bourbon whiskey pork chops, seafood hush puppies and many other dishes. Several desserts are also on the menu daily. From lemon cake to hot oatmeal raisin cookies and bread pudding, Dye’s is sure to have something to satisfy your taste buds. Oh, and I can’t forget about the sweet tea and homemade lemonade.

Pictured: Dye Scott-Rhoda of Dye’s Gullah Fixins

Blue Heron Bed and Breakfast

After spending a day of shopping and dining at Hilton Head, S.C., we headed to Darien, Ga., to spend the night at The Blue Heron Inn, the closest stay to Sapelo Island.  After getting lost several times, we finally found the secluded inn and were greeted at the door by our hosts, Bill and Jan. This was our first experience staying at a Bed and Breakfast and it was a great experience. This quiet and comfortable bed and breakfast, located on marsh coastline, offered a breathtaking view of marsh tidal creeks. As we sat on the upstairs deck patiently waiting to hear the tidal waves come in, we talked about our upcoming trip to Sapelo Island.  After a few hours of sleep, we prepared to go down the street to Meridian, Ga, to catch the ferry boat.  But before we left, our host prepared breakfast. We were indeed happy to be greeted with sweet potato pancakes, bacon, scrambled eggs, fruit, hot coffee and juice.  Several couples residing at the Blue Heron Bed and Breakfast joined us for breakfast.

Here is just a taste of some of the sites on this island:  Sapelo Island Lighthouse, Nanny Goat Beach, Hog Hammock Community, and the Chocolate Plantation.

Standing on the deck of the ferry boat, I received a full view of the extraordinary beauty and vistas of tidal marshland surrounding me. While I inhaled fresh sea winds, the ferry boat chugged across the calm emerald-hued waters. I faithfully indulged in the island’s beauty and rich culture, while a flock of seagulls trailed the stern and created their own tune. We eventually arrive at Sapelo Island and as we stepped off the boat, a whole new world unfolded and layer after layer of history revealed itself. This emotionally filled, picture-perfect day was priceless and one that will be forever etched in my heart. It was truly a day that I didn’t dare to rush along. After all, this was just the beginning of a history lesson that I had yearned for many years.

There is something special and mystical about Sapelo Island, one of the myriads of barrier islands on the Georgia coastline. This 15-mile long, 4-miles wide pristine underdeveloped area is a beauty and can be reached by water. There are no bridges or airstrips linked to the mainland and consider yourself lucky if your cell phone works.

Touring Sapelo with my own private tour guide, J.R. Grovner, a lifelong resident and descendant of slaves brought to the United States in 1802, history came alive. Grovner speaks with authority and his pride for Sapelo shines through his every word.  As we departed the dock, we jumped in the tour guide’s van and sped onto a bumpy and worn road, lined with a deep green canopy of gnarled oaks adorned with Spanish moss, pine trees and wild shrubs. Our tour guide occasionally stopped in the middle of the road, jumped out and gathered samples of the island’s herbs (bay leaves, rosemary, and prickly ash), and requested we taste them.

Gullah Culture

Sapelo (pronounced /’saepəlou/) has been going through a transition for many years. Today, the 16,000 acres of salt marsh, maritime forest, beach and dune areas are 97 percent owned by the State of Georgia and managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and 3 percent owned by the descendants of slaves. Currently, only 47 people live on this island plus a handful of employees of the Department of Natural Resources.

Gullah Language

The Gullah Language (also called Geechee and Sea Island Creole English) is spoken by the Gullah people (also known as “Geechees” within the community), an African American population living on the Sea Islands and the coastal region of the U.S. states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and northeast Florida.  Gullah is based on English, with strong influences from West and Central African languages.   Although the Gullah language is spoken by about 250,000 people in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, I didn’t witness the language being spoken on Sapelo Island.

The Gullah phrase “kumbayah” (“come by here”) is known worldwide due to its inclusion in a popular song of the same name. Many sing it and are unaware of its linguistic antecedents.

Hog Hammock Community

Hog Hammock, a 434-acres community is the last Gullah/Geechee community in the Sea Islands of Georgia. The residents of Hog Hammock are descendants of slaves who once worked the island’s rice, cotton and sugar plantations.  Cornelia and Julius Bailey, one of Sapelo’s most industrious families, own and operate Wallow Lodge and the island’s only general store. The Baileys along with others work hard to keep their community alive and thriving, but it bothers them that only 47 blacks still live on the island.  Cornelia, who is 65, grew up on the island and is the storyteller of the community. She’s also the author of “God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolitho Man,” which captures the essence of her struggle.  “My mother’s father, John Bryant (think it was Brinson or Bronson and he changed it to Bryant), came here in 1908. My ancestors have been traced back to being a slave on the island,” said Cornelia.   Many aspects of the island’s West African heritage have been preserved for more than 200 years, but this is now under threat from development. Vacation homes are being built by people not from the community and the homes are out of scale for the rest of the community.

“I would like to see our history stay alive. I like the culture, but we want our people to go get an education. I want them to recognize their culture, their foreparents and to come back for Sapelo’s Cultural Festival,” said Melvin Johnson, who was born and raised on Sapelo Island.  Johnson retired from Eastern Airlines after working for 25 years and decided to return to his beloved roots. He’s been home for seven years and can’t imagine enjoying his retirement anywhere else. After all, this is home.

Visiting Hog Hammock Community was a special experience.  The Bailey’s welcomed guests to Hog Hammock with open arms. After we completed our tour with J.R., we spent hours relaxing under an oak tree, while her grandchildren played freely, as if they didn’t have a care in the world.  Discussing everything from history to slavery, voodoo, culture, food and family, Cornelia appeared to be slightly worried about preserving their culture and enticing visitors to continue to come to the island.  People from all walks of life and from across the United States stopped by to chat and occasionally shop at the general store. Some were first-time visitors and others were returning for their semi-annual or annual dose of history and relaxation.

Chocolate Plantation

To stroll the dirt roads of “Chocolate Plantation” is like a history lesson that spans more than 200 years. By the 1800s, this was considered a prosperous antebellum Sea Island cotton plantation.  Scholars say Native Americans settled on Sapelo Island as long as 4,000 years ago. Tabby ruins (remnants of slave houses) and a barn still stand and the marshlands are visible from the grounds.  Sadness came over me when I stepped on the grounds of “Chocolate Plantation.” This was my first time on a plantation and my imagination immediately started running wild.  Quietness came over me and my tour guide seemed a little disturbed while we toured the land.  Just the mention of the word “slavery” still conjures up a painful past that our ancestors endured.  Slavery was a horrendous act that left lasting effects on Blacks’ psyche, family structure, discrimination we experience within our race, trust issues, etc.

Nanny Goat Beach

Perhaps the most tranquil feature of the town is Nanny Goat Beach. Here you can stroll peacefully on this manicured beach and allow your imagination to run wild.  If you are a beach lover, you’re sure to enjoy this pristine and undeveloped beach. It’s known for having the most extensive undisturbed natural beach dunes along the Georgia coast. With its emerald-hued marshlands, soft, powdery white sand and wild sea oats and over majestic dunes, tourists from the tour bus inhaled the beauty. The marsh area is highly protected under the Federal Marshland Act and by state and federal laws.

Sapelo Island Lighthouse

Make sure you stop by to see the Sapelo Island Lighthouse, a candy-cane striped structure. Built in 1820, the lighthouse once served as an aid in navigation.  Sapelo Island Lighthouse is the nation’s second oldest lighthouse and the oldest survivor of Winslow Lewis lighthouse projects. Lewis designed and built the lighthouse.

RJ Reynolds Mansion

Two land barons owned the island since slavery. Built by slave labor the Reynolds Mansion was named for former owner Richard Reynolds, heir to the tobacco empire. The 13-room mansion can be rented by groups for $175 per night per person with a two-night minimum and a minimum of 15 people.  According to research, R.J. Reynolds, Jr., owned a large part of the island, created the Marine Institute of the University of Georgia and forced the Gullah communities to be relocated inland to Hog Hammock.  At one point, there were five Gullah settlements on the island.

If You Go

Sapelo Island is accessible only by private boat or passenger ferry. To use the ferry you must sign in and be on a pre-approved passenger list. Visitors to the island must be part of an organized tour or guests of residents on the island.

The dock to board the state-run ferry is in Meridian, Ga., a small town north of Darien, Ga. To schedule your journey of Sapelo Island, call J.R. Grovner at 912-506- 6463. To arrange a private tour, call the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society Inc. for more information.

For directions and the ferry schedule, visit www.toursapelo.com.

Photo credit: Angela P. Moore

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Atlanta-based Angela P. Moore-Thorpe is a writer, editor and photographer and is the founder and owner of APM Public Relations and The Inkwell Agency.