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Librarian discusses Gullah-Geechee culture, history

February 27, 2018 03:57 PM

Sapelo Island is a place where residents have been able to hold on to their traditions.

This is one of the many lessons Michele Nicole Johnson has learned since she moved to the island in 2005.

Johnson, who works as the librarian for Coastal Pines Technical College, shared Thursday how her own experience on the island has been shaped by the Gullah-Geechee culture, during a Black History Month lecture at the college’s Golden Isles campus.

The Gullah-Geechee people are formerly enslaved West Africans who lived on islands off the coasts of Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina and who, because of their isolation, were able to maintain their own unique culture after slavery ended.

Gullah-Geechee culture incorporates a mixture of languages, arts and cuisine.

A book by a Gullah-Geechee descendant named Cornelia Walker Bailey first brought Johnson to Sapelo Island for a visit in 2001. Johnson said she found immediate peace on the island.

“It became a place I wanted to relax,” she said.

She married her husband a few years later and moved to Sapelo Island, where her husband’s relatives lived. Her father-in-law, Fred Johnson, shared with her a vast array of tales about Sapelo Island’s history and culture.

“It opened up a whole new world for me,” she said.

Johnson has done extensive research on the island and its history, and she is the author of “Sapelo Island’s Hog Hammock.”

The island was first inhabited by Native Americans, she said. Throughout its history, much of the island’s property has been owned by wealthy white businessmen.

Thomas Spaulding owned and operated a large plantation on the island prior to the Civil War, and he owned nearly 400 slaves.

After the war, many former slaves were able to return to the island and live on land there. Some of the former white residents moved back as well, and for a time, former slaves and former slave masters lived together on the island.

“It was a very awkward time, to say the least,” Johnson said.

Today, much of the island is operated by the Department of Natural Resources for the University of Georgia.

Sapelo Island, one of eight major barrier island’s off Georgia’s 100-mile coast, is home to about 100 people today. The island can only be accessed by ferry boat.

“When I moved there, everything about me slowed down,” Johnson said.

Bailey, the woman whose book brought Johnson to Sapelo, died in October.

“Sapelo Island lost a treasure, and I lost a good friend,” Johnson said.

The Gullah-Geechee descendants remaining on the island continue to preserve their history and culture, she said, through tourism businesses that allow them to share their stories with island visitors.

And every year, they put on a festival celebrating that culture.

“This is one way the people on the island educate the public about the history of the island,” Johnson said.

Article written by Lauren McDonald at The Brunswick News.


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