Meet the man trying to save the dwindling Gullah Geechee island community, settled by his enslaved ancestors

This past Saturday morning, at the bottom of a dusty dirt road that looks like it could exist at the end of the earth, Maurice Bailey watched as his father’s casket lowered into the hallowed ground of Sapelo Island’s Black cemetery, where former slaves and generations of their ancestors have been laid to rest since before the 1900s.

He quietly recalled the number of residents left in his ever-shrinking community. With his father now gone, it fell from 30 to 29.

“It’s my father, but it’s also another person gone from our community,” said 54-year old Bailey, who stood alongside his three children and four grandchildren who were visiting the island from an America that bears little resemblance to the worn and wholesome simplicity of Sapelo. “It’s hard to watch it change like this.”

Julius “Frank” Bailey Sr. passed away earlier this month aged 78, ending a five and half year wait to join his brilliant author, activist and storyteller wife, Cornelia Walker Bailey, in the lush grounds of Behavior Cemetery.

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The Bailey couple had already been immortalized as part of the remarkable story of how 400 of their west African ancestors survived being sold into slavery on this island off Georgia’s Atlantic Coast in the early 1800s. Their descendants won freedom at the end of the civil war and the community of Hog Hammock was born.

But 160 years later, Maurice left everything to face the daunting task of preserving what’s left of the small, private community founded by his ancestors, the Gullah-Geechee people. They endured servitude on sea island plantations on the lower Atlantic Coast, including coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.


Maurice wakes up before 6 a.m. most mornings and doesn’t go to bed again until long after the sun sets.

“I can’t sleep past six,” he said. “My brain starts thinking about everything I want and have to do around the island.”

But in Hog Hammock, there’s plenty to stress about.

Homes and land have been sold in the past to settle property tax debt with the local county.

Those taxes have increased as a result of new islanders building more expensive homes. The tax shot up by as much as a thousand percent in a single year back in 2019, forcing some descendants to make tough choices about whether they can even afford to stay.

And some have chosen to sell up, strained by the hefty economic burden.

Those who remain face a web of complex challenges that have troubled the community for generations, ranging from coastal erosion and flooding to a lack of employment and even trouble finding love.

There were once over a dozen small communities of formerly enslaved people on the island.

Hog Hammock is all that remains. It’s a mix of wooden homes, trailers and community buildings haphazardly packed into what most people will tell you is 434 acres connected by meandering dirt paths littered with potholes. The community is surrounded by trees, most of which are draped in Spanish Moss, adding to the southern folk feel of the island.

In all, the island is about 16,500 acres and has around 100 residents.

Although he doesn’t mention it to many people, the acreage of Hog Hammock is probably closer to 200 given how much of the land has been sold over the years. McIntosh County officials offered to pave the roads of the tiny community if they were willing to give up ownership of their dirt roads.

They declined.

Its population topped about 500 in the 1950s. Since then, it has dwindled as the jobs and conveniences of the more modernized mainland pull descendants away from Hog Hammock’s antiquated way of life.

While most people end up leaving, some are occasionally drawn back.

Maurice established the non-profit organization Save Our Legacy Ourself (SOLO) when he returned to the island. The group’s current focus is reviving the Gullah Geechee culture through agricultural programs. SOLO partners with the University of Georgia and other local groups, who help grow crops such as sugarcane, Geechee red peas, indigo, sour oranges, peppers, and garlic on a few acres of land dotted around the community. Volunteers help plant and pick the crops at the end of the season.

In 2018, Maurice helped successfully grow purple ribbon sugar cane. The crop hadn’t been raised on the island since the 1800s when it first arrived in Georgia from the West Indies. The sugarcane was then turned into syrup and sold around the South – a dream of his mother’s before she passed away in Oct. 2017.

He finally returned home to the island fulltime in 2018 after 15 years away to help his community face its many challenges and continue his mother’s legacy of maintaining the traditions of the unique culture and fend off what he says are the latest existential threats from Georgia’s powerful politicians, commissioners and property developers.

“We constantly got to fight with our county officials, commissioners and now on the state level,” he said. “The heritage needs to stay around but we don’t get the support we need to stay in a place we call home.”

Before he returned home, it was his mother who had served as the preserver of the African traditions of the Saltwater Geechee people, as she would often refer to them.

Read More: Descendants of Alabama’s Africatown persist despite industrial pollution struggles

She collected stories from those who had lived on the island, serving as the community’s griot - a west African word meaning storyteller and historian. But she also ventured to other parts of the Atlantic coast to speak to other communities similar to Sapelo. In 1989, she traveled to Sierra Leone on Africa’s west coast to investigate the similarities in culture between there and home, observing a close relationship between food, architecture and language.

Her memoir, “God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia,” tells stories about her childhood, ancestors and the history of her home.

It wasn’t long after she died that Maurice decided to come home and continue her work. He sacrificed a lot.

He was making over $100,000 a year as a welder for a dredging company, traveling up and down the east coast for years. But checking into hotels for weeks at a time slowly took its toll on him and he quit. He took a significant pay cut when returning to the island after maintaining an address in nearby Brunswick on the mainland for decades.

”I had to come back to protect all this,” he said while standing outside of a small convenience store that he owns in the community. “But now I probably make less than minimum wage. It’s tough.”

His most recent wife didn’t follow him back to Sapelo and they later divorced.

”She just couldn’t understand why I needed to come back here,” he said. “It’s hard to understand this life and why it matters so much that we try to preserve it. Not everyone gets it and not everyone wants to fight for it.”

The state owns 97% of the island and almost every job is provided by the it or the University of Georgia, which runs a marine institute.

“Most of the good jobs on the island don’t go to us,” said Maurice. “But we have some.”

Like other islanders whom the state or the university doesn’t employ, Maurice has made some money in the past from curious tourists by offering guided tours on his enormous yellow school bus. Unfortunately, the tours dried up during the covid pandemic. The bus is currently his main ride until his truck gets fixed. Sometimes you’ll see him riding around on his tractor, even if he’s not farming that day.

One of the highlights of his old bus tour was a visit to Reynolds Mansion, which he and other descendants still call the Big House – a reference to the large homes occupied by slave-owning planters.

Former Georgia Senator and planter Thomas Spalding built the mansion in 1802. The 400 people he enslaved are the direct ancestors of those who live in Hog Hammock today.

The mansion and its beautiful grounds, where Spanish Moss effortlessly flows across the sky from one tree to another, often host weddings and other events for those who can afford its opulent splendor. It has welcomed tens of thousands of people through its doors since the state of Georgia bought it from the family of wealthy tobacco heir Richard Reynolds in the 1970s.

But for Maurice, it remains a symbol of oppression.

“My family was forced to walk in the back door of that house during slavery,” he said. “A hundred and sixty years later, my family is still walking through the same back door when they go to work there now. Everyone on Sapelo talks about how everything is changing, but we all know that some things never really change.”

Typically, tourists who visit the island must be invited by a resident and cannot board the ferry unless their name is on a list of daily visitors. The trip costs $5 and takes about 30 minutes.

Visitors to the island will be greeted by a crowd of people waiting to go the other way. The parking lot is often packed with residents’ cars. Most have a vehicle on the island and the mainland.

Guests on the island can rent bikes or golf carts and there are various Airbnbs and camping areas for people staying the night.

A threat from the state of Georgia

At the end of March, the Georgia state Senate will vote on a bill that could change the rules of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority – a 40-year-old organization that is supposed to help protect, preserve and promote the island’s environment and culture.

The board votes on various issues affecting the island, including the island community center, the passenger-only ferry that runs three times a day, and other minor aspects of island life. Importantly, it also has the first option to buy any land or property for sale on the island, including in Hog Hammock.

The board of the heritage authority is made up of five people, which usually includes two people from Hog Hammock, the state’s governor and two additional state officials.

Initially, one of the proposed changes called for two “residents” of Hog Hammock to serve on the board.

“What’s interesting is the bill doesn’t say anything about descendants being on the board,” he said. “Had we not noticed the wording, we could have easily been replaced on the board by non-descendants who also happen to live in Hog Hammock.”

“We could have lost our voice, which is the most powerful thing we have right now,” he added

That language is being changed ahead of a Georgia Senate vote on March 29.

But that’s not the only problem. The bill also opened the door for non-state officials to serve in one of the other three seats on the board. Descendants feared that could be a real-estate lobbyist or developer.

Maurice says that he and the other descendants were not consulted about the new bill and only found out about it after Georgia’s House of Representatives voted to approve it in early March. If the state Senate gives it the greenlight during a March 29 vote, he fears it could change how decisions are made on the island and bring the community one step closer to disappearing for good.

He also thinks the descendants have between two and ten years to save the community.

What’s next: ‘Change is inevitable’

The passing of Julius “Frank” Bailey, a man who taught his seven children to hunt, fish, farm and be self-sufficient, is symbolic of the generational shift also occurring on the island.

A vast majority of the current residents of Hog Hammock are retirees, according to Maurice, who also noted that only four children currently live in the community. They are aged between 3 and 17 years old.

The island’s school closed in 1978, meaning generations of the community’s youth were exposed to life at off the island. They made friends and saw an entirely different world.

“Until we left the island, we thought the world was just like this,” said Maurice. “I remember my father heard the KKK was planning to gather on the mainland. He grabbed his gun and went over there. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Despite being an excellent reason to stay on the island, the racial tensions of the 60s and 70s didn’t prevent descendants from leaving. By the beginning of the 1970s, a little over 100 descendants remained.

“Change is inevitable no matter how hard people try to avoid it,” said Nikki Williams, who would visit the island to see her grandparents as a child and now is back working there for the state. “What has shocked me the most is how my sense of place and the memories I had of growing up here feel very different now that so many people have gone.”

She recalls being taught how to fish and throw a cast net as a young girl visiting Hog Hammock.

”That tiny community is where I learned to ride my bike and catch fish,” she added from behind her desk at the state office, which is also a store, post office and research facility. “I don’t think that kind of life exists anymore and sooner or later, even the things that remind me of my childhood will probably change.”

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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