Holding on to Gullah Culture

A Smithsonian curator visits a Georgia island to find stories of a shrinking community that has clung to its African traditions

"You didn't learn your history, you lived it," says Cornelia Bailey, who grew up on Sapelo. (Gregory Foster)
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Bailey drove Amos around the island in a boxy utility van, pointing out houses and fields and slipping into island dialect: binya is a native islander, comya is a visitor.

In the back seat, Bailey’s grandson, 4-year-old Marcus, played with plastic toy trucks. He doesn’t use those words. And while he knows some traditional songs and dances, Marcus will likely follow the path of Sapelo’s three most recent graduates, who attended high school on the mainland and went on to college, with no plans to return. “My daughters would love to live here. Their heart is in Sapelo,” says Ben Hall, 75, whose father owned the island’s general store until it closed decades ago from lack of business. “But they can’t. There’s nothing for them.”

The Sapelo Island Culture and Revitalization Society is working to build a Geechee Gullah Cultural Interpretative Village—an interactive tourist attraction recreating different time periods of island life. It would bring jobs and generate revenue, Bailey says. The society, however, needs $1.6 million to move forward with the project.

Meanwhile, at the museum, Uncle Shad’s voice, now identified, relates the island’s history. The culture is too strong to ever die out completely, Bailey says. “You’ve got to have hope there’ll always be somebody here.”

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