Originally created 06/28/01

Board will preserve Gullah community

ATLANTA - The state of Georgia wants to buy more than half of the tiny community of Hog Hammock in a deal supporters say might be the only way to save for posterity the last African-American settlement on isolated Sapelo Island.

The Board of Natural Resources voted unanimously Wednesday to acquire 140 acres of undeveloped land within the settlement from The Sapelo Foundation. Under a proposed agreement between the Department of Natural Resources and the foundation, the state would gain partial ownership of another 40 acres - also undeveloped - and the right of first refusal to buy 70 acres now in private hands if and when the owners decide to sell.

Together, those 250 acres represent nearly 60 percent of the 425-acre settlement on the barrier island north of St. Simons Island.

"To our knowledge, that is the final Gullah community located on the east coast of the United States," said Natural Resources Commissioner Lonice Barrett, who spearheaded the negotiations that led to the agreement. "I just felt like we needed to look for a way to try to protect those lands."

Sapelo once held five African-American settlements, whose residents are descendants of slaves brought to the island in 1802.

Tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds bought most of the island in 1934 for a hunting preserve. Later, the five communities were consolidated into Hog Hammock.

The Department of Natural Resources, which bought virtually all of the island except for Hog Hammock following Reynold's death, provides the only ferry service from the mainland and runs the island's post office.

With the settlement's population now down to about 70, Hog Hammock offers few job opportunities. As a result, young people have tended to move away after finishing high school.

The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society, a nonprofit group working to restore the community's viability, hopes the state's involvement will help lure former residents back to Hog Hammock, said Ron Johnson, the organization's president.

"Descendants who have moved away have never forgotten their roots," he said. "We stay connected with our culture and traditions. ... A lot of these people would move back if there were opportunities here."

Mr. Barrett said the proposed acquisition would put the state in a position to foster small-scale economic development that would create jobs, while keeping away large resort-type projects that could obliterate the Gullah culture.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.


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