color photograph of a Black man wearing a red baseball cap holding up a blue flag of the Gullah Geechee people
A Gullah Geechee man holds up an official flag of the Gullah Geechee people at Station Creek Landing in St Helena, South Carolina, on July 11, 2023. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

County commissioners in McIntosh, Georgia, have approved zoning changes that island residents say will endanger the Gullah Geechee community. Commissioners voted 3-2 on Sept. 12 to weaken zoning restrictions that will make it harder for the community’s 30-50 residents to hold on to their land. The rural island’s Gullah Geechee residents are descended from enslaved Africans and are one of the last communities of their kind. Last month’s vote is the latest in a series of decisions pushing for development on the island. The community members say the zoning changes continue colonialism and erasure.

The zoning decision raises the maximum size of a home from 1,400 square feet to 3,000 square feet. Residents say the larger home sizes will increase property values and taxes, forcing out the descendants of slaves who have stewarded the island for decades. The introduction of the change came as a surprise to residents when it was proposed in August. The only Black member of the county commission, Roger Lotson, voted against the zoning changes and said during the meeting that they will likely be back in court for rushing the decision.

“It is politically motivated. We know that,” said Maurice Bailey, the founder, president, and CEO of the nonprofit Save Our Legacy Ourself. “These people live with us, amongst us, and nobody ever discussed with any individual, any group in the community to say that we’re planning on rezoning, do y’all have any input.” 

Anjana Joshi, an attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center, represents the residents and raised objections due to concerns with “due process and equal protection concerns” about the zoning ordinance amendment. Joshi has been working with the residents for a variety of issues since April, including tax protections.

“[This amendment] ignores a lot of the existing protections for this community that were put in place specifically so that there would be no more displacement of the Gullah Geechee community,” Joshi said. “It’s going to allow for … someone who owns a lot of land on Sapelo Island … to build very large mansions. And that is going to lead to increases in land value, increases in taxes. And folks are going to struggle to pay those taxes without additional protections in place.”

The Gullah Geechee community has been on Sapelo Island for 13 generations. Sapelo Island is a rural island with only about 30 descendants of the original 44 enslaved families remaining, but it is the last island of its kind along coastal Georgia. Bailey is carrying the torch of cultural and historic preservation that his mother, Cornelia Walker Bailey, started decades prior

“We didn’t get the respect from the county … and we didn’t get respect from the newcomers about this result,” Bailey said. “We’re going to lose who we are, we’re going to lose property because taxes are going to go up, and people will eventually get discouraged. Because people are tired of fighting.”

On Sapelo Island, maintaining a majority population of descendants has proved challenging. There are few jobs, few people to cultivate relationships with, and no schools to keep young people on the island. Because of the lack of work, many residents are on fixed incomes. People travel the island mainly on dirt roads, and the only way to access the island is via a cash-only, exact change-preferred ferry boat. Historically, that has driven folks away from the island to seek opportunities for education and employment. As the elders on the island pass away, the question of who will preserve their culture’s history is at the forefront of Bailey’s mind. But now, Bailey says developers and non-descendants who idealize the isolation and beautiful beaches on the island are buying land, hoping to push out the locals and make a profit for themselves.

Earlier this year in March, the Georgia General Assembly quietly passed a bill to modify the rules of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority without the input of the island’s Geechee residents. A group of mostly Republican representatives introduced House Bill 273, and it passed unanimously.

Bailey says he hopes the county commission reverses the decision and does not defer to appeasing the white residents in the community. Joshi says they are ready to appeal the decision as they continue discussing with residents of the community.

“We always have to be fighting,” said Bailey. “And this is just another fight we have to fight … We’ve been at this too long not to have the respect we deserve.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...