By Dr. Steven Blankenship
The Georgia Historical Society in Savannah sponsored a week-long workshop on Sea Island Slavery in mid-June. This event was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Twenty-five community college teachers were invited to participate. We listened to lectures from a variety of specialists, held round-table discussions, took a walking tour of historic Savannah, and traveled by ferry to Sapelo and Ossabow Islands, the Sea Islands where slavery first took root in Georgia. As a participant in these events, I thought it would be informative if I relayed to the GHC community the discoveries of a very busy and stimulating week.
Our group had the honor of attending four lectures by historians of trans-Atlantic slavery. Dr. Alex Byrd broadened the context of slavery by discussing why certain African kingdoms (Senegambia for instance) sold few slaves to European traders while other African chiefdoms were eager to engage in exchanges with merchants of human labor. Dr. Erskine Clarke, author of Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic, discussed how intertwined are the stories of plantation owners and their slaves, the former viewing the world from their veranda while the later took a worm’s eye view from their tabby cabins. Dr. Allison Dorsey discussed the case of an African-American freedman who found security for his family in the turbulent world of Reconstruction. Finally Dr. Jacqueline Jones explained how the city of Savannah, a bustling river-port city, managed a volatile mixture of wealthy whites, city slaves, free blacks, northern immigrants, and poor whites before, during and after the Civil War.
Our walking tour of historic Savannah illustrated the stark difference between the plantation slave, conspicuous in the landscape, and the city slave lost amidst the general hustle and bustle. We discovered that the historic sites for slave auctions and holding pens was now occupied by banks and attorneys’ offices, thus inadvertently making the trenchant link between early American capitalism and its source of labor – slaves.
My colleagues all agreed that our excursions to Sapelo and Ossabow Islands were the high points of the workshop. We took the ferry across calm seas to Sapelo, a large island of 16,500 acres. African-American culture in the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia began here in the 18th and early 19th centuries as white plantation owners found that sea-island cotton was very lucrative. Slaves imported from western Africa grew this commodity crop. An African presence endures here among the live oaks and swamps of Sapelo as the remnant of African descendants remain in a small village.
The highlight of our visit to Sapelo was an informal lunch and discussion with Cornelia Walker Bailey, a descendant of a well-known slave of the early 19th century. Over iced tea, barbequed chicken and cake, Mrs. Bailey regaled the crowd with her stories of the Geechee people, their traditions and their links to Africa. She cheerfully answers numerous questions from our group while autographing copies of her book, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man. Mrs. Bailey was clearly anxious that this remaining enclave of African influence on the Georgia coast was in danger of being lost forever. She explained that children leave the island as jobs are few indeed; these children often later sell their deceased parents’ property to outsiders, thus further diluting the unique character of Hog Hammock, where Mrs. Bailey lives.
Ossabow Island was more remote and much less inhabited than Sapelo. We crossed choppy seas in a pontoon boat to reach this outpost occupied only by scientists. The island’s archeologist demonstrated his findings and discussed his work of trying to retrieve slave artifacts. The one slave artifact we could not miss was the remaining slave quarters made of tabby (a mixture of sand, mud and oyster shells). These small structures held multiple families in cramped conditions with an earthen floor. It is best to visit such a place in summer with the heat and humidity nearly unbearable so that one can appreciate the lives led by slaves amidst poisonous snakes, wild hogs, voracious and unlimited ticks, fleas, sand-gnats, and horse flies. Forced labor in such conditions would surely drain away whatever physical and emotional strength remained in many of the slaves.
I encourage each of you to visit these islands and experience a glimpse of Sea Island slavery for yourselves.
Dr. Steve Blankenship came to Georgia Highlands in 2005 as a history instructor, and became assistant professor in 2008. He teaches at the Cartersville campus. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy and a Master of Arts in history from Georgia State University and a Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of North Florida. He has published an article or review in a scholarly journal once a year since coming to GHC. He also has produced several popular DVD courses on American history.