A fight to keep an island's black heritage

Descendants of slaves on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia are uniting to keep developers at bay.

Since and before the Civil War, the black inhabitants of St. Simons Island off Georgia have had a simple motto: Accept what life hands you.

In their case, that usually wasn't such a bad deal. Left largely alone by economic revolutions, slave descendants from South Carolina to Florida continued to hand-sein for sea trout and mullet; hold soul-stirring baptisms in the tidal creeks; and keep chickens, hogs, and small plots for tomatoes and collards.

Today, however, America's coastal blacks are having to come to terms with a phenomenon that's increasingly hard to accept: a tropical form of gentrification. With land values climbing to $350,000 an acre, speculative newcomers are paving over their fish camps, filling in their baptism ponds, and clearing the deep woods where their ancestors drove cattle and kept hog.

Not all of the island's African-Americans are capitulating to lucrative offers. Placing communal heritage ahead of personal profit, about 30 natives have formed the St. Simons African Heritage Coalition. For starters, they've printed up yellow warning signs to ward off realtors and developers. "Don't ask, won't sell," read the signs.

While many of her friends and family have sold their heirs' plots, Elouise Spears won't sell her 25 acres of marshfront land on St. Simons Island. "I just tell them, 'No matter how much you're willing to pay, you can't afford it,' " says Ms. Spears, a smooth-skinned septuagenarian whose fisherman father sold sea trout hung from twisted palmetto leaves. "I'm going to hold onto it as long as I can."

Blacks once owned 86 percent of St. Simons, but now the small remaining settlements are intertwined with development roads and gated condos. While the black population has dwindled to below 500 on St. Simons, the total population of the island has grown from 6,500 to 13,300 since 1980. Where small ramshackle villages once stood in the shade of giant live oaks, hacienda-style townhomes now crawl all the way up to the water.

Not everything is gone. The First African Baptist Church is still a lively community treasure, especially on Sundays. But Alfonso's Old Plantation Supper Club, once the biggest black-owned restaurant on the Southern coast, is now boarded up.

"Developers are sweeping through this island, and we're being boxed in," says Henry "Chip" Wilson, who grew up on St. Simons wrestling pup sharks and throwing cast nets. "They've got a plan in place, and it doesn't include us."

Wilson points out the small spit where "they took you to the river" to be baptized. Where bulldozers have cleared away the palmettos by a marsh, a crew of three black men used to break horses; the fence posts are still visible far out into the marsh. Abocation Pond, where Wilson's mom was baptized, is now filled in - and replaced by a home.

Black islanders won't even fish where a group of shackled Africans once drowned themselves to protest slavery; but today, marshside condos stretch along Dunbar Creek. What's worse, on some islands, natives aren't even allowed back to their graveyards, thanks to wires strung across the entrances of golf courses and country clubs.

"Us white folks like to live away from our family, but blacks are the opposite: They like to congregate," says Jane Lareau, who works at the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League in Charleston. "When they sell, they lose that community that has supported them for centuries."

Encouragingly, many blacks are returning to the old ways. On Sapelo Island, Ga., the island's black population had dwindled from 150 to about 70 in the past decade, but middle-aged men tired of the city life are now coming back to reclaim their antique family holdings. And on Santee Island, S.C., at the mouth of the Great Pee Dee River, where slave descendants still buzz to work by boat, natives successfully sued to sink a bridge project that would have given developers a foothold on the island.

"We're finally starting to work on our heritage," says Spears. "Before this, we were forgotten communities."

First in line is renovating the abandoned Harrington Elementary School. While its timbers are still straight, the one-room schoolhouse is now being swallowed by the jungle. Another plan is to restore an abandoned home in the Southend community as a bed and breakfast.

"For many of these families, they realized that they were suddenly sitting on a gold mine," says Sierra Neal, a spokeswoman for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "What's happening now is that they're learning how to be more savvy, how to become developers themselves."

For the black men who remain, the appeal of weekend hog kills, crabbing, and hand-seining the creeks is hard to beat. Women here speak about the deep silence of the marshes, and the healing bars of moonlight that stream down through the Spanish moss.

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