Though Liberty County has 217,754 acres within the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, none of the public comments released Oct. 2 address Liberty’s role in the preservation plan.
That’s a turn from a 2009 document containing complaints that local communities — such as Holmestown, Chapman, Riceboro, Briar Bay, the Retreat community, Peter King Road, Cross Road and Sand Hill — were not adequately represented.
But Geechee Kunda resident historian Dr. Amir Jamal Toure, who represented Georgia on the commission from its 2007 inception until this summer, said local voices still do not resonate loudly enough.
Sense of community
“For you to really get a sense of the community, you’ve got to really go to the people. You’ve got to go to where these folks are, … their churches, their festivals, their events …,” Toure said. “You have to really make an effort — that’s not just here that folks are concerned about that, that’s throughout the whole corridor.”
The commission includes representatives from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina and has worked since 2007 on a plan to preserve “the only African-American population of the United States with a separate, long-standing name identifying them as a separate people,” according to the commission website.
“Overall, the comments received were very supportive of this planning endeavor and of the Gullah/ Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission,” commission Chairman Ronald Daise said in the release.
But Toure said the effort needs to step beyond the bounds of technology and reach out to people who may not be actively seeking information, such as populations in Bryan County, Savannah and Jesup. All have vibrant culture to offer but have not been asked to the table, he said.
“At least the folks here in Liberty … we had some sense, we don’t feel that this is really a voice for us,” Toure added.
That sentiment was voiced in a 2009 document on the commission’s website, where one comment said, “As a citizen of Liberty County with connections in all six of the coastal Geechee counties in Georgia, we feel grossly underrepresented.”
Locals want input
“You were asking what should we do and how should we do it. I did a survey in Crossroads and Byer Bay and Sand Hill in Liberty County, and no one from the study ever came there,” another comment said.
Michael Allen, the parks-service specialist working under the commission, said it’s critical that people realize the cultural-management plan is aimed at a broad region rather than a specific area.
“I realize that there may always be a little rough road, but at the end of the day, what we have developed and what we have pulled together will allow us to address the totality of the needs up and down the coast,” Allen said.
He acknowledged that the management plan alone will not protect the culture and needs support from outside organizations and municipalities.
“You cannot look at the federal government or the national parks service as being protective of this culture,” Toure said. “This is not a culture about museum pieces, it’s a living breathing culture … as long as the people are alive, the culture lives.”
For Toure, those who hold local cultural events must continue to do so and should not rely on the federal plan.
“Listen, you still need to do what you’re doing, you still need to do the work,” he said. “You all are the greatest preservers of the culture.”
Geechee Kunda, a Riceboro education center founded by Jim and Pat Bacote that uses “culture as a vehicle for mental empowerment, intellectual liberation and spiritual healing,” is one of those organizations.
Jim Bacote said many locals have become disillusioned with the commission’s direction and a perceived bias toward Sapelo Island.
“But Sapelo is romanticized, and some people even have the misconception that when you speak of Gullah/Geechee, you’re only speaking of the islands,” Bacote said, adding that the corridor stretches 30 miles inland within the four states.
By virtue of geography, “Riceboro itself has 10 or 20 times more (Geechee people) than there are on all of Sapelo,” he added.
Toure and Bacote both said the plan does not address some substantive challenges, such as land-retention issues currently facing Geechee people as coastal developments have caused property taxes to skyrocket — leaving some unable to afford their lifelong homes.
Local folks also do not agree with the commission’s assessment that Geechee is a faltering culture, especially because families like Bacote’s have been active in Camden, Glynn, McIntosh, Chatham and Liberty counties for years, he added.
Despite the disillusionment, Bacote added that some good comes from the commission.
“As long as they get it right, we welcome it, because there can’t be too much positive information about the culture out there, …,” Bacote said. “It’s our culture, so it’s our responsibility; We will continue to do what we do.”
Church homecomings and three annual events in Liberty County are among those preservers. Two events, Ricefest in Riceboro and Geechee Kunda’s annual Sugarcane Harvest & Art Show, are in November. The Gathering at Geechee Kunda is held each April.
Other events, such as Rice, Riddum & Rime, also offer cultural expression.
Geechee culture also is an underutilized — yet vibrant — tourism resource that Georgia should better harness, Toure said. Most people associate the culture with South Carolina, not because it is more prevalent there, but because the state recognized it as a “cultural jewel” about 20 years ago.
“Georgia seems to promote only Sapelo, and why Sapelo? Because the state of Georgia has a facility there,” Toure said, later adding that Liberty County leads the way with Geechee culture in the state.
In its current form, the plan names 18 Liberty County resources that may preserve Geechee heritage. Geechee Kunda is not listed. The management plan will be submitted to the National Park Service for review in the coming weeks, with the expectation that it will be forwarded to the U.S. secretary of the interior for approval.
Suggested revisions will be integrated if the National Park Service grants review, the release said.
Allen added that resources such as Geechee Kunda can apply to partner with the commission once the plan advances.