ATLANTA — Fifty-seven Sapelo Island property owners and other residents and two community organizations, Help Org Inc. and Raccoon Hogg Community Development Corporation, recently filed a federal race discrimination lawsuit against McIntosh County, the state of Georgia, and the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority.
The families are descendants of Gullah-Geechee slaves who lived on the Georgia barrier island as far back as the 18th century. The lawsuit alleges that the county, state and SIHA are engaged in a policy designed to make the plaintiffs’ lives so uncomfortable that they abandon their homes and their land.
“These actions are destroying the last intact Gullah-Geechee community in the country,” said Reed Colfax, the plaintiffs’ attorney and a partner in the civil rights law firm Relman, Dane and Colfax PLLC. “The county and state are depriving our clients of basic municipal services, limiting their access to their lands. In addition, the county tried to dramatically increase their taxes in an effort to force them off Sapelo Island, which their families have known as home for generations.”
The complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, alleges discrimination by the county, state and SIHA. For instance, the suit says:
• Although the county provides comprehensive municipal services on the mainland, there are no water, sewer, police, fire or medical services — or a school — on Sapelo Island.
• In spite of this discrepancy, the county charges the Gullah-Geechee landowners similar or higher property taxes.
• The state claims ownership of 97 percent of Sapelo Island, leaving the Gullah-Geechee confined to the only permanent residential area on the island, Hogg Hummock. The state’s ownership stake is based on a history of fraudulent transfers and land theft by white millionaires throughout the 20th century.
• The few services that the state does provide are inadequate. For instance, the state- operated ferry is the sole means to travel from the mainland to the island. The ferry is inaccessible to people with disabilities and has such a limited schedule that it is impossible to live on the island and hold a job on the mainland.
• The Sapelo Island Heritage Authority was created by the state to protect and promote the Gullah-Geechee culture, history and traditions. In fact, the opposite has occurred. SIHA has favored the interests of developers and white vacationers over those of the longtime residents.
The suit seeks adequate services, access to their ancestral lands, protection from tax increases and monetary damages.
Sapelo Island is a 16,500-acre barrier island off the coast of McIntosh County. Residents of Sapelo Island are the largest community of Gullah-Geechee in the country. The Gullah-Geechee are descendants of peoples from various parts of West Africa, whose ancestors were brought as slaves to the Southeastern coast of what is now the United States. Gullah-Geechee communities once populated many parts of the coast from southern North Carolina to northern Florida.
Like the islands of Hilton Head, South Carolina, and St. Simons, Georgia, before it, Sapelo Island struggles against the pressures of development that threaten to convert the island from a community that has been home to the same families for nine generations into a vacation destination spot with luxury second homes and resorts.