Black Residents Of Gullah-Geechee Enclave In Georgia Angered After Zoning Changes Pose Threat To Their Community


On Tuesday, Georgia “county commissioners voted to double the maximum size of homes allowed” on Sapelo Island. This occurred despite many Black residents and their supporters expressing opposition to this change.

This small enclave is home to a majority of Black residents who are members of the Hogg Hummock community, which is also sometimes referred to as Hog Hammock. According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, “Hog Hammock was one of fifteen African American Saltwater Geechee settlements on Sapelo Island, Georgia. The Geechee are descendants of enslaved West Africans brought to work on Sea Island plantations along the Atlantic coast.” Sapelo island is located approximately 60 miles south of Savannah, Georgia and is only reachable by boat.

Almost three decades ago, the county adopted the zoning restrictions, “with the stated intent to help Hogg Hummock’s 30 to 50 residents hold on to their land,” the Associated Press reports.

But the McIntosh County’s elected commissioners recently voted 3-2 vote to change the restrictions. Now, Black residents fear that wealthy buyers will be prioritized over them, which could lead to increases in taxes.

Residents also anticipate this could cause them to be pressured to sell their land, most of which has been in their family for generations.  

Atlanta resident Yolanda Grovner originally had a plan where she would ultimately retire on her island native father’s land that he owns in Hogg Hummock, but now she worries this might not be able to happen. Yolanda’s father George Grovner attended the meeting wearing a sticker, which read “Keep Sapelo Geechee,” in defiance of these planned zoning changes.

“It’s going to be very, very difficult,” said Yolanda, continuing, “I think this is their way of pushing residents off the island.”

In recent years, the population on Hogg Hummock has been shrinking because some families have sold their land to outsiders. David Stevens, Chairman of the Commission, said he’s been a visitor on Sapelo Island since the 1980s, and places the blame for these changes on those who are selling their land.

This could be partly true, as the vote followed new construction builds. The commissioners ruling “raised the maximum size of a home in Hogg Hummock to 3,000 square feet (278 square meters) of total enclosed space. The previous limit was 1,400 square feet (130 square meters) of heated and air-conditioned space,” per the Associated Press.

Stevens stated, “I don’t need anybody to lecture me on the culture of Sapelo Island.” “If you don’t want these outsiders, if you don’t want these new homes being built…don’t sell your land,” Stevens concluded.

But the remaining residents have vowed to keep fighting these ordinance changes, and it’s not a new phenomenon for them to fight with the local government either. In 2012, dozens of residents and landowners were able to successfully appeal property tax increases.

In addition, many have spent years “fighting the county in federal court for basic services such as firefighting equipment and trash collection before county officials settled last year,” writes the Associated Press.

Maurice Bailey is a native of Hogg Hummock whose mother Cornelia Bailey had deep roots to the island. Bailey was a Sapelo Island celebrity, keeping the community’s voice alive with her storytelling before she died in 2017. Maurice said, “We’re still fighting all the time,” adding, “They’re not going to stop. The people moving in don’t respect us as people. They love our food, they love our culture. But they don’t love us.”

Some legal experts have hinted at due process violations as well as concerns about encroachment under the equal protection clause.

This issue becomes more complicated given the racial demographics of the county. Hogg Hummock is on the National Register of Historic Places, and in order for the Gullah-Geechee community to receive protections “to preserve the community, residents depend on the local government in McIntosh County, where 65% of the 11,100 residents are white,” says the Associated Press.


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