There is no U.S. agricultural history without the expertise and labor of African people who were enslaved across the South, including the Gullah/Geechee people of the lower Atlantic Coast. But the violence of slavery and white supremacy is tied up with the crops that grew the global economy, embedding sugarcane, cotton, rice, and other historic commercial crops with a traumatic legacy.
For the Sapelo Island community—which includes the largest and most intact population of Gullah/Geechee descendants left in the U.S.—the decades-long fight against cultural erasure from developers has opened the door to reclaiming those crops as an indelible part of their heritage; growing them on the community's own terms may be the way to preserve their own future on Sapelo.
We are two people using the model of liberation farming—honoring the ancestral agricultural traditions of those who first cultivated this land—to reclaim the determination, power, agency, and resolve of those who actually facilitated the growth of Southern foodways.
Maurice, a small business owner from Sapelo and a descendant of those enslaved on the island, is collaborating with Nik, a white academic at University of Georgia, to continue a project begun by Cornelia Walker Bailey, Maurice's mother. Bailey is an author, a griot of the West African tradition of storytelling, and a Saltwater Geechee activist.
The idea to re-establish a series of heritage crops, including sugarcane, came through efforts of an important non-profit organization on the island called Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS). Established in 1993, SICARS mission is to preserve and regenerate the Saltwater Geechee community of Hog Hammock, which was founded in 1885 as Emancipation came to Sapelo.
SICARS was created at a time when Geechee land was increasingly lost to development. The mandate of SICARS was and still is to enable a future for Geechee descendants on the island by educating the ever-increasing number of visitors about their history on the island. The success of the agricultural project is directly tied to the ongoing vitality and success of SICARS' broader mission to preserve Saltwater Geechee Culture. Saltwater Geechee refers to the Gullah/Geechee people who ended up living on barrier islands; Freshwater Geechee lived on the mainland in Georgia.
In her book, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia, Bailey wrote, "We have little land of our own left. Our young leave and our old die. This pattern is repeated throughout the Sea Islands, except that on most islands, Geechee and Gullah people have been squeezed out as developers have rushed in."
Twenty-seven years later, we, and others involved with SICARS, believe liberation farming combines contemporary agricultural practice with age old struggles for freedom. While this might not differ much from farming practices in other Black communities, the cultural stakes on Sapelo Island ties these crops not only to the land of this island, but to the continuance of Gullah/Geechee culture itself.
The story of Sapelo Island is inseparable from African agricultural knowledge and innovation. Maurice's 5th great grandfather, Bilali Muhammad, was born sometime between 1760 and the 1770s in Timbo, Guinea. He was 14 when he was captured in tribal warfare, enslaved and taken across the Middle Passage to Nassau, Bahamas, where white planter Thomas Spalding purchased him and took him to Sapelo Island in 1803.
By 1810, because of the depth of his agricultural expertise, leadership and strong work ethic, he was assigned the responsibilities of overseeing all activities on the plantation. Beyond his agricultural knowledge, Muhammad also brought the earliest known Islamic text to the Americas through his capture; a 13-page document of Muslim law and prayer written in the early 19th century. He supervised up to 500 enslaved people who ultimately helped establish a U.S. agricultural tradition that today is still central to the U.S. economy. While the plantation primarily grew rice and Sea Island cotton, sugarcane looms large in the history of the island, especially for the Geechee descendants who sprung out of the first Muslim community in the U.S.
Many stories about Sapelo focus on Spalding because he published in the important agricultural journals of his time about innovations on Sapelo. This history requires reclamation and redemption. The first varieties of sugarcane in the U.S. were grown on Sapelo, which was also the site of the first sugar mill in North America where crystalline sugar was produced for market. These transformative accomplishments belonged to Muhammad and his descendants.
The story of sugar is filled with as much terror and violence as any crop grown on the planet. As Michael Twitty discusses in his book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, the sweet burst of energy produced by sugar was first recognized in New Guinea about 10,000 years ago. Its culinary and medicinal properties were then shared across Southeast Asia, over to India, to Persia and the rest of the Islamic world before medieval Europe. The geographic component of the crop's history most important for Sapelo Island is that, as Twitty suggests, about 80 percent of all enslaved people brought to the Americas were taken to areas where sugarcane was the principal cash crop.
Even after Emancipation, many descendant families across Sapelo, including Maurice's family, still planted sugarcane and made syrup because they maintained strong connections to the land, were skilled at growing crops and wanted to maintain self-sufficiency.
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But when Dixie Crystal, which was produced at an industrial processing plant up the coast in Savannah, Georgia, came to Sapelo Island and sold at the BJ Confectionary starting in the 1960s, most families on the island stopped growing and processing their own sugarcane. As we've seen in so many other instances, the process of mass commodification interrupted strong connections to the land and alienated people from it, creating pulsing waves of erasure through co-opting agricultural knowledge and tradition. While families did not need to grow sugarcane anymore, there were still some who did because they wanted to maintain ancestral connections to the land.
One of Maurice's earliest memories of sugarcane was when he was about eight years old. One of the last men on the island to grow cane and make syrup was named Allen Green. The kids would sit around and help the adults put the sugarcane stalks into the mill for grinding and then women boiled the cane syrup down to a golden brown. Everybody pitched in and worked together, and once the syrup settled, all those who helped came back and got their share.
The legacy of sugarcane for Maurice relates to a community working together and having families enjoy being on Sapelo together, safe and secure in having access to their ancestral land. It was never that they forgot about how horrible slavery was. Rather, the Geechee community created new experiences and activities to celebrate the crops they enjoyed and were skilled at growing.
The commercial land grabs of Geechee land on Sapelo have similar roots with land grabs on other Sea Islands along the coast—in particular the invalidation of Union General William T. Sherman's Special Field Order 15 in 1865. The Order would have assured property rights for freed people after the U.S. Civil War, but its revocation by President Andrew Johnson placed the land back into the hands of the white planter class, and eventually into the hands of wealthy white capitalists like Howard Coffin and Richard J. Reynolds, who purchased property all down the coast and on Sapelo Island in the 20th century. White developers continue to do so today at an alarming rate. While they used to resort to violence and theft to acquire these lands, today they are being assisted by others of Bilali's descendants looking to profit from selling family land.
These issues are complicated, and if they proceed at the current pace it will not be long before Sapelo Island is yet another vacation destination that was made possible through the cultural erasure of Saltwater Geechee ways of life. SICARS is making strides to fight off this erasure.
In 2015, a team of people led by Bailey, including William "Doc Bill" Thomas, Clemson University Professor Stephen Kresovich, Jerome Dixon, Maurice Bailey, and Stanley Walker, worked to establish Purple Ribbon Sugarcane on Sapelo Island. For a host of reasons, this initial planting did not succeed, and the sugarcane plants did not survive the summer. In April of 2016, Bailey recruited Nik to try again to establish SICARS sugarcane project with Maurice.
We worked with folks from Clemson, students from UGA and Hog Hammock community members and planted 125 row feet of Purple Ribbon sugarcane on a newly established plot on SICARS' property.
Fitting the drama of any redemption tale, months after this planting, just as the baby cane started to emerge toward the sky, a punishing storm surge generated by Hurricane Irma flooded the Hog Hammock community in September of 2016. We feared that the saltwater that is so central to life on Sapelo had destroyed this second effort to grow cane. When Bailey passed away in October of that year, as we mourned her loss, we talked about how to celebrate her life and keep her vision alive. Once the floodwaters receded, we flushed the saltwater out with freshwater and the cane rebounded. We honored her life and struggle by working harder to establish the crop, just as we promised her we would and continue to do so to this day.
Today, SICARS has acres of land under cultivation, mostly of sugarcane, but we are also growing an abundance of Geechee Red Peas. We are working to reestablish the sour oranges first brought to Sapelo by the French colonists who established the Chocolate plantation in the 1700s. We are reestablishing indigo that has not been grown on Sapelo since before emancipation, through a partnership with the International Center for Indigo Culture (ICIC) and the State Botanical Garden at the University of Georgia (SBG). And we are establishing a local variety of garlic, which plays a special role in the lore of the island; Bailey writes in her book that garlic was used to revive her when she nearly died as a child.
In establishing SICARS' farm with these and other planned heritage crops, we are working toward production and sales to generate revenue that can help with the revitalization of the Hog Hammock community. We are also working to lock Geechee culture into the landscape for generations to come.
For Nik, as a white academic, the connections to sugarcane and indigo have always been confusing and complicated given that they force him to continuously confront the white supremacist heritage within his own biography and racial history. We talk a lot about these things together in the fields, and have come to recognize that our years of partnering together and working in the hot sun is not about performing white guilt or seeking forgiveness of the crimes of whiteness, but working toward a new kind of solidarity.
Nik sees it as helping the University of Georgia do better to live up to its responsibilities as the oldest public university in the United States. This is especially important given that UGA's land grant mission was born out of slavery and white supremacy. One concrete way Nik and Maurice are pushing UGA to do more is through creating and co-directing UGA's Cornelia Walker Bailey Program on Land and Agriculture to better partner with SICARS' efforts.
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Redemption stories often center on human failings to be addressed, restored and recuperated. How can we think through ongoing abolitionist efforts to intersect with these stories? If we are to take seriously the possibility of reckoning with the South and whiteness, the ways these social processes have shaped so much of the U.S. South, perhaps starting with the most mundane and shared experiences of growing crops that can provide economic development is a place to start.
If Black lives matter, the experience, customs, and culture of Black folks' lives need to be amplified and revered in the face of ongoing white supremacist actions all across the U.S. While it makes sense why some Black folks and white folks can only see the history of slavery in the face of sugarcane growing on land that was once a plantation, we see hope and possibility of redemption and survival of the Saltwater Geechee culture and Black folks' heritage more broadly.