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Georgia's Gullah Sue State to Save Culture: Case is a Study in Modern Ethnic Cleansing

Gullah Man on River Street in Savannah, GA (Photo by Sonny Side Up!)
Gullah Man on River Street in Savannah, GA (Photo by Sonny Side Up!)

Residents of what is believed to be the last intact community of descendants of enslaved West Africans claim in a federal lawsuit that the state of Georgia is systematically driving them from their barrier island home to make way for vacationers and second-home buyers.

Living on a small, designated portion of Sapelo Island, the fourth largest of Georgia's coastal islands, located about 70 miles south of Savannah, the Gullah-Geechee people are federally recognized as a distinct culture with their own indigenous Creole language, heritage, and culture.

They are the descendants of slaves freed 151 years ago, and they've lived continuously on the barrier island since shortly after the Confederacy's defeat in the Civil War.

But in recent years, a land struggle has broken on the 16,500-acre island.

Long a tourism draw, thanks in part of presence of the Richard J. Reynolds Wildlife Management Area and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve -- both properties administered by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources -- it is now in the cross-hairs of developers, who are building large homes for wealthy mainlanders, and driving up the cost of living on the island in the process.

"Like the islands of Hilton Head, South Carolina and St. Simons, Georgia before it, Sapelo Island struggles to resist 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," according to lawsuit filed by nearly all of the remaining Gullah-Geechee residents of the island in Atlanta Federal Court.

"You're looking at the deprivation of our human and civil rights through public corruption," said Reginald Hall, a plaintiff in the case.

"The state is violating land ownership rights outside of what the Constitution of the United States of America has written," he said.

Hall, whose grandfather was a church deacon on the island and its first postmaster, serving from 1918 to 1936, has long fought the discouragingly uphill battle to prevent the erosion of the Gullah way of life.

Today, Sapelo Island's Gullah-Geechee community consists of just 36 individuals who live on 434-acres known as Hog Hammock. There is no local economy to speak of, no employers providing opportunity and a future, and so most of the island's families have watched their youngest members look elsewhere for work and education.

Eventually, the single ferry line that serves the island takes them away for good.

Hall and his fellow plaintiffs say the exploitation they now complain of in court was originally inflicted on their ancestors, and goes back at least many decades, when the state of Georgia first claimed ownership of 97 percent of the island.

"The State's ownership stake is based on a history of fraudulent land transfers and land theft by white millionaires throughout the twentieth century," the complaint says.

Among the plaintiffs' villains are Howard Coffin and R.J. Reynolds Jr., rich industrialists and entrepreneurs who discovered the charms of the area in the early 20th century and soon turned Sapelo Island "into their own personal playgrounds," the complaint says.

"Through various coercive and exploitative tactics, Reynolds claimed ownership to all of the Island except portions of Hogg Hummock, where he forced all of the Gullah-Geechee descendants to live," it continues.

The ongoing pressure against Sapelo's Gullah-Geechee comes from all sides, the plaintiffs say.
They are particularly aggrieved by McIntosh County, under whose jurisdiction the island falls, but which, they claims provides no services to the Gullah-Geechee despite the fees and taxes they pay to it.

"The Island has no school, no firehouse, no medical services, and no police. The County does not adequately maintain the roads and does not contribute to any water or sewer system," the complaint says.

The plaintiffs claim that from 2011 to 2012, the county raised property taxes on the Island by as much as 1000% for some parcels.

"The 2012 appraisals were based on an analysis that was flawed on numerous levels and led to taxes that the Gullah-Geechee residents could not afford," the complaint says.

"The County tax hikes were part of a larger systemic effort to drive the Gullah-Geechee from the Island and clear the way for a mostly white vacationer population on the Island," the plaintiffs say.
Meanwhile, they claim, the county maintains a zoning ordinance for the Island "that is, on its face, designed to protect the Gullah-Geechee community."

In practice, however, it has mostly benefitted white developers, whom the county "has regularly allowed mostly white developers to come to the Island and build expansive vacation homes in direct contravention of the zoning requirements," the plaintiffs say.

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