For Griffin Lotson, the past has always been a part of the present. A seventh-generation Geechee Gullah descendant, Lotson was raised on stories of the men and women who came before him.
“I grew up in McIntosh County and my grandfather, who was born in 1894, he was still alive when I was born. He died in 1973 when I was about 19. He would take me to St. Simons in the 60s, and I would hear the stories from him,” Lotson recalled. “We’d just be sitting around ... chewing the fat, so to speak, and you’d hear these fantastic stories. There would be fairy tales and fantasies, but you’d also hear real stories.”
One of those was the story of Igbo Landing (also spelled locally as Ebo). In 1803, St. Simons Island was lined with 14 plantations where booming trades were built on the blood and sweat of enslaved Africans. The legend says that a boat containing stolen members the Igbo tribe from West Africa docked in Dunbar Creek. Instead of disembarking, 75 male Igbos fought back, overtaking their captors. But when they realized that there was truly no escape from the island, the chieftains and the tribesmen walked into the water, drowning themselves in a final act of defiance. It was said that as they waded into the waters of the creek, they chanted to their god, Chukwu, saying “the water spirit brought us, the water spirit will take us home.”
The account was shared at the time and attributed to a local overseer from Butler Plantation named Roswell King. Through the years, the story took on a mythic quality, with ghost stories being connected to the mass suicide. But Lotson says that the real story wasn’t something commonly known.
“It had a haunting quality to it, but the real story wasn’t taught in school nor was it well known outside of the (African American) community. Few people knew about it. But over the last two to three decades, it’s started to move beyond those circles because of mass media being able to reach huge audiences,” he said.
He also notes that Beyonce’s reference to the Igbo in her video “Love Drought” was another cultural touchpoint for broader interest.
“Of course, when Beyonce is singing about it, people are like ‘What are they talking about,’” Lotson said.
With the national attention beginning to focus on the story, local historians and activists have pushed to gain greater awareness of what the Igbos did here and why. As a member of the Federal Gullah Geechee Commission, Lotson tapped into a network of men and women eager to share this important piece of their heritage. One of those was Amy Lotson Roberts, a local historian and his cousin.
He also met and befriended historian Douglas B. Chambers, an author from Mississippi who traveled to the coast for research on a book about Igbo Landing. Chambers traveled to the area while researching his book, “Igbo Diaspora in the Era of the Slave Trade An Introductory History.”
“I met Amy when I was there and then Griffin. We really hit it off,” Chambers said on a call from Mississippi.
Since then, he’s worked with Roberts and Lotson to create outlets for sharing the story. But much of that push, he adds, was aided by local high school students.
“I think things really got going in 2015 when a group of students from Glynn Academy got the ball rolling who worked to get it preserved with a historic marker. So there really has been a convergence of interest,” Chambers said.
As that continued to grow, Roberts and Lotson, along with Chambers and a host of other supporters including many from Africa, decided to organize an event to commemorate the 220 year mark since the events of Igbo Landing took place. Lotson and Chambers are serving as the event’s co-chairs. Amy Lotson Roberts has served as a guiding force behind the effort.
It’s resulted in plans for a multi-day program, slated for May 26 to 28. There will be a welcome day with on site registration from noon to 5 p.m. May 26 at Emmanuel Baptist Church, 1047 Demere Road, St. Simons Island. From 2 to 4 p.m., there will be tours of the landing site.
On May 27, Remembrance Day, there will be registration at 8:30 a.m. at Emmanuel Baptist. There will be a symposium from 9:30 to 2:30 p.m. at the church. A gathering and public blessing will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. The Geechee Gullah Shouters, of which Lotson is a member, will perform around 4 p.m. that day. A closing service will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the church.
On May 28, there will be a Giving Thanks Day with a 10:30 a.m. worship service at First African Baptist Church, 5800 Frederica Road, St. Simons Island. There will be guided tours of the landing site from 2 to 4 p.m. All events are free but registration is required.
It’s an undertaking that’s taken a lot of work and coordination, but it’s something they plan to continue. The story, they say, is that important.
“We hope to do something every other year. It’s a story that has local, regional, state, national and international significance. It’s a story that’s remained relevant over generations,” Chambers says. “The story, in the end, is not about mass suicide ... it’s about martyrdom. It says, ‘You may enslave my body, but not my mind and not my soul.’ That’s a core message that has remained relevant — even after slavery into Jim Crow, segregation and the Civil Rights movement.”
Lotson agrees and feels that the stand of the Igbo at Dunbar Creek continues to ripple through time. And it remains as relevant now as ever.
“I think it was an act of resistance. And those acts of resistance can create change ... we reach a point where we say ‘enough is enough.’ Now here we are, 220 years later and there are still these movements in America where we have to say, ‘enough is enough,’” he said.