A bill in the Georgia General Assembly to change the makeup of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority that passed the House of Representatives March 2 without any input from the island’s Gullah-Geechee residents was tweaked this week before passing out of a Senate committee.
But the language change made Wednesday before the bill passed in a Senate committee only satisfied one of the requests made by descendants of enslaved African Americans who live in the island’s Hog Hammock community and puts the onus on the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources to create a policy to fulfill the other requests.
The Sapelo Island Heritage Authority is a five-member, state-appointed body created to facilitate island land transactions with the goal of protecting Black culture on Sapelo Island, where a small community of descendants of people formerly enslaved by Thomas Spalding still live and preserve the Gullah-Geechee culture in Hog Hammock. The authority board is currently made up of the governor as chairman, the commissioner of natural resources as vice chairman, the executive director of the State Properties Commission as secretary, one Hog Hammock resident and formerly enslaved family descendant, and the Commissioner of Human Relations in the governor’s office.
House Bill 273 — authored and introduced by Rep. Buddy DeLoach, R-Townsend, and co-sponsored by Rep. Rick Townsend, R-St. Simons Island, Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, and Rep. Al Williams, D-Liberty County — seeks to add an additional Hog Hammock resident to serve on the authority’s board, removes the commissioner of human relations from the board, makes the commissioner of the DNR the chairman, and allows the governor to appoint someone to serve in his stead as vice chairman.
A group of non-governmental organizations on Sapelo Island — The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society, or SICARS; The Hog Hammock Community Foundation; and Save Our Legacy Ourselves, or SOLO — said they learned of the potential law change late and received no cooperation in trying to work with DeLoach to make changes they say will protect the cultural and natural resources of the island. They say they should have been involved from the beginning and sent a letter to the Senate committee members this week with changes they wanted to see in the bill.
“We wouldn’t be arguing about this bill if Rep. DeLoach would have asked our opinion before he filed the bill,” said Willis Hillery Sr., president of the Hog Hammock Community Foundation. “He missed an important opportunity to include the descendants the Sapelo Island Cultural Heritage Authority is supposed to help protect. Let’s slow down, work together, and get the language right for next year.”
The organizations want to ensure that, if the bill passes, the two Hog Hammock resident members of the board will be descendants of the 44 formerly enslaved families who still live there, not just anyone who has built a home in the community and moved there. They also want language in the bill to ensure that the governor’s appointee to serve as vice chairman be an elected official or state official so that person can be held accountable for their actions on the board.
One of those requests was dealt with Wednesday by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment. The version of the bill that passed in the House did not specify that the two resident authority board members were required to be descendants, which the organizations said opened the door for the authority to strip Gullah Geechee representation on the board in the face of increased new development pressure on the island.
“The ownership of property and homes on Sapelo Island is rapidly transitioning.” Josiah “Jazz” Watts, a board member of SICARS. said. “We, the descendants of those formerly enslaved by Thomas Spalding, are being pushed off our land because newer owners are building homes that are in violation of our historic preservation zoning code and driving up our property taxes.”
Specifying only that the board members need to be residents of Hog Hammock, as opposed to residents as well as descendants of the formerly enslaved families, was not strong enough language to ensure that the culture would be protected long-term, a joint release by the organizations said this week.
“The Sapelo Island Heritage Authority is a tool that could help ensure a future presence of the Gullah Geechee people and descendants of the original 44 families that were enslaved on Sapelo,” Watts said. “But it could also be used to facilitate the removal of descendants.”
The Senate committee decided unanimously on Wednesday to approve a change in the bill to specify that the authority board members be “two resident descendants of the community of Hog Hammock.” A definition of descendants will be added to the bill.
The language change satisfied several members of the committee and the amended bill passed out of the committee with a vote of 8-1. State Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson, was the sole dissenting vote. Shortly before the vote and after comments by Watts, Merritt motioned to table discussion of the bill until all the language was changed to adhere to the requests of the people the authority was created to protect.
“Someone who is a descendant came here to talk to us. He said, ‘Hey, we’re recommending these changes,’” she told the committee. “The commissioner is amenable to those changes. We should be listening. They were not consulted as a community when this was done, and I think we should be respectful of that.”
State Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, said DNR Commissioner Mark Williams could clean up the details about the governor’s appointee in policy and warned that making “changes on the fly” only leads to future problems. He was also initially agreeable to tabling the bill, but then voted against Merritt’s failed motion to do so before ultimately voting to pass the bill out of committee.
There are still opportunities for the language to change regarding who the governor can appoint as vice chair, Watts told The News on Thursday. He is hopeful those changes will still happen as the organizations continue working to tweak the bill. Should the bill become law without those changes, the details of the appointment will rest in how the policy is written by the DNR.
On Thursday, Watts told the news that the changes made Wednesday were a testament to the power of people quickly mobilizing behind a cause.
Maurice Bailey Sr., president of Save Our Land Ourselves, echoed that sentiment. He said in the release this week that the state needs to play an active role in protecting the cultural resources as well as the natural resources of Sapelo Island.
“This bill, if passed, could be used to erode those cultural resources,” Bailey said. “Our proposed changes will ensure the chair is accountable to the people of Georgia and that descendants have a seat at the decision-making table when it comes to the future of the island.”
State Sen. Gail Davenport, D-Jonesboro, who voted for the bill to pass through the committee, said she was troubled by how the bill made it through the House and issued a warning about being inclusive from the beginning when a narrowly focused bill is written and introduced.
“We all know that Black people on Sapelo Island have been treated unfairly over the years. Going forward, anytime we have a bill like this, we don’t need to try to sneak it through,” Davenport said at the hearing.