Back in the spring of 2015, I met with Amy Roberts at the Mallery Street Cafe on St. Simons Island to check the pulse of Gullah Geechee culture in the Golden Isles.
Sitting across from me, I would learn, was living proof that it still beats strong.
“As long as you’ve got people of my color living here, the Gullah Geechee will survive,” Amy told me for a feature article I was writing for The News. “Any person who has family that came here from Africa as slaves and settled the coast, they would be considered Gullah Geechee. You just have to ask yourself, how did the ebony get here?”
I have since come to trust and treasure Amy’s many insights on the area’s rich African American heritage.
The St. Simons Island native has been a frequent voice for this column, sharing her insights and knowledge on an array of topics — from the fascinating origins of the “Strangers Cemetery” to the haunting story of Igbo Landing to the delightful legacy of Hazel’s Cafe.
As a local tour guide and executive director of the St. Simons Island African American Heritage Coalition, Amy is a authentic, informed and downright charming.
Then there is Patrick Holladay, whom I have known for several years through our shared love of good music (the blues), good food (Southern) and other similar inclinations. Patrick has a Ph.d., is a professor at the local Troy University campus and promotes sustainability and community development. But Patrick is so laid back and soft spoken you might not notice his impressive creds.
I did not know that Amy and Patrick knew each other until one Saturday when I met both while attending an open house cookout at the Harrington School Cultural Center on St. Simons Island. The two have gotten to know each other very well, in fact.
Their friendship and mutual concern for cultural preservation has resulted in a boon for local history buffs. Amy and Patrick have collaborated on a new book, “Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles.” Published by The History Press up in Charleston, the book was released earlier this month. A copy now sits in my growing library of local history, and it is sure to be a source of valuable information for future columns.
I found several new and insightful nuggets of knowledge in my initial perusal of “Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles.” Included was a deep backstory for the Historic Harrington School, which Amy attended as a child back when it was just Harrington School. It turns out the school was on property that originally belonged to the namesake for Demere Road.
“In colonial times, the land was owned by Captain Raymond Demere, who was in the command of General James Oglethorpe, the founder of the British colony of Georgia,” their new books states. “The name ‘Harrington’ was in honor of Demere’s former commander, a Lord Harrington.”
It was the site of Mulbery Grove plantation during the antebellum era, but became a settlement of freedmen and freedwomen after the Civil War.
“Following emancipation, the Harrington area was settled by former slaves who were from the more northern part of the island,” the books informs us. “Over the years, it evolved into its own self-enclosed entity, and by the 1900s, it had not only the Harrington School but also a store, gas station, barbershop, two churches, a restaurant called the Plantation Supper Club and more.”
If you have ever wondered about the quaint whitewashed wood building on Demere Road, St. Ignatius Episcopal Chapel was built at the behest of the Rev. Anson Greene Phelps Dodge Jr. of Christ Church for the black families of workers at the lumber mills on Gascoigne Bluff.
“St. Ignatius, the outreach of Christ Church Frederica, was built in 1886 for the freed slaves of St. Simons Island ... “ the book states. “Because the only men who knew construction at the time it was built were sailors and shipbuilders, the church is put together without any nails.”
Shortly after Jekyll Island came under the direction of the state in 1947, local blacks petitioned the Jekyll Island State Park for a recreational area on the island reserved for African Americans. The site on the south end of the island would include what is today St. Andrews Beach, as well as a hotel and supper club that once played host to such music notables as B.B. King and Clarence Carter.
“In order to build the hotel, a group of black business owners formed the St. Andrews Beach Corporation in 1956,” the books notes. The property was later leased to a prosperous African American cattle rancher from Adel. Prominent local blacks such as Dr. James Clinton Wilkes, a dentist, and Genoa Martin, the director of Selden Park near Brunswick, helped established a thriving African American neighborhood in that area of Jekyll Island beginning in the early 1960s.
“The neighborhood was of particular importance because it gave African Americans a place to vacation, find lodging and enjoy entertainment during the Jim Crow era of desegregation in the South,” the book states.
Similarly, African American business leaders in Brunswick carved a niche of self sufficiency in the area around of Gloucester and Albany streets that was known as “Black Wall Street.”
“This was an area where black people had established many businesses, including tax offices, barbershops and a funeral home,” the book notes. “Many black leaders like doctors, lawyers and teachers lived in the area.”
But my favorite passages are those taken directly from Miss Amy’s memory, the reading which summons the soft coastal drawl I have come to know and cherish in recent years.
“St. Simons was very quiet,” she recalls. “Back then, Demere Road was paved, but the other streets were still dirt. The families all traveled around by walking, bikes or driving. At the Village Pier area we would go to the Community Market for food and St. Simons Drug Store for medicine ... People would go fishing and crabbing all day. After a day of fishing and crabbing, clean air was a plus. We slept good at night.”
Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles is available at G.J. Ford Bookshop, Righton Books, the Golden Isles Visitors Center and the Sawgrass Artist Market. Proceeds from book sales will benefit the Historic Harrington School and the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition.