Cornelia Walker Bailey, a prominent Sapelo Island historian and figure in African American historical preservation and education efforts, passed away Sunday at 72.
Bailey was born in the Hog Hammock community and spent most of her life there. She treasured the Geechee culture she came from, said Inez Grovner, president of the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society, or SICARS. Bailey was the vice president of the society. She and her husband, Julius, also gave tours of Sapelo Island and were willing to educate any that wanted to learn, Grovner said.
“I thought of her as my advisor, because she knew so much where I didn’t, and she was training me to get to know a lot of things about Sapelo and SICARS,” Grovner said. “She taught me so many things about people in the community and descendants, and I appreciate her and love her for that.”
Bailey was a member of the McIntosh County Shouters, a group known for performing the southeastern ring shout, an African American tradition dating back centuries.
The group performed at the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm in Virginia, Atlanta's Black Arts Festival and New York's Lincoln Center, among others. The shouters were featured in a Georgia Public Broadcasting documentary and, in 1993, were awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2010 the group received a Governor's Award in the Humanities.
Bailey was among the group who started Culture Day Festival on Sapelo Island in 1993, Grovner said. The festival was canceled last year and postponed this year, and not due to a lack on effort.
“Before she took sick, she did all she could to get volunteers to come over so we could try to get it ready for what was supposed to be this Saturday,” Grovner said.
It was canceled last year due to Hurricane Matthew and postponed this year because of Hurricane Irma. Grovner said Sapelo wasn’t in good enough shape to welcome visitors just yet. A date for this year’s festival has yet to be announced.
“She was a very sweet person, but she was stern, and if it was something that she needed you to know or wanted you to know, she would tell you. You didn’t have to get it from anyone else, she was that type of person,” Grovner said. “A fair person, everyone that came in contact with her loved her dearly. If she could help you, she would, if she couldn’t she would direct you on the right path to get that help.”
Bailey was also an author. She wrote "God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man" and "Sapelo Voices," both of which dealt with her culture and history, and a cookbook, titled "The Foods of Georgia’s Barrier Islands." She was dedicated to the preservation of African American and Geechee culture, and spoke on the topic all over the country.
“She was a dedicated person with a purpose. The way I saw her, she really loved Sapelo Island and the Hog Hammock community. She understood our past history, and she realized its importance and why we should preserve our history and make our younger people understand where we came from,” said Benjamin Hill, one of Bailey’s cousins. “She never gave up on that. Even through her sickness she was still trying to promote our culture. Hopefully they would appreciate our culture to the extent that they will help us to preserve it, and her legacy will continue to live on even after she is gone.”
Funeral arrangements have not been announced, but Grovner said she will be laid to rest on Sapelo Island.
“She has touched so many lives that life would not be the same without her,” Grovner said.