Golden Isles

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African-American Heritage

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The colony of Georgia differed from the other twelve colonies in that her rules renounced the institution of slavery. Each colonist would be issued 50 acres that he would farm himself. Before the charter for the colony was fulfilled, colonists were protesting that they needed help to clear the virgin land and to grow rice, as did their neighbors in South Carolina. In 1739, the Scottish colonists wrote a petition advising against allowing slavery in the colony. However, the concept prevailed and slavery became an economic force, leading up to and after the Revolutionary War.

Plantation & Slavery History

As wealthy South Carolinians rushed to carve out rice plantations along tidal rivers, those who knew the art of growing rice were brought in from the African countries where rice growing was commonplace. The tediousness of the process, the dangers of its cultivation in swamp-like conditions, and the various untoward circumstances such as hurricanes or invasion by ricebirds, made the rice extremely difficult to produce.

Since slavery was an inexpensive work force, fortunes were made on the Georgia coast by rice production. Owners of these rice plantations were in residence only during tolerable months. Many sought relief from heat and insects with summer trips to the northern watering holes. Thus, the slaves left behind to cultivate the crops experienced some autonomy.

Slave Hymns in the South

For slaves, singing became a way of life. Songs floated over the rice fields, on the coastal waters as boatmen navigated and rowed from one plantation to another, and in the church meetings where the slaves convened. Out of this oppression rose a body of songs, which melded various songs into the genres of spirituals and gospel music, with a borrowing from the hymns and folk songs of the owners.

It was in the search of these old songs that the first singing group on St. Simons Island was initiated. Lydia Parrish, a part-time resident of St. Simons, began the collection of the songs after hearing her housekeeper Julia Armstrong sing. In pursuit of these songs, Parrish would visit the former plantations always asking for someone to sing the old songs. From those she contacted and the songs collected, she organized the Spiritual Singers Society of Coastal Georgia in the 1920s. Her book, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, remains the official tome of the genre. Today, the Georgia Sea Island Singers and others continue to preserve their heritage by singing and performing these old songs.

African American songs reflected the plight and history of the slaves. Likewise, certain events captured slavery’s wrongs. The last slave ship to enter Georgia was the Wanderer, whose clandestine trip to bring one last load of slaves into Georgia, was thwarted, revealed and became the national news of the day.

African-American Culture in Georgia

In recent times, the uniqueness of mellowed tones and the identification of its Creole blend have prompted an interest in the Gullah/Geechee language and society. Left alone and isolated by little contact with the mainland, the slaves retained many words of African origin. The enactment and creation of a heritage corridor established a commission for setting up the Gullah-Geechee corridor and defining how this coastal heritage may be protected and shared. The corridor encompasses the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Several slaves and those of slave descent from St. Simons Island have unique stories. Recent biographies and institutes have honored several African Americans. Neptune Small’s story illustrates his faithfulness to the family that he served. When a Thomas Butler King son of Retreat Plantation was fatally wounded, it was Small who brought the body to Savannah from Virginia. Having done so, he returned yet again to battle during the Civil War to serve another King son. An oak planted near his former home signifies recognition of his deed. Descendants of Small still live on St. Simons.

The Chicago Defender's Southern Influence

Then, Robert Abbott’s influence and business acumen brought about the creation of The Chicago Defender. Abbott and his newspaper are credited with increasing the labor force in the north as former slaves and descendants looked for job opportunities outside the south. Delivered to southern communities by Pullmans on the trains, the paper served to unite an African American audience. Later Abbott placed an obelisk on property adjoining Fort Frederica National Monument to mark the origins of his family. Relatives of his also make St. Simons Island their home.

These highlights are by no means intended to fully represent the complete scope of African-American cultural heritage in the Golden Isles of Georgia. If you have information regarding our area's African-American heritage, please contact us so that future literature on this subject may be more complete.