The African-American heritage of the Golden Isles and its influence is significant to the rich history and southern culture of our coastal communities. Many local historical landmarks and African-American descendants serve as representation of the vast history in the Golden Isles. The African-American heritage is also preserved through the music and songs which reflect the plight and history of the slaves cultivating crops leading up to and after the Revolutionary War.
Historical plantations and sites of the large-scale production of cotton and rice can be found along Georgia’s Atlantic coast. The contributions that were made by African-Americans fueled economic development and agriculture and made a lasting impact on the United States.
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 Gullah retained many words of African origin and traditions. 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. The Gullah through language and culture, trace the ancestry to the West African countries of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where rice had been cultivated for over 3,000 years.
If you’re looking to explore the African-American Heritage of the Golden Isles, be sure to visit these historical landmarks which have been lovingly restored over the years to preserve and protect their historical significance:
Few rice plantations in the Golden Isles still exist, however the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, built in 1807, stands much now as it did nearly 200 years ago, offering a glimpse into Georgia’s 19th-century rice culture. Rice harvesting ceased at Hofwyl in 1915 and the plantation became a State Historic Site in 1974. Today, through its dwellings, servant quarters, museum, artifacts, photo exhibits, and video presentation, the life of a slave on a coastal Georgia rice plantation can be closely examined.
First African Baptist Church
The First African Baptist Church established in the year 1859 before the Civil War, makes it one of the oldest historic institutions on St. Simons Island. Visitors from around the world attend church services and receive a wonderful experience of soulful gospel music and song at this historical site. The people and the community mirror the importance of the very ancient African proverb—“It Takes A Village.”
Cassina Garden Club Slave Cabins
Two of the Cassina Garden Club slave cabins that were built on the Hamilton Plantation on Gascoigne Bluff still remain today. Constructed of tabby, the cabins were divided in the center by a fireplace, thus creating two rooms that housed two families. Glass windows and wooden outside doors indicate that these cabins were probably living quarters of slaves that were high in the privilege hierarchy. Cassina Garden Club began meeting in these cabins in 1932 and was deeded the property in 1950. As owner of this beautiful historic site, the Cassina Garden Club has carefully restored and preserved the integrity of the cabins and displays many artifact and graphical histories.
The Harrington School
The last African-American school on St. Simons Island, the Harrington School represents the most viable and valuable venue to interpret the Gullah/Geechee heritage of St. Simons Island. The building formerly served as the Harrington Grade School from the 1920s until its desegregation in the 1960s.In early 2010, members of the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition and others interested in historic preservation, consulted with Cullen Chambers, Chair of the Technical Advisory Committee of the Historic Preservation Advisory Council of the Coastal Regional Commission, and determined that the building was structurally sound and worthy of preservation and restoration. The restoration process of preserving the Harrington School began in 2011, and needs your help to be completed. To find out more please visit www.ssiheritagecoalition.org/.
(Pictured from left: Amy Roberts, Ex. Dir, St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition; Greg Jacobs, Project Manager, Tidewater Preservation; Mrs. Isadora Hunter, former student who donated land to preserve the schoolhouse; Scott McQuade,President and CEO of Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau; Patty Deveau, President, the Friends of Harrington School, Inc.)
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. Neptune Park on St. Simons Island is named for Neptune Small.
Fort Frederica National Monument
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 a colored 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.
Learn more on the African American history in the Golden Isles.
These highlights are by no means intended to fully represent the complete scope of African-American cultural heritage in the Golden Isles of Georgia.