A new museum in Pin Point and a documentary are helping to keep the Gullah-Geechee heritage of coastal Georgia alive
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week guest contributor PAUL PRESSLY, recounts the remarkable history of the Gullah-Geechee community of Pin Point, just outside Savannah.
By Paul Pressly
Over the past several decades, South Carolina has made much of the Gullah heritage of African American communities along its coast and virtually patented the term Lowcountry, a word that conjures up the traditions and culture of a people with roots deep in West Africa. The annual Gullah Festival at Beaufort, the historic Penn Center on St. Helena Island, and the many specialized tours in Charleston offer a rich slice of a culture that has now achieved federally protected status. Recently passed legislation created the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Corridor extending from Jacksonville, Florida, to Wilmington, North Carolina.
Where has Georgia been? A few events or groups on our coast highlight the Gullah-Geechee culture, notably the McIntosh County Shouters, a “cultural day” festival on remote Sapelo Island, and a small museum, Geechee-Kunda, in tiny Riceboro. But this is small potatoes compared with South Carolina. Despite the fact our state has a well-preserved coast with most of its barrier islands unspoiled, the heritage of the black people who cultivated Sea Island cotton and dug out the rice plantations has been slowly ebbing away.
But the tide is beginning to flow the other way, and the latest proof is the site of the last black-owned waterfront property on the Georgia coast, the community of Pin Point, outside of Savannah, where a new museum is now capturing attention. In the remains of a crabbing/oystering factory, the outlines of that heritage appear: a distinctive dialect that contained African words and grammatical structure; a Christianity that carried the spirit of the “Praise House”; a diet that privileged okra, yams, and melons; and the skills that came from African rice and indigo cultivation and eventually translated into work on the water.
A generous gift made possible the Pin Point Heritage Museum, a remarkable restoration of the crab factory and its outlying buildings that sit on the edge of an expansive salt marsh. The effort included repeated visits by a nationally known documentary filmmaker, Jeff Bednarz, to record 142 hours of interviews with the residents of Pin Point. The condensed results are stunning.
Today, the people of Pin Point have fully entered into the mainstream of American life as architects, teachers, longshoremen, and military. They include a Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, as well as individuals who are respected members of the Savannah community. They hold an annual seafood festival that is attracting hundreds.
And yet, the 18th century — yes, 18th century — is closer than you think. It is impossible not to be captivated by the way many of their ancestors moved from indigo cultivation, cattle herding, and shipbuilding on nearby Ossabaw Island in the 18th century to Sea Island cotton in the antebellum period, to tenant farming in the late 19th century, and finally to crabbing and oystering in a community on the mainland in the 20th. Several families in Pin Point are descendants of the formerly enslaved people on that island, where three tabby “slave” cabins at the site of the North End Plantation still exist.
Today, Ossabaw Island is owned by the state of Georgia and managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). As part of the staff of the Ossabaw Island Foundation, a public nonprofit that works with DNR, I carried over a dozen people in 2006 from Pin Point to enjoy the island and see something of the restoration work on the cabins. Six of the older people talked excitedly about how they had lived in those cabins as children when their parents worked for the Torrey family of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who came for recreational purposes on an occasional basis.
We were dumbfounded. One of them went further. He told of his great-great-grandfather, David Bonds, who was a founder of the Hinder-Me-Not Baptist Church after the Civil War, and how his son Benjamin Bonds helped bring the church to the new community of Pin Point, where it seeded two new churches, Sweet-Field-of-Eden and First Bethel Baptist churches.
That rich past is now accessible to all of us. To reach Pin Point from downtown Savannah, take the Truman Parkway and go eleven miles. Perched on the edge of the marsh before reaching Skidaway Island, the community is nestled in Savannah’s own Lowcountry and a neighbor to an 18th-century plantation (Wormsloe), a 275-year-old village (Isle of Hope), and a school and farm (Bethesda) that dates from the 1740s.
The message is clear. For the people of historic Pin Point, theirs is not simply an African American story or even a southern story but a fully American story.
An educator and historian, Paul M. Pressly is the director of the Ossabaw Island Education Alliance, a partnership between the Department of Natural Resources, the Board of Regents, and the Ossabaw Island Foundation. He is the author of On the Rim of the Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013) and co-editor of a forthcoming book, Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.