Gullah Geechee community gets $2M, upgraded services in discrimination case settlement
By John Ruch
A Gullah Geechee community on Georgia’s Sapelo Island has settled a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the county government provided unequal services and attempted to displace it with property tax increases.
McIntosh County last month agreed to pay $2 million in damages to the dozens of residents who were plaintiffs and to increase basic services to the community of Hogg Hummock on coastal Sapelo Island. The state settled similar claims with Hogg Hummock residents in 2020, paying $750,000 and carrying out improvements to a ferry service that is the main access to the island.
Relman Colfax, the plaintiffs’ Washington, D.C.-based law firm, characterized the lawsuit as a pioneering civil rights tactic for Gullah Geechee communities, of which Hogg Hummock — officially known by the disputed alternative term Hog Hammock — is the largest remaining in Georgia. The case also drew the attention of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Georgia chapter (CAIR-Georgia), which was not directly involved in the lawsuit, because of the community’s connection to U.S. Muslim history. One of the community’s founders was Bilali Muhammad, a Muslim who was enslaved by a Sapelo Island plantation owner in the early 1800s. Muhammad kept his faith and penned an Arabic document, largely indecipherable but with parts referring to Muslim rituals, that may be the earliest surviving Islamic text written in America.
“Our family has a second breath,” said Hogg Hummock descendant Reginald Hall in a CAIR-Georgia press release. “The settlement is allowing our people to see we are serious about our survival and will give up life and limb to create the opportunity for survival throughout the next 10 generations on Sapelo Island. We want the diaspora to know we are out here and are willing to share our map as a model for certain forms of justice through civil rights litigation.”
“Much more remains to be done to ensure true representation, justice and equality for Sapelo Island residents,” said Javeria Jamil, CAIR-Georgia’s legal and policy director, in the release. “CAIR-Georgia is committed to uplifting the voices of Sapelo Island and advocating for their civil rights.”
The lead attorney for the County’s legal team did not respond to a comment request.
The Gullah Geechee are an African American group with its own language and cultural traditions descended from enslaved people who formed communities in the Lowcountry and along the Atlantic Ocean coast between North Carolina and Florida. The Geechee often refers specifically to Georgia’s Gullah communities.
Sapelo, a large island on the coast roughly between Brunswick and Savannah, was the site of plantations whose enslaved population became the foundation of a Gullah Geechee community. In the 1930s, most of the island was bought by an heir to the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune, whose property acquisitions forced the Gullah Geechee residents into the single community of Hogg Hummock. The family later sold the majority of the island to the state in the 1950s.
Today, roughly 30 people remain in Hogg Hummock, a decline from more than 100 in the early 2000s. Locals and former residents continue to support the community’s culture. An organization called the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society is working on a community land trust to preserve the area and holds public events, including a “Cultural Day” scheduled for Oct. 22 that includes music, food and tours.
In the 2015 lawsuit, community members alleged discriminatory treatment from the state and County were forcing them out, particularly with large property tax hikes. “Taxation has historically been a primary instrument for towns and counties in Georgia and South Carolina to drive Gullah Geechee people out of their homes on the barrier islands, and the Hogg Hummock Gullah Geechee community feared that it would be forced to leave the island where their families had lived for generations,” said the Relman Colfax legal team in a press release.
At the same time, the plaintiffs alleged, the County’s water, fire, medical, trash and street maintenance services they received were far inferior to those provided to majority-white communities on the mainland.
According to Relman Colfax, the settlement agreement stipulates that the County will freeze property taxes for three years, reduce trash collection fees, station an emergency medical vehicle on the island, modernize fire protection equipment, and maintain the roads.