Remembering Sapelo native Cornelia Walker Bailey, a Georgia legend
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, CHRISTOPHER LAWTON, of the Georgia Virtual History Project, recalls the life and impact of an unusual storyteller and storykeeper, who was a living link with Sapelo Island’s past.
By Christopher R. Lawton
“Chile, you must carry on this tradition for long as you live—for the sake of the family—for the sake of the old ones that toiled so it could be passed down from generation to generation. Before the days of slavery all the way back to Sierra Leone, where our people come from. Each time you weave the grass you take a step across the water closer to home. Closer to who you were, to where your spirit came from.” — Spoken by a character in Josiah Watts’s stage play, The Sapelo Project (2014)
Cornelia Walker Bailey of Sapelo Island passed away on October 15, 2017. Her death is a grievous loss for her family and community. It is also a devastating blow to Georgia and all Georgians concerned with how we tell our story, understand ourselves, and plot our future.
Mrs. Bailey knew exactly where her spirit came from and what that meant. Like all of Sapelo’s people, she traced her roots to those who were brought to the island through the slave trade approximately 200 years ago. She was a descendant of Bilali Muhammed, an educated and literate Muslim from the west coast of Africa, and his wife, Phoebe. He had been captured and sold to the West Indies in the 1790s, then sold again to Thomas Spalding sometime around 1802. Spalding was an aspiring Georgia planter who saw so much economic potential in owning Bilali that he made the rare decision to also purchase Phoebe and their children. The family was brought to Sapelo, where Bilali spent the remaining half-century of his life forced to build, oversee, and protect Spalding’s vast island empire. His legend has only grown since, fueled by an extraordinary journal he left behind, and has elevated him to a position among the most mythical figures in all Georgia history. He and Phoebe lived long enough to know their granddaughter, who in turn lived long enough to tell stories of Bilali to her granddaughter, who lived long enough to tell those stories to her granddaughter: Cornelia Walker Bailey.
Sapelo had nearly 500 residents when Mrs. Bailey was a child in the mid-20th century. It was an idyllic world to be born into because it was rooted in the Saltwater Geechee culture that had developed and thrived on the island for nearly two centuries. It was a place, she later recounted in conversations with friends and visitors, where the histories of her people were embedded in every tree, field, and path. Her father, she explained, taught her that her role was to know by heart both the stories of their ancestors and the myriad, specific spots of ground where each of those histories had played out. She knew them all. Yet her detailed knowledge of place faced an unprecedented challenge as modernity began to pull apart the very fabric of her community.
By the end of the 20th century, she wrote in her book, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man (2001), “the outside world began crashing in.” Lack of economic opportunity and local tax issues depleted the number of residents to less than 10% of what it had been during her childhood. She had always been devoted to the island, its people, and their stories. Now a broader purpose of those stories and her role in telling them became clear: advocating that Sapelo’s people were woven of especially strong fiber, the direct heirs of Bilali’s faith and brilliance, and possessed of the same inner strength that had sustained their ancestors against unimaginably harsh and painful odds. She picked up this mantle because she also recognized that so many of us, even far beyond Sapelo’s shores, needed to rediscover the value of our places and our histories. She stepped onto the national stage not because it benefited her, which it did not, but because someone had to speak up for what was being lost. She became a published author, a spokesperson in documentaries, and the subject of national and international news stories and magazine features simply because, she wrote, “I fear for the survival of my people on this island.”
To speak with Mrs. Bailey was to hear the voices of generations of her people humming just beneath the surface. She shared their place, strength, and wisdom freely with all who came to Sapelo with sincere intentions and a genuine desire to learn. Thousands of people have knocked on her door, called her phone, or written asking for histories, interviews, story leads, editorial advice, or just a glimpse into the world she embodied. She responded to them all, guardedly but gracefully. For the past few summers she generously shared herself with groups of high school students from the Putnam County Charter School System who had the privilege of working with her and her community.
Over a quiet lunch one day this past July a student asked her about her faith, history, and whether or not she believed in ghosts. “I believe in the spirits of my ancestors,” she replied. They called to her on the winds that blow across the island, she explained, and in the sound of the tides, and through the soil under her feet. They had been with her for her entire life, she said, and when her time came, she knew she would join them.
She took all of their stories, their struggles, their joys, and willingly shouldered the heavy burden of carrying them into the future. The island was there long before she arrived, and will be there long after, but during her remarkable lifetime she became Sapelo. More than that, she had the remarkable ability to connect the lives and experiences of the island to the shared, hard, beautiful universality of all humans. “We are free,” she wrote, “and a part of us has always been free, and we will continue to be free as long as our minds and souls have the courage to take wing and fly.”
We need to stop and pause for her death, because something magical and utterly unique has passed out of the world. All of Georgia is diminished by her loss, but enriched for the life she shared with us. She reminded us that the very concept of Georgia can be reduced to nothing more than government letterhead and license tags if we lose our long, storied, haunted, joyous, and profound connections to the ground beneath our feet. Mrs. Bailey’s ground was Sapelo, but she and the generations of ancestors who spoke through her spoke lessons all of us need to hear.
We live in a fragmented, displaced, anxious, angry age. Despite the shimmering promise of social media, or perhaps feeding it, many of us feel untethered from our roots, disconnected from one another, and voiceless. We wait for champions to rise. We bemoan that they seldom do. Few mere mortals are equipped with tools to become the voice of their people. Cornelia Walker Bailey was one of the rare few.
Christopher Lawton is the executive director of the Georgia Virtual History Project, Public Humanities Fellow at the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia, and Director of Experiential Learning for Putnam County Charter School System. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Josiah Watts’s The Sapelo Project or to make a donation to help preserve Mrs. Bailey’s community, please visit https://www.josiahwatts.com.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.