On the coastal edge of Georgia sits a small, dwindling community known as the Gullah Geechee. The people in the community are direct descendants of enslaved West Africans who settled on the barrier islands there. The Gullah Geechee's unofficial historian and vocal advocate for the preservation of the community, Cornelia Walker Bailey, has died. She was 72.
Bailey died on Oct. 15 in Brunswick, Ga. She was considered the Geechee "griot," a West African term for oral historian or storyteller, and fought to keep alive the community's history and way of life, especially its food culture. She believed the cultivation and sale of an heirloom legume would ultimately help save the Geechee, who had been facing especially hard financial times in the last few years.
Bailey belongs to the last generation of Geechee who were born, raised, and schooled on Sapelo Island. She published a memoir about growing up Geechee called God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man, as well as a cookbook, and started a guest lodge on the island. In 2004, Bailey won a Governor's Award in Humanities for her preservation work.
In an essay, "I am Sapelo," Bailey wrote about her life's work: "We don't want to lose the meaning of what a lot of gnats mean, how fresh-dug sweet potatoes taste cooked in hot ashes. I am Sapelo and all the hundreds of others who are descendants; we who remain here is Sapelo." Her reminiscences on food colored a deep and sometimes desperate South:
"Papa would ... cook hominy grits for us. That was his treat, cooking hominy grits for us. Papa provided for us the best he could. We had alligator dishes along with pork greens. We had game birds and shore birds - wild turkey and gannet. We had fish of all kinds, we had turtle of all kinds. We had deer, squirrel, rabbit, raccoon, and possum. Some only in season, some by means of poaching. Sometimes nothing at all."
Bailey was a so-called "saltwater Geechee," the colloquialism for people from Sapelo. The island is home to the last remaining enclave of Geechee, Hog Hammock. Most of the island is owned by the state of Georgia, so there is no official population count, but in 2008, Bailey told NPR that only around 60 people remained. And those that do live on the island, or own property there, faced skyrocketing property taxes — threatening not just the ability for people to live on the island, but the viability of the culture.
In a conversation with NPR's Michele Martin in 2013, Bailey said that a lot of the descendants sold their property for profit, and that was having a negative effect:
"You know, there's always somebody out there who wants something, and if they want something and they can afford it, then they're going to buy it," she told NPR. "And if you buy an acre of land for $250,000, naturally you going to build a house to reflect the price that you paid for the land."
As a way to raise revenue and address the high taxes, Bailey started the Red Pea Project, pushing for the commercialization of Sapelo red peas. The peas are an heirloom legume originally brought from Sierra Leone by enslaved Africans and cultivated on Sapelo. Bailey saw the production and sale of red peas as a way for the community to invest and connect to their heritage and land.
Bailey's son Stanley Walker told the Southern Foodways Alliance that Sapelo red beans are married to their location. "A lot of people say they have the original (pea)," he said. "Once you take it from Sapelo and plant it, it's not the original. You done changed the genealogy of the pea."
Bailey, her husband and two sons built a guest lodge called "The Wallow," offering history tours of Sapelo. She was also a driving force in creating a 25-acre Geechee educational center and retreat, which is not yet operating. And while Bailey's legacy is well-documented and will live on, her passing raises the question as to whether the dwindling of the unique Geechee Gullah will quicken. There is no school there; the last one shuttered nearly 40 years ago.
Despite dedicating her life to its preservation, Bailey resigned herself to the difficulty of keeping the Geechee culture alive when there are not many descendents left on the island. Many Sapelo residents have left because of the property tax increases over the last several years or in search of education and more opportunity. "Culture is no good without land," she told NPR in 2008, "We're holding onto the land, so we can hold on to the culture."