Cornelia Bailey, the Gullah-Geechee griot of Sapelo Island

Herb Boyd | 10/26/2017, 4:22 p.m.
Many years ago, while conducting research on the Gullah-Geechee culture in the small islands off the coast of South Carolina, ...
Cornelia Bailey

Despite the building of bridges and the advance of the outside world, Bailey remained steadfast in her fight to retain the culture that had nurtured her and given her the legends and legacies she disclosed in lectures, community meetings and certainly in her interviews and books.

She was also among the leaders in creating the organizations and institutions to maintain the island’s culture, none more important than the Sapelo Island and Cultural and Revitalization Society, where she was a vice president.

Bailey said her close friend, Carletha Sullivan, of the McIntosh County Shouters, a performance group that practices the longstanding tradition of the ring shout, “would always present the culture to anyone she could get across to. If she knew someone who could do something pertaining to the Gullah-Geechee culture, she would always try to open a doorway for them.”

One of the challenges Bailey faced was common among those interested in keeping the Gullah-Geechee culture and traditions alive. During my research, I discovered that only a few of the elders spoke the language, and that many of the younger generation were not that excited about the past and were steadily moving from the island, seeking a more modern lifestyle.

This disconnect picked up momentum in the ’70s and ’80s, and even more so as the schools were closed and the land was gobbled up by private investors eager to sell off the properties to vacation speculators. Bailey was very dismayed by what had occurred on Edisto and Hilton Head with the proliferation of sailing clubs and recreation areas.

During an interview with the New York Times in 2008, she expressed her disgust with the changing demographics and the arrival of corporations. She said she knew she was on the verge of “sounding racist, which I have been accused of, which I don’t give a hoot.” She added, “I would rather my community be all Black. I would rather have my community what it was in the 50s.”

That possibility grew dimmer and dimmer as Bailey aged and struggled valiantly to protect her cherished homeland. Among the devastating blows for the residents was an exorbitant increase in property tax, which Bailey termed “cultural genocide.” The tax only added another battle for her to wage.

All the battles came to an end Oct. 15, 2017, in Brunswick, Ga. She was 72, and her death was announced by Inez Grovner, president of the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society. She gave no cause for Bailey’s death, but it seems apparent that she was still fighting to the very end of her days for the integrity of her community.

In 2004, she received a Governor’s Award in the Humanities for her preservation work, and although it is a prestigious honor, it pales in comparison to the love and warm regard and appreciation she received daily from her friends and neighbors.