Many years ago, while conducting research on the Gullah-Geechee culture in the small islands off the coast of South Carolina, I had plans to extend this pursuit to Georgia, particularly to Sapelo Island. I got so consumed with the studies on the islands of Wadmalaw and Johns that I never made it to Sapelo. Those memories came flooding back to me the other day when I learned that Cornelia Bailey had died.
If Sapelo, an island off the coast of Georgia, and Belle Marsh, where she was born and raised, can be said to have a supreme griot, one who could render its history and culture with passion and authenticity, it was Bailey.
Born June 12, 1945, Cornelia Walker Bailey was the daughter of Hicks Walker, who worked at the tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds Jr.’s mansion on the island. The house, according to several accounts, was built by Thomas Spalding in the early 1800s, whose enslaved Africans grew cotton, rice and sugar cane.
Among the captives at the Spalding plantation was Bilali Muhammad, a Muslim who Bailey claimed as a distant relative. This piece of her ancestry appears in her memoir “God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia” (2001), a book she wrote with Christena Bledsoe. She wrote that as a child she was taught to pray facing east like most Muslims in the community, and the women of Sapelo covered their hair in church.
In her book, Bailey has a number of interesting stories, especially about her mother, Hettie Bryant, who she said believed in spirits. Whenever her eyeglasses were found in a place where she did not leave them, she believed her long-dead uncle was the one who moved them.
“Mama would call on the spirit of Uncle Shed to put her glasses back,” Bailey wrote, “and she’d go and do her work and come back, and those glasses would be on the table right where she left them.”
When discussing her day to day life on Belle Marsh, Bailey noted they cooked on a wood stove, preparing the traditional Gullah cuisine, and that her childhood was both rough and idyllic. Like many of the best storytellers of the island, Bailey was proficient in the language, often explaining the origin of certain words that were derived from African languages and others. “What most people would call an ‘outhouse’…we called a ‘toilet’ because we still used a few words from the French era of Sapelo and that was one of them.”
By the 1970s when I was doing my research in the islands, the isolation that had preserved the African survivals—the basket making from palm fronds, the shellacking of pussy willows and the bundling of hatpins—was threatened by the advancement of the outside world, including the draining of swamps and the development of golf courses.
Sapelo experienced a similar invasion, one that began much earlier. Bailey wrote, “Back in my youth in the 1940s and 1950s, we had five Geechee communities on Sapelo and more than 450 people. Today, we have one community left and fewer than 70 people, and I fear for the survival of my people on this island.”
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.