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Cross-Institutional Students Support a Coastal Georgia Legacy

There was a wonderful blend of partnerships during the latest service-learning trip to Sapelo Island. 

The trip was the culmination of a semester of work in two University of Georgia courses combined with the expanding partnerships between UGA, Spelman College and Sapelo Island’s Saltwater Geechee community. 

After a day of traveling to Georgia’s coast and taking the ferry to Sapelo Island, 18 students from UGA and Spelman spent a day working on a plot of land in the Saltwater Geechee’s Hog Hammock community. The students brought hundreds of plants with them, including indigo, hibiscus, holy basil, yaupon holly and other herbs, which were grown from seed at UGArden in Athens, and they also planted hundreds of the iconic Geechee red peas that grow on the island. In a single day working alongside Maurice Bailey, the president and CEO of SOLO—Save Our Legacy Ourself, the group planted an estimated 1,500 plants. 

Nik Heynen’s class grew indigo, hibiscus, holy basil, yaupon holly and other herbs at UGArden in Athens and transported these plants to Sapelo Island to replant.

These crops will be grown to support SOLO—Save Our Legacy Ourself, a nonprofit organization with the mission to preserve the heritage and culture of the Saltwater Geechee on the island. Maurice Bailey, the president and CEO of SOLO, hopes this project will start a conversation between Sapelo and the greater community. 

“The people on Sapelo have a lot going on, but nobody knows we’re here or knows our struggle. We are proud Saltwater Geechee people, and our heritage needs to be preserved. This place is like nowhere else.”

Maurice Bailey

Sapelo Island, one of Georgia’s 15 barrier islands, is home to the largest and most intact community of Gullah/Geechee in the U.S. However, because there are more job opportunities off-island, the younger generations of Saltwater Geechee are moving away, and Hog Hammock’s current population of 29 is dwindling. 

It is the hope that the partnership between SOLO and UGA will create more economic opportunities for the Hog Hammock community. On this trip, Nik Heynen, distinguished research professor with the Department of Geography in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and the students in his service-learning geography course, “Athens Urban Food Collective,” combined with Jennifer Jo Thompson, associate research scientist with the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences in the College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, and the students in her course, “Food System Sustainability, Security, and Resilience.” Students in both classes spent the semester learning about Gullah/Geechee culture and agriculture and growing plants at UGArden that are especially important to the Saltwater Geechee community on Sapelo, and this trip served as a service-learning final project for both classes. 

“The students really enjoyed the trip and found it valuable,” Thompson said. “They had insight and thoughts into the work being done and the potential it has in the community. I hope we can continue to engage and do this work. I’d love to bring students down to Sapelo again. It’s a really important opportunity to get out of the classroom and take what we’ve been learning in class and see it in the real world.”

“I think [Sapelo Island] is a beautiful and surreal place,” said Emilee Gear, a second-year graduate student in Urban Planning and Design from Delphi, Indiana, who was a student in Heynen’s course. “It’s my second time being there, but this was the first time actually having the opportunity to get my hands in the soil and spend time at Hog Hammock.”

The students also helped lay a sprinkler system to water the young plants, which was a refreshing break during a day in the sun.

“I think it went great,” said Maya Rao, a first-year graduate student in geography from Cookeville, Tennessee. “I am a student in both classes, and it’s great to see concepts in both classes come together. It really provided a different perspective. It’s not a dying place whatsoever. It’s really a thriving place.”

One of the goals of this trip was to begin growing herbs in Hog Hammock to produce tea blends that tell the story of Sapelo Island. These tea blends can then be sold on SOLO’s web store, and the long-term goal is to partner with Black-owned businesses around Atlanta to sell the tea blends and other Sapelo-grown products. This initiative was born from a collaboration between UGA and Spelman College, where Heynen teaches as a visiting professor in the Food Studies Program, and two Spelman College students joined the trip as well. 

“Our goal is to spread the culture, raise awareness for the culture and raise money,” said Kaia Godsey, a senior sociology major and Food Studies Scholar at Spelman College from Ellicott City, Maryland. “Seeing everything go into the plot was like seeing our long-term goals come into fruition.”

Students help unload the plants at the dock on Sapelo Island – the only way to reach the island is by ferry.

Spelman College has been the number one ranked Historically Black College or University in the country for the last 18 years, and both Heynen and Thompson have worked hard to establish more connections between UGA and Spelman. The work on Sapelo has helped them partner in important ways, and it has become a connecting point for UGA’s Sustainable Food Systems Initiative and Spelman College’s Food Studies Program. These two programs have been awarded a USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant to increase diversity and promote an inclusive curriculum for students pursuing food and agricultural science degrees, one of the many supports helping continue the work on Sapelo.

On top of this, Heynen said the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts has helped with grants for projects on the island, and they recently received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Project grant to support the indigo planting project. This trip was also supported by a grant from the UGA Office of Service-Learning’s David and Evelyn Knauft Service-Learning Endowment, which was established to enlighten UGA students about the impact of service-learning.    

This collaboration would not be possible without Maurice Bailey’s mother, Cornelia Walker Bailey, an activist and griot for the Saltwater Geechee who was instrumental in forming the partnership with UGA in 2014. Cornelia Walker Bailey passed away in 2017, but the partnership continues to grow through the strong relationship between Bailey and Heynen, who formed and now serve as co-directors of The University of Georgia’s Cornelia Walker Bailey Program on Land and Agriculture. Heynen regularly brings student groups to Sapelo to work with Bailey developing heritage crops on the island to continue his mother’s mission in her name.

Heynen said one of the largest trips with students to Sapelo Island is in November to assist with Hog Hammock’s annual sugar cane harvest. Sugar cane, the key ingredient in making the Sapelo Geechee Syrup that is sold in SOLO’s online shop, and Geechee red peas are the current staple plants on the island, but the hope is that indigo and these herbal tea blends will add more variety to the store and bring in more revenue, which will lead to more Saltwater Geechee returning to work on the island.

“Many people romanticize the [Gullah/Geechee] culture, but very few want to step up to help. So much of the time, [Bailey] is there by himself. He’s the hardest working person I know. The things he has to contend with and the weight of watching his culture disappear—I know that’s on his mind, and that’s why he works so hard.”

Nik Heynen

There is more work to be done for Sapelo Island, and while these agricultural projects are important, a large part of Bailey’s work with SOLO has been traveling throughout Georgia to raise awareness and advocate for the Hog Hammock community and the preservation of the island. The partnership with The University of Georgia’s Cornelia Walker Bailey Program on Land and Agriculture has helped with that effort as well. 

“There is the agriculture part of things, but it’s also opened doors to other institutes and similar-minded people,” Bailey said. “UGA has more reach and more privilege. It’s allowed us to get into places we had not been able to get into and created more opportunities for us. The more people outside of Sapelo who know what’s going on, the better chance we have.”

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Wes Mayer
Communications Coordinator
© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602