Thursday, February 17, 2011

African American Heritage in Brunswick and The Golden Isles of Georgia

February is designated Black History Month; however, Black History is every day in Brunswick and The Golden Isles of Georgia. It is recognized and celebrated for the contributions of African peoples and their descendants to the area's history, heritage and culture. As in many parts of the nation, the Georgia coast has a rich legacy of African American influence that spans generations. Their stories can be learned through a variety of sites and attractions throughout Brunswick and The Golden Isles.

Here is a brief sampling of African-American heritage and historical sites in Brunswick and on St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island.


Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation. Located along the banks of the Altamaha River, Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Park offers a fascinating glimpse into coastal Georgia's 19th-century rice culture. Built in 1807, Hofwyl-Broadfield once comprised more than 7,000 acres of rice fields worked by more than 350 slaves obtained mostly from Africa's west coast.

After the Civil War, African Americans who had lived at Hofwyl and other rice plantations along the Altamaha River – Hopeton, Elizafield, Grantly, New Hope and others – settled into small communities nearby while continuing to work, for pay, at the same jobs they had previously done as slaves. Many of these communities had very descriptive names. Needwood, a nearby settlement, was so named for the shortage of "fat wood" for cooking fires. Another community bore a name that needs no explanation: Freedman's Rest.

Rice harvesting ceased at Hofwyl in 1915 and the plantation became a state historic site in 1974. Today, visitors can learn about plantation life and the endless labor required through exhibits, an orientation film and tours of the plantation home and former rice paddies.  Located 10.6 miles north of the Brunswick Golden Isles Visitor Center on US Hwy. 17. Information: 912-264-7333 or

Entrance, Selden Park
Selden Park. This public park, near the banks of the Turtle River, was the site of The Selden Normal and Industrial Institute. Considered one of the finest black educational facilities of its time, Selden Institute opened in 1903 and pioneered in the intermediate education of black residents throughout the coastal area. The school closed its doors in 1933. Today, the 35-acre site is a popular gathering place for family reunions, picnics and recreation including swimming, basketball and soccer. The headmaster's house was restored in 2009 and plans are under way to include historical artifacts and other information relating to the school. Park entrance is located north of downtown Brunswick at the intersection of Bay Street (Rte. 341) and Fourth Street. The park is open daily from dawn to dusk.

Colored Memorial School
Colored Memorial School and Risley High School. Brunswick's first public school for African Americans opened in 1870 as the Freedmen's School, later changed to Risley School to honor Captain Douglas Gilbert Risley, who raised funds for the school's construction. In 1923 the adjacent building, Colored Memorial High School, was built and named to honor African American veterans in World War I. In 1936 Risley High School was built on the site of the 1870 Freedmen'd School and remained in service until 1955 when a new Risley High School was constructed. Both the Colored Memorial School and Risley High School are landmarks of African American education in Glynn County. A historical marker is located in front of the school, at 1800 Abany Street.

First African Baptist Ch.
First African Baptist Church.  The present congregation worships in the original sanctuary, built in 1863. 1416 Amherst Street, 912-265-7608.

St. Athanasius' Church.  Home to Brunswick's second oldest black congregation. 1321 Albany Street, 912-264-3985.

St. Paul AME Church. Home to Brunswick's third oldest black congregation. 1520 Wolfe Street, 912-264-2734. 


Neptune Small marker
Neptune Park, St. Simons Island
Neptune Park. Neptune Park was named for Neptune Small, a slave of the King family of Retreat Plantation. Born in 1831, Neptune was responsible for looking after the King children. In 1861, he accompanied one of the King sons, Henry Lord Page King, into service in the Confederate Army as King's manservant. King was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, and his body was retrieved from the battlefield and returned to Georgia by Neptune.

Neptune returned to war accompanying a second King son, R. Cuyler King, until Confederate forces surrendered in 1865. After the war, freedman Neptune, having chosen the surname "Small" for his slight stature, was given a tract of land at the southern end of St. Simons Island by the King family. He died in 1907 and was laid to rest in the old Retreat Burying Ground, where a bronze tablet recounts his story. Part of his former home is today a popular waterfront park, named in his honor.
Neptune Park is located in the St. Simons Island village area, along the waterfront between Mallery and 12th Street. The park is open daily from dawn to dusk.

Emmanuel Baptist Church
St. Simons Island

 Emmanuel Baptist Church. 1407 Demere Road. 912-638-3852.

Retreat Plantation Slave Cabin. Though many of the structures from St. Simons Island's numerous 19th plantations have disappeared, a few cabins built to house slaves remain. These dwellings, built in the early 1800s, often housed two families. This cabin was part of Retreat Plantation. It now houses a gift shop.  Located at the intersection of Frederica and Demere Roads, at the southeast corner of the roundabout.

Retreat Plantation Hospital ruin. Once the hospital for the enslaved Africans of Retreat Plantation, the tabby structure was two and a half stories and contained ten rooms. Two women lived there as nurses, and a doctor from Darien occasionally visited to care for the ill. Located on the grounds of the Sea Island Golf Club (private).

St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. 2700 Demere Road. 912-638-4460.

Hamilton Plantation slave cabins
Gascoigne Bluff, St. Simons Island
Hamilton Plantation Slave Cabins. Among the best examples of the few surviving plantation dwellings are these cabins, once part of Hamilton Plantation. Maintained by the Cassina Garden Club, the cabins are open to the public June through August, Wednesdays from 10:00 am to noon. Tours can also be arranged by appointment during September - May. Located at Gascoigne Bluff, just south of Epworth by the Sea on Arthur J. Moore Drive. Information:

Ebo Landing. The term, Igbo (pronounced "ee-bow") refers to persons from the West African area known as Igboland, now Nigeria. In May 1803, a mass drowning of slaves occurred at a point now called Ebo Landing, located along Dunbar Creek, a tributary of the Frederica River. A group of Igbo tribesman, captured and destined for slavery, rebelled as their boat neared shore. Led by an Igbo chieftain, the proud tribesmen marched into the waters of the creek, chanting an Igbo hymn and trusting in the protection of their God, Chukwu, rather than submit to slavery. Survivors were taken to Cannon's Point Plantation on St. Simons Island, and to Sapelo Island, where their story was recounted. Their tale forms the basis of a well-known local legend, of Igbo spirits still roaming the banks of Dunbar Creek. The general area of Igbo Landing is on private property. It can be seen from a distance along Sea Island Road, by looking to the northeast from the Dunbar Creek bridge.

Harrington Graded School
St. Simons Island
Harrington. Following emancipation, many freed slaves from the plantations on St. Simons Island's north end settled in an area along the northeast portion of the island known as Harrington. During the colonial era, Harrington had been granted to Capt. Raymond Demere, who had served under Gen. Oglethorpe and who named his home Harrington Hall. In the 1860s, freedmen acquired small tracts of land here. Many Harrington residents worked at the sawmills that were the backbone of the island's economy through the turn of the 20th century.

Harrington has been the site of numerous historical and cultural events, according to the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition. In the 1930s, interviewers from the Georgia Writers Unit of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) visited St. Simons Island, Their report, published as Drums and Shadow, describes Harrington's homes and residents and includes an interview with Ben Sullivan whose father, Belali, was butler to James Couper of Altama. In 1949, Lorenzo Dow Turner interviewed Harrington resident Belle Murray for his study, "Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect." Turner also recorded several songs for Lydia Parrish, author of Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands." Parrish's book included a photo of Harrington School, taken by photographer Forestra Hodgson Wood.

In 1961, Alan Lomax filmed the orginal Georgia Sea Island Singers at the camp located between North and South Harrington Road. These recordings are today part of the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Folkways Collection. The 1974 movie, "Conrack," starring Jon Voight, was filmed on St. Simons Island at Harrington School. The movie is based on Pat Conroy's book, The Water is Wide, which details his experience teaching Gullah-Geechee children on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina.

Today, Harrington is considered to have the island's largest concentration of residents who trace their ancestry directly back to African-American slaves. Efforts are under way to restore Harrington School, which served as the main educational structure for three African-American communities on St. Simons Island until desegregation in the 1960s. The restoration is being undertaken by the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition in cooperation with the St. Simons Land Trust. Harrington School is located on South Harrington Road, which intersects Frederica Road near Benny's Red Barn. Information:

First African Baptist Church
St. Simons Island
First African Baptist Church. Organized in 1859, it is one of the area's oldest congregations. The present church was built in 1866 by former slaves of St. Simons Island plantations. 5800 Frederica Road, 912-638-5539.

Abbott Memorial
Fort Frederica
St. Simons Island
Abbott Memorial. The child of former slaves, Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born on St. Simons Island in 1868. He grew up in Savannah, and attended Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he studied the printing trade. In 1898, Abbott received a law degree from Kent College of Law in Chicago. In 1905 he founded The Chicago Defender with an initial investment of 25 cents. The Defender, which became the most widely circulated black newspaper in the country, came to be known as "America's Black Newspaper" and made Abbott one of the first self-made millionaires of African American descent.

Never forgetting his family's slave background, Abbott returned to St. Simons Island in the 1930s and erected an obelisk, honoring his father, Thomas Abbott, and two beloved aunts, Celia Abbott and Mary Abbott Finnick, on the grounds of Fort Frederica. Abbott's often lonely struggles for positive race relations in the early 20th century led author Roi Ottley to call him "The Lonely Warrior," the title of Ottley's 1955 biography of Robert S. Abbott. Located on the grounds of Fort Frederica National Monument. Open daily, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Information: 912-638-3639 or

Hampton slave cabin ruins
St Simons Island
Hampton Plantation slave cabin ruins. Owned by Pierce Butler, Hampton Plantation was the subject of a book published in 1863, “Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation,” written by Butler’s wife, English actress Fanny Kemble. The book detailed many of the cruelties of slavery and strengthened abolitionist sentiment here and abroad. Some tabby ruins from Hampton Plantation can be seen along the drive to Hampton Point, just before the marina. Follow Lawrence Road north of the roundabout to Hampton Point Drive.


Wanderer Memorial
Jekyll Island
The Wanderer Memorial. Built as a racing schooner in 1857, the vessel Wanderer achieved instead a notorious record in the brutal and illegal transport of African slaves to America. In September 1858, the Wanderer sailed to the west coast of Africa, where it took on board some 490 slaves. With the speed to elude capture, the Wanderer reached American shores near Cumberland Island in November of that year, and unloaded its human cargo on nearby Jekyll Island. In November 2008, a memorial was dedicated on Jekyll Island to the memory and spirit of those Africans brought to our shores against their wills aboard this infamous vessel and others. Located at St. Andrews Picnic Area, at the southern tip of Jekyll Island. Accessible via Riverview or Beachview Drive. Open daily, dawn to dusk.

Jekyll Island History Center. Housed in the former Jekyll Island Club stable, the history center displays exhibits devoted to Jekyll Island's past. Among items displayed are a painting of the slave ship, Wanderer, and images of Red Row, living quarters for African-Americans who were employed by the Jekyll Island Club when the island was a retreat for America's wealthiest families. Red Row was named for the red roofs of its 12 cottages. The small community included a schoolhouse and a church. Located on Stable Road in the Jekyll Island National Historic Landmark District. Open daily except Christmas from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Information: 912-635-3636 or


Special thanks to Dee C. Lubell, executive director of A Project for Cultural Affairs (APCA), who graciously reviewed this material and provided insight into the area's African American heritage. APCA's mission is "to learn, teach, and heal through the arts; to preserve the way of life, heritage, arts and letters of the African American and African societies throughout the Diaspora. APCA carries out its mission through a variety of programs including the annual Sea Islands Black Heritage Festival, Island Club Cabaret and Coastal Youth Theatre of Voices. APCA also conducts African American heritage tours of St. Simons Island. For information visit them online.

Additional information was provided courtesy of the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition (SSAAHC). Founded in 2000, its mission is "to educate, preserve, and revitalize African American heritage and culture." SSAAHC sponsors and is engaged in several activities including the annual Georgia Sea Islands Festival, and the preservation and restoration of the historic Harrington Graded School. SSAAHC also offers African American heritage tours and other community outreach programs. For information, visit their website.

These highlights are by no means intended to fully represent that complete scope of African American cultural heritage in Brunswick and The Golden Isles of Georgia. If you have information regarding the black history and heritage of Brunswick, St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Sea Island or Little St. Simons Island, please contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau at 912-265-0620, or send an email to so that future information on the topic may be more complete.


No comments:

Post a Comment