Before we left Oakland for Savannah, Ga., I had made arrangements to go to Sapelo Island, Georgia. To get there, you need to take a ferry and the day we were going, there was only one run, to and back.
The night before, we got on the Internet, thinking it would be no big deal to get directions to the ferry. Trouble was, we didn’t have an exact address. Our host, Cassandra, a recent transplant to Savannah from Oakland, called a friend who knew the way, but by the time she said “make a left when you see such and such church,” we knew we were in trouble.
I realized I was the designated timekeeper when Tobaji and Cassandra kept lingering – when we gassed up, when we stopped for breakfast. “Listen, you know the ferry leaves at 8:30 and we have to buy tickets before that. And we only have an estimate of how much time it takes to get there….” You know the rant.
Finally back out on the highway with the trusty GPS we borrowed, we were talking, Tobaji driving. The new rented car on the smooth roads we had no idea how fast we were going. When the state trooper signaled to pull over, I thought we would never get to Sapelo Island.
Turns out we were going 95 mph in a 70 mph zone. When the state trooper wouldn’t even tell us how much the ticket, I knew this would be bad.
On the road again, Tobaji put the car in cruise control at 70 mph. The GPS got us confused for a moment and then I saw “Such and such” church on the corner, Tobaji jerked the wheel left and we were on another road, lush green growth on both sides.
Beginning to think that we had turned into wilderness, the buildings for the state park were ahead. With just ten minutes to spare, we quickly bought our tickets and waited for the ferry to arrive.
There were a bunch of men with a lot of gear looking serious. Turns out they were regulars who went to the island to hunt deer.
A few other people were tourists like us, and two or three were island residents going home.
After we boarded the ferry I finally began to relax. It was a cloudy day. As we pulled away from the mainland I looked at the gray water and the thick reeds growing in the marsh.
In spite of the loud grunt of the ferry motor, I tried to imagine what it would have been like going to this island during the slave era.
On the Island
Deboarding, the hunters unloading their gear threatened to distract me from the moment of putting my feet on this ground for the first time. In the parking lot several black people were waiting beside cars and small vans.
One of the other passengers who lived on the island nodded to a particular man. “You’re looking for Ira Gene. That’s him over there.”
Relieved, I went up to him and introduced myself and Tobaji and Cassandra. He put a little stepstool by the sliding door so we could climb up and settle in our seats. I looked around for seat belts. “Don’t use ‘em here. We have our own laws.”
Some roads were paved others were dirt. We went toward Hog Hollow, a town with a population of 70 black people, most descended from the enslaved Africans who had worked on the island.
The first place he took us to was the island’s cemetery. He pointed to the whereabouts of Bilali Mohammed, an African captive who became famous when he shared a manuscript written in Arabic now in a Georgia library. He died in 1859 when he was nearly 100 years old. Ira Gene said he was the tenth generation of Bilali’s offspring.
There was a wire mesh fence surrounding the graveyard so we couldn’t get any closer, but we could see the narrow grave stones, inscriptions faded and leaning left and right and back and forth in the ground.
“A Muslim group is coming on Saturday,” Ira Gene said mildly as we got back in the van for our next stop.
To Chocolate Town
Ira Gene mentioned that since were on a short tour that he had time to take us to the Marine biology research center, but we would miss the buildings on the abandoned plantation. We looked at each other. “If you don’t mind, can we skip the marine stuff and go to the plantation?” He looked at us and paused a second before he said yes. Perhaps it was because our priorities were to see where our people had lived and died, or that he perceived our intent to feel something rather than just seeing something that his attitude toward us changed ever so slightly.
As we rode along, slowly and pleasantly rocking in the deep grooves of the dirt roads, Ira Gene talked about living on the island. Somehow it escaped most of the hurricanes that were the wrath of other islands. He pointed out wild rabbits that they trapped and ate, a glimpse of a wild cow that populated the island after a plantation owner abandoned the property and the livestock in 1930s.
“Do you eat those?” Tobaji asked.
“Oh, yes, yes. We eat that and we eat wild boar, too.” Ira began to explain how the boar was cooked, over a fire in a pit.
I knew where the conversation would go now. Cassandra and me could have disappeared from the back seat as the two men began trading stories about barbecuing and grilling.
When Ira Gene explained that he made a dish of boar with okra, Tobaji began to smack his lips
“That sounds good, man.”
I detest okra, but I kept my mouth shut.
“Really? That sound good to you?” Ira said to Tobaji.
“You would eat that?”
“Oh, yeah,” Tobaji said.
Ira Gene warmed to us some more. “Next time you come, I’ll make it for you.”
“You got it. I’m coming back,” Tobaji declared.
Ira Gene made a left turn onto a road that didn’t go far. We stopped at a pile of what we would learn was ‘tabby.’
According to the Georgia encyclopedia, ‘tabby’ “is a type of building material used in the coastal Southeast from the late 1500s to the 1850s. Historians disagree on whether its use originated along the northwest African coast and was taken to Spain and Portugal, or vice versa. The origin of the word tabby itself is unclear: the Spanish word tapia means a mud wall, and the Arabic word tabbi means a mixture of mortar and lime. Similar words also appear in both Portuguese and Gullah. The Spanish brought the concept of tabby to the New World and used it extensively in Florida. Locals in Georgia adapted the concept or "recipe" for tabby to local materials. True tabby is made of equal parts lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash.” Whatever the origins, it was the Africans who did the intensive labor to create the material and erect the buildings.
Ira Gene brought us to what was once a sugar mill for cane grown and reaped by the enslaved. I reached out and touched it. Rough and still strong but eroding with time.
As far as I was concerned, this was a holy place and once again tried to imagine the African captives here and before that the Guale Indians whose village had been called ‘Chucalate.”
From there we went further into the plantation grounds.
There were the small houses that had been the slave quarters; the foundation of what had once been the slave owner’s house, also made of tabby.
Ira Gene pointed out an orange tree and picked one to share with us and then left us to wander around on our own.
I kept touching the tabby in wonder. I had never heard of it. I peeked in the doorway of what was once an enslaved family’s abode. The roof was gone. Inside, grass and flowers grew, a small tree pushing at a wall. The wood frame of the doorway was still there. I touched it, careful not to get splinters.
What still stood was a barn. We stepped into the coolness and looked out the back window onto the gently rushing waves of the sea. Ira removed the ‘do not enter’ sign so we could go upstairs. The front windows faced the plantation and from there you would have been able to see all of the activity on the plantation.
I imagined them walking along doing simple chores, gathering eggs, drawing water contrasted to the hard labor in the sugar fields. The sills of those barn windows were broad and Ira pointed out that these had once been the place where carrier pigeons brought messages.
Ira Gene let us linger in Chocolate Town until we got our fill. Eventually, we left, lost in thought.
It was not until later, maybe even after we returned to Oakland that a particular ring- shout song came to mind.
“John on de islan’ I hear’ him moan’
“’e lie an’ I can’t stan’”
It refers to John, a slave, on one of the small islands who was being beaten probably to death. His screams and moans affected the whole of the slave community. Finally he is dead.
“John gon’ to heaben an’ Ah so glad.”
“’e lie e, yes Lord.”
I had wanted to be upset at Chocolate Town. But I wasn’t. I felt peace and loving memory. Yes, John, had gone to heaven. But he and others like him won’t be forgotten.