Sapelo Island, a tangle of salt marsh and sand reachable only by boat, holds the largest community of people who identify themselves as saltwater Geechees. Sometimes called the Gullahs, they have inhabited the nation's southeast coast for more than two centuries. Theirs is one of the most fragile cultures in America.
These Creole-speaking descendants of slaves have long held their land as a touchstone, fighting the kind of development that turned Hilton Head and St. Simons Islands into vacation destinations. Now, stiff county tax increases driven by a shifting economy, bureaucratic bumbling and the unyielding desire for a house on the water have them wondering if their community will finally succumb to cultural erosion.
"The whole thing just smells," said Jasper Watts, whose mother, Annie Watts, 73, still owns the three-room house with a tin roof that she grew up in.
She paid $362 in property taxes last year for the acre she lives on. This year, McIntosh County wants $2,312, a jump of nearly 540 percent.
The chief reasons for the tax hike are an increase in property values, which won't do you much good if you aren't planning to sell your land, and an increase in government services, which won't do you much good if you aren't among the people the services reach:
"We're rural, we're on the coast and we're desirable," [County Manager Brett] Cook said. "When the market got hot six or seven years ago, a lot of individuals holding $15,000 or $20,000 lots on the marsh could sell them for $100,000 or $150,000."
The county also started a new garbage pickup service and added other services, which contributed to the higher tax rates, he said. Sapelo Island residents, however, still have to haul their trash to the dump.
"Our taxes went up so high, and then you don't have nothing to show for it," said Cornelia Walker Bailey, the island's unofficial historian. "Where is my fire department? Where are my water resources? Where is my paved road? Where are the things our tax dollars pay for?"
Here, where land is usually handed down or sold at below-market rates to relatives, Ms. Bailey has come to hold four pieces of property. She lives on one, which is protected from the tax increases by a homestead exemption. The rest will cost her 600 percent more in property taxes. "I think it's an effort to erode everyone out of the last private sector of this island," she said.
As Severson notes, the Gullah community, called Hog Hammock, is the "only private land left on the island, almost 97 percent of which is owned by the state and given over to nature preserves, marine research projects and a plantation mansion built in 1802."
Meanwhile, Cook claims that the
local government does a lot to support the Geechee culture.
"It's a wonderful history and a huge draw for our ecotourism," he said.
This summer, he pointed out, the county worked with the Smithsonian to host a festival that culminated in a concert with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, who practice a style of singing and hand claps developed by slaves.
I hate to spell out the obvious, but the creation of a theme-park Gullahland isn't inconsistent with the death of an actual living Gullah community.