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Black History in The Golden Isles of Georgia

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The history of The Golden Isles of Georgia, located about 65 miles north of Jacksonville, FL, 75 miles south of Savannah, and 280 miles southeast of Atlanta, along Georgia’s southeast Atlantic coast, dates back to the early 1600s, when it was named after the surrounding golden brown-hued marshland. Today the Golden Isles encompass the mainland port city of Brunswick and the barrier islands of Sea Island, Jekyll Island, Little St. Simons Island and St. Simons Island. 

African Americans made and continue to make significant contributions in every area of the economic, social, spiritual, commercial and cultural landscape here.

Among the important black history sites in the area is The Wanderer Memorial, named after an 1857 racing schooner which illegally brought over 400 Africans from the Mother Land to Jekyll Island.

Christ Church, Frederica, a stunning Gothic-style structure built by English colonists in 1820 and one of the oldest churches in Georgia, is significant in that it was the only church on the island at that time, serving as the center of community life for everyone, including the slaves who worked the homes and fields of the over a dozen plantations in and around the region. It was here that blacks could gather and create community, tending to the horses, carriages, and so forth while their masters worshiped inside.

Unlike many other places in the South, although slaves, those in the Golden Isles were permitted to organize, own guns, intermarry between plantations, and other activities. In fact, when asked about having their own house of worship, they were granted land on which they built the First African Baptist Church, The church, now with close to 500 members, celebrating its 154th anniversary in 2016.

Gascoigne Slave Cabins. St. Simons Island, GA.

The Hamilton Plantation Slave Cabins represent the only two remaining, tabby (a former, concrete-like building material made of sand, water, lime, and oyster shells) slave cabins. Carefully restored and preserved they now feature graphical histories and artifacts about the slave populations that picked cotton and collected oak and pine timbers here.

The last remaining African American school on St. Simons Island is the Harrington School House. Located in what once was a community settled by emancipated slaves who worked on the area plantations, it operated as such from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation was a former rice plantation worked by slaves, today encompassing the expansive grounds and the original antebellum home where its owners once lived. House tours showing the 18th and 19th century furniture and other family accoutrement and heirlooms, a museum, Visitors Center, gift shop, and nature trail are all part of the experience here.

African Americans were so influential here that their history and legacy has been preserved along the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, created to “recognize the important contributions made to American culture and history by African Americans known as Gullah Geechee who settled in the coastal counties of South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.” Historic preservation is also accomplished through the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition, the Georgia Sea Island Singers, and the annual Georgia Sea Island Festival.

Perhaps the most well-known and respected person, by blacks and whites alike, is Neptune Small, his surname self-chosen as a nod to his slight stature after gaining his freedom after the Civil War. Even today, longtime residents of any ethnic group speak fondly of Neptune’s heroism back in the day.

His legacy is one of commitment, bravery and selflessness, in that he was charged with accompanying one of the sons of the family for which he worked for many years, as his manservant in the Confederate army. Unfortunately, his master, Henry Lord Page King, was killed in action. However, even though none of King’s fellow soldiers stepped up to the plate, and despite the overwhelming risks to his own life, Neptune carried his body back for a proper burial at Christ Church cemetery (he also returned to battle to accompany another King family soldier).

As a reward for his years of faithful service and unselfish acts, he was bestowed his freedom and given a tract of land, of which is now the beautiful Neptune Park in downtown St. Simons Island, which also encompasses the nearby Neptune Park Fun Zone, featuring a pool, playground, and miniature golf. Artwork, sculptures, books and other entities depicting Neptune carrying Mr. King’s body back home are depicted almost anywhere you look around St. Simons Island. When Neptune died in 1907 at the age of 76, he was laid to rest on the plantation grounds in the old Retreat Burying Ground where he once worked. Yet, his legacy still lives on.

Other important African-American pioneers over the decades include Robert Abbott, founder of The Chicago Defender; NFL great Jim Brown, the house where he lived still standing along one of St. Simon’s picturesque meandering roads; and Deaconess Anna E.B. Alexander, the first African-American ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1907, just to name a few.

Explore more of The Golden Isles of Georgia!

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