Sapelo Island: Community Of Slave Descendents Fights Big Tax Hike

Nathan Francis

Sapelo Island is one of the few remaining pockets of the Gullah-Geechee culture in America, and now its residents are in a fight with the government over rising taxes that could force them apart.

The island off the coast of Georgia is one of the only communities of the Gullah-Geehcee, descendants of enslaved Africans who have their own rich history, culture, and even their own language.

The Gullah people who live on Sapelo Island found last year that their tax bills had increase astronomically. Affluent buyers from the mainland have been seeking property along the Atlantic coast, which in turn has raised their own property values so much that many would be forced out if they cannot find relief.

Critics say the increasing taxes are in violation of protections meant to preserve the inhabitants and their culture.

Julius and Cornelia Bailey, who live on a single acre with a single-family home, a convenience store, and a small inn, saw their land appraisal increase from $220,285 in 2011 to $327,063 last year. That made their total tax bill rise from $800 to more than $3,000 in just a year.

The tax increases have come despite the fact that Sapelo Island residents get almost nothing in return from the county --- no schools, police, or road services.

"So what are we paying taxes for?" Bailey said after losing her tax appeal. "We're just paying for privilege of living on Sapelo Island. We don't want to be crybabies, but it seems like we're being treated unfairly."

Most of the roughly 50 residents who live on Sapelo Island are in the community of Hog Hammock, which is made up of descendents of slaves who worked of Thomas Spalding's rice plantation. After they gained their freedom, a number of the former slaves chose to remain there, buying their own land in Hog Hammock.

The fight of Sapelo Island residents has now reached far beyond their small community. Their tax fight has generated international headlines and even a Facebook page about their plight.