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Emanuel Baptist Church, 1904, St. Simons Island

The origins of Emanuel Baptist can be traced to the First African Baptist Church, established by freedmen at Pike’s Bluff Plantation in 1869. On 6 April 1890 members of the First African Baptist Church, under the leadership of Reverend A. Neel, organized Emanuel to better serve members in the South End community. The present structure was built on 30 July 1904 and dedicated by Reverend S. C. Dent.

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Oyster Roast, Altama Plantation

When the weather on the coast turns cooler an invitation to an oyster roast is the one most coveted by locals. Whether an impromptu affair in one’s backyard or an orchestrated event benefiting a special cause, these gatherings are central to the folklife of the coast and it’s not a recent phenomenon. The Guale people perfected the art of roasting oysters long before Europeans ever arrived.

Oyster etiquette, if such a thing exists, requires no more than an open fire, a sheet of metal (often the inverted hood of an old junk car or truck), and enough wet burlap to cover your bivalves. Beer and other adult beverages also figure mightily into the ritual.

Folks who live along the Gulf of Mexico will argue for their oysters’ superiority but they only have size on their side. It’s true that ours live in complex razor-sharp beds known as clusters and as a result don’t get as large as Gulf oysters, but what we sacrifice in size we more than make up in taste. Georgia’s oysters are more flavorful, hands down, with a sweet saltiness not found in their Gulf counterparts.

The tender at this particular roast (known as Clam Jam) benefiting Altamaha Riverkeeper at Altama Plantation was busy all evening taking shovelfuls of freshly steamed oysters from fire to table in short order.

Newcomers to oyster roasts are often put off by the shucking but there are always folks around who will help the uninitiated. Most locals have their own gloves and oyster knives. Tables with long legs that position the oysters in easy reach of the diner are essential at a large gathering like this one.

Thanks to Jen Hilburn for inviting me to Clam Jam 2017. Mike McCall and I had fun showing guests around the Altama property while waiting for supper.

 

 

 

 

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Croquet at the Jekyll Island Club

Croquet was a favorite of the millionaires who were members of the exclusive Jekyll Island Club in the late 19th century, and in honor of that tradition a beautiful croquet law is still maintained for visitors of the Jekyll Island Club Resort.

Jekyll Island National Historic Landmark

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Hamilton Plantation Slave Cabin, Circa 1806, St. Simons Island

Built for servants working in the main house of James Hamilton’s Gascoigne Bluff plantation, this slave cabin is one of four surviving on St. Simons. Two more survive on the lands of the former Hamilton Plantation. As evidenced by this authentic restoration, house slaves were generally kept in nicer dwellings than field hands and other laborers. Popularly known as The Tabby House, it was restored by Eugene Lewis in 1931 and again in 1995 by master tabby craftsmen J. Felton Tate, Sr., Renaldo Tate, Sr., and Renaldo Tate, Jr.. After the plantation house burned in the 1890s, a lumber mill was located on the property for many years. The cabin served as a doctor’s office during that era. Today, it is part of the Epworth By The Sea campus of the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church and is used as an event space.

National Register of Historic Places

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Strangers Cemetery, St. Simons Island

Also known as Union Memorial Cemetery, Strangers Cemetery gets its unusual name from those interred here. Former slaves (and their descendants) who toiled on the island’s plantations prior to Emancipation were buried on those properties. The original “strangers” were freedmen who came to the island after the Civil War and worked primarily in sawmills along the Frederica River. Many remained for generations in three thriving black communities: Harrington, Jewtown, and South End, and some were interred here as they weren’t allowed to bury on the former plantation lands. While most marked graves are in very good condition, a large number of unmarked graves exist, as well.

Among later “strangers” is Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Sampson Jones (8 February 1902-4 September 1984). She was born in Smithville and never knew her biological father. Her mother moved to an uncle’s farm in nearby Dawson when Bessie was a baby and while there married James Sampson, who was a father figure to Bessie. Of her childhood, she wrote: “I never has went to school a whole term and I didn’t get past the fifth grade; every school day I had to keep other people’s babies and sometimes I had to work in the fields.” Music was always present in Bessie Jones’s childhood. Her mother Julia played the autoharp and James Sampson played numerous instruments by ear. Her grandfather, Jet Sampson, was an accordionist. He was enslaved, along with five brothers, around 1843 and died in 1941 at the age of 105. Listening to his stories and songs, Bessie gained many insights that would inform her later work.

In 1914 a very young Jones gave birth to her first child, Rosalie. The child’s father, Cassius Davis, was a native of the Georgia Sea Islands and had come to the Dawson area seeking farm work. After World War I Bessie lived briefly in Milan and Fitzgerald. Cassius died in Brunswick in 1926. For the next seven years she lived in Florida. In Okeechobee she married George Jones and in 1933 they moved to St. Simons Island. They had two sons: George L. Jones (1935) and Joseph (1937). George died in 1945. After his death Bessie got involved with the Spiritual Singers of Coastal Georgia, perhaps the first group to formally attempt to preserve and perform the slave songs and spirituals of the Sea Island Gullah and Geechee people. It was a great honor for Bessie to have been invited to join the group, as she was not a native of the islands.

Bessie met folkorist Alan Lomax in 1959 and a couple of years later he recorded a series of songs, stories, and interviews with her at his apartment in New York City. In 1963, the Georgia Sea Island Singers were established. Lomax arranged a tour that took the group to colleges around the country and a decade of travel followed. They participated in the Poor People’s March in 1968 and appeared at Carnegie Hall, the Newport Folk Festival, Montréal World’s Fair, Central Park, and numerous Smithsonian Folk Life Festivals. In 1976, the Sea Island Singers performed at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter. In 1982, Mrs. Jones received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, but died of leukemia later that year.

Peter Stone and Ellen Harold’s profile of Bessie Jones at the Association for Cultural Equity, from which this was condensed, is an excellent source for further reading.

 

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Baptism, St. Simons Island

True Life Ministries of Atlanta has been conducting “open water” baptisms on St. Simons Island for 21 years. The church welcomes all who want to take part and have baptized over 1000 since they began the annual event. It’s a wonderful thing to see, no matter your background or faith.

Often associated with African-Americans, mass baptisms were equally popular with white churches (especially rural congregations) into the mid-20th century. Indoor baptismal pools have largely replaced the outdoor ritual today.

 

 

 

 

 

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Central Hallway House, Brunswick

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