Geechee Culture and Late Champion Featured in Documentary

Cornelia Walker Bailey dedicated her life to documenting and preserving Saltwater Geechee culture on Sapelo Island until her passing in 2017, but it seems the isolated island’s beloved matriarch has more wisdom to pass on. .

Bailey’s interactions with the island and its people are the focus of the award-winning documentary “Sapelo.”

The documentary made its US premiere Thursday on PBS. An episode of the American documentary series ReFramed on WORLD Channel, the film can be streamed on worldchannel.org.

Directed by Swiss documentary filmmaker Nick Brandestini, “Sapelo” looks through Bailey’s eyes at the demise of Saltwater Geechee culture in the island’s Hog Hammock community. Here, in this last enclave of the unique Geechee people of the Georgia Sea Islands, the film captures Bailey’s efforts to preserve this rich African-American culture for posterity in the face of mounting development pressures. At the same time, Bailey perseveres in raising her two adopted boys, JerMarkest and Johnathan, on this bridgeless island.

Sapelo Island is accessible by ferry.

Filming for “Sapelo” took place before Bailey died at the age of 72 on October 12, 2017, but editing and final production work were only completed in recent years. The film has since had several screenings at film festivals, winning Best Documentary Feature at the RiverRun International Film Festival in the spring of 2021 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Thursday marked the public premiere of the documentary.

“Cornelia Walker Bailey was an incredible woman who I shared lots of laughs with,” Brandestini told The News. “She was a powerful voice for Sapelo who worked tirelessly to preserve the Gullah-Geechee culture.”

Like the Gullah along the coast of South Carolina, the Geechee culture of the Georgian coast grew out of the fierce determination of enslaved blacks to maintain their African roots and traditions. Despite slavery, advanced knowledge of rice cultivation and resistance to malaria gave them a degree of independence under which their African traditions were preserved and adapted over generations.

When emancipation arrived, the newly freed Geechee settled on barrier islands such as Sapelo, using their understanding of the unique coastal environment to forge self-sufficient farming and fishing communities.

Born on Sapelo Island, Bailey grew up immersed in Geechee culture and traditions. She was a direct descendant of Bilali, the literate slave who practiced his Muslim faith while serving as overseer of Thomas Spalding’s Sapelo Island plantation in the early 19th century.

Bailey has become a tireless champion of the Geechee and their place on Sapelo Island, whose secluded beauty has come under increasing pressure from luxury home developers in recent decades. A gifted storyteller, Bailey was in great demand as a speaker.

She founded the Sapelo Island Cultural Day Festival to raise awareness of Geechee culture. Perhaps the defining book on this unique coastal Georgia culture is Bailey’s 2000 memoir, “God, Dr. Buzzard,” and the “Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island.”

Brandestini said getting to know Bailey was a highlight of making the film. Tapping into her wisdom and keen sense of humor was key to the film’s success, he said. In the process, he learned that family members, like his son Maurice, worked hard to keep his dreams alive.

“His unique legacy lives on in many ways,” Brandestini said. “His stories live on and his agricultural projects are now led by his son, Maurice. I hope viewers will be called to action to ensure this historic community continues to thrive in the future.

James C. Tibbs