Connections: Reclaiming Crops, Preserving Land, Serving Communities
In fall 2017, Jennifer Thompson, Victor-Alan Weeks and four other Davidson College students traveled to Sapelo Island, Georgia, to help residents clear up Hurricane Irma debris at one of the island’s historic churches.
Sapelo, a barrier island seven miles offshore, can only be reached by aircraft or boat. The state of Georgia owns 97 percent of it, including a state park and the once-mansion of North Carolina tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds Jr., the island’s former owner. The Davidson students hopped on a ferry to the other three percent, specifically to Hog Hammock, the last known Gullah community where descendants of enslaved West African people known as Gullah Geechees live.
During the 15-minute ferry ride, they met librarian, family historian and author Michele Nicole Johnson, who’d married into one of Sapelo’s original African-American families. She told them her ancestors had been enslaved in the Davidson area. During her family research, she found a slaveholder’s will ordering the sale of two enslaved boys. The sale was to cover his heir’s tuition at Davidson College.
It’s a chilling reminder of the horror of slavery, and Davidson’s connection—and, often, complicity—in an institution that much of the United States is founded upon. Thompson ’20 and Weeks ’19 say that chance encounter made them even more determined to support Sapelo residents’ efforts to preserve their heritage, and ensure Davidson acknowledged such painful truths about its own history.
The two Atlanta natives returned in 2018, working through the summer with the Hog Hammock community. They weeded, planted and built garden beds and fences to help the community’s aging members, whose groceries and supplies must be retrieved from the mainland or the one small store on the island.
They’ve continued to go back, centering their work around agricultural autonomy and land and cultural preservation. Thompson and Weeks say it’s important to connect what they learned in the classroom to what the community is fighting to preserve.
Sapelo Island is one of many social justice initiatives students and professors have taken on, and grown.
In fall 2019, Takiyah Harper-Shipman, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, became the faculty advisor for the Sapelo Island community service project. That same year, she hosted a panel for a discussion on Race and Farming in the South. And in spring 2020, she started a Farming While Black Reading and Service Collective that included working with several farmers in the Charlotte area. Harper-Shipman volunteers at one of the farms.
In another project, students in her Africana Capstone course collaborated with the residents of Smithville, a historically Black community in Cornelius, to preserve the history of the community as they attempt to stave off gentrification.
There’s a balance between collaboration and overstepping boundaries, she says.
“You have to listen to what the community needs; you can’t just jump in and say ‘here’s what you need to do,’“ Harper-Shipman says.
“Any time you can cultivate fruitful relationships, that are meaningful,” she says, “those are the seeds you plant that can eventually turn into structural change.”
Thompson and Weeks are on a quest for environmental and food justice.
They want to serve Hog Hammock (also known as Hogg Hummock) by reclaiming the crops to provide local, healthy harvests that can be sold to boost their economy. As the island’s population has either aged, died, or relocated, there isn’t enough human or financial capital capable of keeping up with the demands of rural agriculture.
“They’ve done such a great job, they have spent so many long days out there in the heat, these are things so many of our older people couldn’t do without help,” says Maurice Bailey, 51, a Hog Hammock native and community leader. “Just the students being there is a breath of fresh air—with their energy and commitment—people are so happy to see them, it’s like ‘Oh the young people are here.’”
Sapelo Island is known for its red peas. They’ve recently planted sour orange trees and are also experimenting with indigo plants, which will be processed into dye and sold for custom fabric, Bailey says.
Bailey, Thompson and Weeks recognize outside development pressures are an ongoing and looming threat to Hog Hammock balance and serenity. They have helped raise awareness about it, appearing on an NPR show together to speak out against a proposed Georgia bill that would ease development regulations on the island.
As Hog Hammock residents have died, some families have sold their property to wealthier outsiders who’ve built large vacation homes. Those trying to preserve the land worry that the community will become another Hilton Head, filled with hotels, vacation homes and rising property taxes.
“This is more than just gardening, it’s about food sovereignty, and land sovereignty,” Weeks says. “It’s about uplifting a community.”
Strength in Community
Thompson says the early days at Sapelo were a cultural jolt, starting with the long car ride, then the ferry, and another drive. There’s only one store, owned by Bailey. Thompson says the lack of food options, especially fresh produce, further encouraged her to get involved on a deeper, more meaningful level.
“You have to examine your own privilege,” Thompson says. “Davidson students have access to a lot, and it can be a shock when you enter a space where people do not. You have to take a step back, and learn from the environment you’ve been invited into.”
Thompson and Weeks say they were initially met with skepticism from residents who wondered about their motives and questioned their commitment.
“I think in the beginning Maurice didn’t really believe we were there to work,” Weeks says. “When we put the action to the words, he realized we were serious and passionate about the cause.”
Farming’s tough, and things didn’t go according to the timeline they’d set. Both Thompson and Weeks says they had to readjust their expectations along the way.
“Through my frustration, I learned patience, patience, patience,” Thompson says. “Patience with the project, patience with life, and patience with the land.”
Weeks now lives in Savannah and is studying to receive his certificate in Agribusiness. He plans to own a farm someday. Thompson doesn’t see a farming future, but plans to always have a food garden.
Weeks says the work on Sapelo Island reinforced and brought to life his college studies about the Transatlantic slave trade.
“As much as I want the outcome, it’s all about the will of nature and the will of the land,” Weeks says. “There are so few places like this in the world, we need to conserve it, and recognize that this land was cultivated from the enslavement of people. We need to remember this so we can learn, and not repeat the mistakes of history.”
This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2020 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.