Ossabaw set to share its story
Island will host Gullah Geechee Day Trip next week
By Chuck Mobley
Lifting snippets of history from antebellum documents, archaeological discoveries, census records and oral recollections, the Ossabaw Island Foundation is stitching together a script portraying the experiences of the Gullah-Geechee people who farmed its fields as slaves and as free families.
The “biggest challenge” has been to decide what to include in the narrative, and what to leave out, said Paul Pressly, the director of the Ossabaw Island Educational Alliance.
“We want to balance the story of the colonial period with that of the antebellum period, and we want to give an appropriate place to Reconstruction and the eventual migration of African Americans to Pin Point,” Pressly said.
Sturdy reminders of the past
A state-owned barrier island located some 20 miles south of Savannah, Ossabaw is reachable only by boat. The alliance and the foundation, as part of the terms of a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, are expanding visitation opportunities to the public.
On March 26, they will host the first Gullah Geechee Day Trip.
This excursion will include a visit to the three tabby slave cabins, which are part of the old North End Plantation site. One of the cabins was built around 1825, the other two in the 1840s. They were part of what used to be a row of seven slave cabins, said Jim Bitler, the on-island coordinator for the foundation.
North End Plantation, according to the 1850 census, had 65 enslaved people working on it.
“We’re looking at how the people on Ossabaw fit into the larger world,”a system of plantation labor and commerce that ran from South Carolina to Florida and to the other side of the Atlantic, said Deborah Mack, a Savannah-based museum consultant who is co-chair, along with Pressly, of the NEH-funded project.
Chasing the paper trail
The tabby cabins sit on a gently-curving, deeply-lined dirt road that once led to fields that produced indigo, sea island cotton and other crops.
A student of Georgia’s colonial years, Pressly said there’s also evidence of a nascent shipbuilding business around 1770. It’s certain that oak trees on Ossabaw were cut and then used to produce timbers for sailing ships.
Pressly has used an 18th-century manuscript collection at the Georgia Historical Society to pursue primary information about the shipbuilding venture.
The papers of George Jones Kollock of Savannah, who owned the island’s South End Plantation, are housed in the University of North Carolina’s Southern Historical Collection. South End, according to the 1860 census, had 71 slaves, and Kollock’s overseer kept detailed information on its operation, said Bitler.
It’s sadly ironic, pointed out Bitler, that there is extensive documentation on South End, but no physical evidence, while North End has the slave cabins, but absolutely no written record.
Seeking new voices
In the absence of documentation on North End, Mack and Bitler have turned to still another source, the oral recollections and stories of descendants of the people who once lived there. The 1880 census put Ossabaw’s population at 160 people, but they moved to adjacent settlements, particularly Pin Point and Skidaway Island, over the next 20 or so years.
A nationally recognized anthropologist, Mack is a member of the scholarly advisory committee for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She’s worked with museums around the world, including the B.B. King Museum and Delta Heritage Center in Indianola, Miss., and the Theodore Monod African Art Museum in Dakar, Senagal.
On Ossabaw, she’s working to collate the oral stories, written records and physical evidence and turn them into a picture of its Gullah-Geechee residents — what crops they grew, what they ate, how they lived, where they worshipped and why they eventually left the island where they had lived for generations.
This upcoming tour will be the first opportunity for her and Bitler to share with the public what has been learned, and their first opportunity to go through their script of the island’s history.
“We hope to offer the trip at least twice a year and perhaps more, depending on the interest,” said Pressly.
ON THE WEB
Go to Savannah Now to see a video of the three slave cabins that have stood on the north end of Ossabaw island since the mid-19th century.
IF YOU GO
What: Gullah Geechee Day Trip to Ossabaw
When: 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. (approximate return time) on March 26
Where: The boat will depart from and return to Delegal Marina at The Landings on Skidaway Island.
Details: Deborah Mack, a nationally-recognized museum consultant who lives in Savannah, and Jim Bitler, the on-island coordinator for the Ossabaw Island Foundation, will lead the trip. Passengers are to bring their own picnic lunch and beverages.
Fees: $50 per person for members of the Friends of Ossabaw and $70 per person for non-members.
More info: Call 912-233-5104 or go to Ossabaw Island
You can watch a video here.