Sapelo First African Baptist

McIntosh County
Org 1866
Photography by Wayne Moore

The First African Church on Sapelo Island is a beautiful treasure of a church that was founded in 1866 by freed slaves in the post-Civil War era in a section of the Island known as Hanging Bull. That original church was destroyed by a hurricane in 1898 and the church you see now was built two years later at its present location in Raccoon Bluff. The church was lovingly and painstakingly restored beginning in 2000 by a combination of The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society, the state of Georgia, and students from the Savannah College of Art & Design. We are indebted to them for this magnificent restoration effort. The church had been abandoned in 1968 and was in an advanced state of decay after 30 years of neglect. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and represents one of the most significant efforts to preserve African-American history in Georgia. This church is a linchpin of the Geechee-Gullah culture that evolved in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Sapelo has a long and storied history. The first Europeans on Sapelo were Spanish, who came in the 17th century to establish missions to convert the native Indians – and also to push the northern frontier of the Spanish empire in the new world. One of the missions on the coast was named San José de Zápala, from which the name Sapelo is derived. The earliest inhabitants were Guale Indians. The first permanent European settlement was a group of Highland Scots from Inverness who, under the auspices of James Edward Oglethorpe, founded the town of Darien in 1736. The Highlanders were brought in by Oglethorpe to protect the southern perimeter of the new settlement of Savannah. McIntosh County is named for the McIntosh family, who originated in the Highlands of Scotland, and were among the earliest settlers of Georgia. There were several important figures in Georgia history from this illustrious family but the most prominent was General Lachlan McIntosh, commander of Georgia forces in the Revolutionary War.

The first slaves were introduced into Sapelo from Africa in 1762 by Patrick Mackay who bought the island and operated it as a cotton and cattle plantation. The Mackay heirs subsequently sold the island to John McQueen, who in 1789, sold it to a group of French investors who also ran the island as a cotton and cattle enterprise. The French syndicate failed, and ownership of most of the island eventually passed to Thomas Spalding, who had learned how to run a successful plantation from his father and was a leader and innovator in the cultivation and processing of sugar and in the cultivation of Sea Island long-staple cotton. In the early 1800’s Spalding became the most powerful landowner in McIntosh County with the ownership of several hundred African slaves skilled in fishing, sea island cotton-growing and rice cultivation.

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the census indicated that the Spalding family had a total of 252 slaves living in 50 slave houses. Thomas Spalding died in 1851 and a long period began during which ownership of Sapelo passed through many hands, many of them descendants of Thomas Spalding. During the Civil War the island was abandoned by its owners and was occupied by only a few former slaves. After the war, some of the barrier islands were set aside as reservations for former slaves, and black communities were established at several sites on Sapelo Island. One of them, Hog Hammock, is still an active community. The 16,500-acre island is Georgia’s fourth largest and, with the exception of the 434-acre African American community of Hog Hammock, is entirely state owned and managed.

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