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.
We have covered many Historical rural churches to date in Georgia. Many have been hard to find and difficult to reach for a visit. Sapelo Island First African Baptist Church is certainly off the beaten path and about as hard to get to as any church could possibly be. But, the effort to uncover, photograph and document this unique jewel was certainly well worth it. As you see above, it is hidden away on this barrier island, nestled among scrub palmettos and pines within a forest filled with live oak trees of great age, all covered with Spanish Moss.
The moment you enter this sanctuary, you know you are in a unique and welcoming place. It is hard to believe that this church was on its last legs in the late 1960’s. Hard economic times had driven many families to the mainland in search of jobs. The island population had been reduced and support of the church fell into the hands of the few remaining parishioners. In 1968, Sapelo Baptist Church was abandoned and sat mouldering into near ruin in the humid, semi-tropical environment. Then the local community, Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society, the State of Georgia and SCAD joined forces to bring this landmark back to life. What you see above is the result of a cooperative effort to save, preserve and share this cultural icon with all for generations to come.
The restoration effort was focused on preserving the 19th century church’s exterior and interior in the manner of the period in which had been built. In this interior view, you can see that the efforts were successful. The decorative elements are spare but effective. For example, the wall boards above the low arches follow the usual, horizontal orientation, while the wall boards in the space between the arches and the horizontal boards are placed vertically creating a pleasing decorative effect. For further impact, note that the panel in the center of the space where the cross is placed shifts to a herringbone pattern pattern that emphasizes the cross and points upward to heaven. This kind of inexpensive creation of decorative elements from the simplest available materials is a testament to the talents of the Geechee residents of the island.
This inviting interior photograph reveals the light and airy atmosphere within the sanctuary. The use of bright, translucent, colored glass windows helps create that feeling, but it is enhanced by the light-reflecting white walls and cheery yellow pews nestled beneath a sky-blue ceiling. It is worth noting here that the addition of creature comforts… electricity, heating and air conditioning… makes this church attractive and useful, year-round, for the island residents. With access to a church/community center, the citizens of Hog Hammock will be more inclined to stay on the island and help accomplish the revitalization that so many want for this special place in Georgia.
This bright corner exhibits how well the preservation team did their job of restoring this 19th century jewel of island craftsmanship. No frills… just colorful pews and pleasing finish carpentry in various angles that is revealed by lots of light from tinted windows. The open door with the oaks and the Spanish moss in the background tops it off with a dreamy look that makes this image special.
The Gullah-Geechee culture is vital to understanding the history of the low country in South Carolina and Georgia. It has survived hundreds of years with its own special customs, dialects and many artistic aspects that reflect its origin in West Africa. Thanks to the efforts of the First African Baptist Church on Sapelo Island and the restoration efforts of SCAD and the preservation team, this historical treasure will survive for many more. To learn more about the Gullah-Geechee history click here.
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I’m going to be on the island this week– I’m Catholic and was wondering if they had services for Good Friday.
We don’t have that information Deniz. Sorry but I know you will enjoy your trip to Sapelo.
Auto correct does it again. The word is “haints. It tried again.
Yes. Auto correct really gets in the way sometime.
It’s beautiful. I didn’t know it had been restored and I am delighted that it has.
It is really lovely.
My auto correct doesn’t understand Southern.
No haunts here!
My husband and I were fortunate enough to get to see the church on a recent trip to Sapelo Island. I love the pictures of the inside as we were only able to peak through the door and imagine the splendor. Our guide, a local resident, shared the history of the church and this amazing island.
Glad you and your husband were able to get by. It is pretty remote but well worth a visit.
The mustard yellow pews with the purple and mustard stained glass windows is exquisite.