SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – A coalition of Sapelo Island NGOs has joined together in the fight for the inclusion of residents who are direct descendants of those enslaved by Thomas Spalding in the decision-making processes surrounding the preservation of the island and its culture.

Representatives from these groups said they were caught by surprise when they found out about a bill that was moving through the legislature that directly impacted the community. They said no one from the community was consulted about HB 273, the bill introduced by State Rep. Buddy DeLoach (R-Liberty County).

Preceded by a section about rules and regulations relating to the establishment of criminal violations with the Board of Natural Resources, the second section of the bill drastically changes the composition of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority.

Instead of having the governor as the chairperson of the Authority, it calls for the commissioner of Natural Resources to fill that position. The governor will then be moved to be the vice-chairperson of the committee. It also establishes that the governor can designate a person to stand in as the vice-chairperson. Finally, the bill replaces the position of the commissioner of Human Relations with a resident of Sapelo Island.

The newest version of the bill, as of March 16, establishes that the residents who are part of the authority must be descendants.

The bill was discussed by the Committee on Natural Resources and The Environment on Wednesday, March 15.

“Were the descendants consulted? Like those that are sitting on the board now, were they consulted at all?” State Sen. Nikki Merritt (D-Grayson) asked Mark Williams, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

“I did not- no. I did not consult the community,” Williams responded. “Maybe I was naïve, or just made a mistake- I’m just being honest with you.”

Williams said that he felt he was reacting to the biggest concern that he saw raised at the most recent Town Hall meeting. This concern was the requirement of the governor to be present at the meetings of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, as the governor is the current chairperson.

Dunes and beach at Sapelo Island, a state-protected island located in McIntosh County, Georgia. The island is reachable only by ferry. Most inhabitants of the island are African Americans, part of the Gullah or Geechee community, and have been living on the island for generations. (Getty Images)

WSAV NOW spoke with Maurice Bailey from Save Our Legacy Ourselves as well as Josiah “Jazz” Watts, Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor commissioner. Both are Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society board members. They are also both residents of the island who are direct descendants of those enslaved by Thomas Spalding.

“We didn’t find out, of course, until after,” Watts said.

He was referring to the fact that the bill had already passed through the House by the time they were alerted to the existence of the bill.

They wouldn’t have known about the bill if a representative from One Hundred Miles had not overheard the reading of the bill and recognized the location.

“Luckily we had someone there to notify us that ‘Hey, they’re talking about Sapelo,'” Bailey said.

Watts felt that even though they did finally learn about the bill, there still wasn’t enough time for them to actually get changes made.

“The whole time I’ve felt like we’re just trying to keep up with what’s going on,” Watts said.

Watts spoke at the committee’s meeting after driving through the night to get to the Georgia State Capitol. He was given two minutes to state his concerns.

Both Watts and Bailey said there were three major problems that they wanted to see changed in this bill before it passes.

The first: amend the bill to confirm that any person appointed by the governor to be on the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority (SIHA) is a “statewide elected official or agency representative serving under the governor”.

Next, they specifically wanted to change the term “residents” to “residents who are direct descendants of the slaves of Thomas Spalding.”

Finally, they would like to see the number of resident descendants who are on the SIHA from two to three, minimum. They would like to see more equal representation between the government and those most impacted by the decisions made by the SIHA.

Bailey echoed the frustrations shared by Watts.

“You’re trying to sneak something in and then not notifying the people of Sapelo,” Bailey said. “So that was very concerning, although they said that they were trying to do the right thing.”

Watts said he didn’t know if he felt encouraged overall by the results of the experience.

“I’m encouraged by the folks that advocated for us and asked the questions that needed to be asked,” Watts said, but he also stated that he didn’t know if he felt like this opportunity to speak with the committee would lead to greater change.

HB 273 now awaits a vote from the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment.

WSAV NOW has reached out to DeLoach for comment. We’re awaiting a response.