Confluence (n.) The joining together of two rivers, where one flows into another forming a larger mainstream. Confluence Magazine is the place where our smaller stream of documentary work meets and mixes with the river of stories being made and shared with the world.
Dr. William Collins stands on the porch of a community house in Darien, heart of Georgia’s Gullah Geechee culture, after a meeting. In the late 1990s, Dr. Collins, a preservationist and personal historian, discovered and purchased a plot of land that had belonged to his great-grandfather, Cain Hammond, a former slave in McIntosh County, who bought it back in 1875. Dr. Collins now lives on the land and calls it Hammond’s Cove.
The old brick chimney of a steam-powered rice mill is a stark reminder of the original Butler Island Plantation, just outside Darien. Founded by Major Pierce Butler, who fought in the Revolutionary War, the estate was worked by slaves brought from West Africa. Malaria in the region often drove white landowners and workers away from the low country, helping to preserve the slaves’ African culture. The people became known as Gullah in South Carolina and Geechee in Georgia—now the stretch of coastal land from southern North Carolina to northern Florida is home to pockets of Gullah Geechee descendants who preserve their traditions.
Gullah Geechee historian Tiffany Young holds a sweet grass called life everlasting that elders use as a tea to help with lung issues. Young is a descendant of Butler Island Plantation slaves and a practicing “Geechee griot” or storyteller of Geechee life and history. She says her grandfather’s tales “lit a fire” of interest in her family’s past—she’s traced back to where her ancestors were enslaved, as well as the voyages that brought them to Georgia in 1735.
Dolores Bailey stands on a front porch in Darien. Bailey’s extended family is of Gullah Geechee descent; her mother-in-law, Cornelia Bailey, was a Gullah Geechee educator and writer on nearby Sapelo Island. One of the last generation to have been “born, raised, and schooled” on the island, Cornelia wrote in “I Am Sapelo”: “We don't want to lose the meaning of what a lot of gnats mean, how fresh-dug sweet potatoes taste cooked in hot ashes. I am Sapelo and all the hundreds of others who are descendants; we who remain here is Sapelo. We are one, bound by…high tide, fields, gossips, smoke mullet, and our faith.”
This now-abandoned building was established around 1900 to replace the original mission lodge of the Union Brothers and Sisters from the 1880s. It has been a schoolhouse, hosted secret meetings, and been a base for the Hudson Home Society, which financed funeral services for African-American locals in McIntosh County.
A seventh-generation Geechee, the Reverent Griffin Lotson manages the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, a group of performers who preserve African traditions through song and dance. He also acts as a city councilman for Darien and is on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission. In a conversation with Golden Isles magazine, he said, “We are the only culture in the Americas that has its birth out of something called slavery. Most people don’t know, there was no Gullah Geechee before…most of those people came in on those ships in Carolina and Georgia because of rice, indigo, and cotton. So we were able to retain most of our ancestral ways…”
An open porch door waves in the breeze at Butler Plantation. The current plantation home was built after Emancipation on the same site as the original manager’s house from the slave era. General Sherman burned that house down during the Civil War, but that was already after The Weeping Time—the largest sale of slaves in America’s history. Plantation owner Pierce Butler was deep in debt; in March 1857, he sold off 429 slaves in a two-day auction in Savannah.
Gullah Geechee elder Charles Jordan was raised in this house as a child—his father was a former slave whose family stayed on the property to take care of the white man who owned the house until he died.
Gullah Geechee elder and county commissioner Charles Jordan stands on his front porch with his son Dwight (seated), a teacher and former member of the McIntosh County school board.
Tiffany Young’s youngest daughter, Trinity, a descendant of the Butler Island slaves, seen here at Butler Plantation, is carrying on the traditions of her mother and the Gullah Geechee people. She is already a Geechee ring shouter, performing traditional songs and dances based in West African religious rituals—the oldest surviving African-American performing arts.