This post was written by Dr. Melissa Cooper, Assistant Professor in the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies. Dr. Cooper specializes in African American cultural and intellectual history, and the history of the African Diaspora. Cooper’s current book project examines the emergence of “the Gullah” in scholarly and popular works during the 1920s and the 1930s. Using Sapelo Island, Georgia as a case study, Cooper’s manuscript explores the forces that inspired interest in black southerners during the period, and also looks at the late twentieth, and twenty-first century legacies of the works that first made Sapelo Islanders famous.
As soon as I saw the grainy black and white images of Sapelo Islanders singing spirituals, I knew that I had found something that had greater significance than what was expressed in the film’s index description. Right away, I recognized the newsreel outtakes from President Calvin Coolidge’s holiday vacation on Sapelo Island, Georgia in 1928 as one of the earliest attempts to “capture” the islanders’ now famous folk culture. I wasn’t looking for the footage when I casually browsed MIRC’s digital collection during a campus visit last January—the discovery was a surprise. Having researched the historical origins of the nation’s fascination with this Gullah community for nearly a decade, I was ecstatic to locate images of this pivotal moment in Sapelo Islanders’ history. When automobile tycoon Howard Coffin first opened the door for outsiders to explore his “private” oasis during the President’s visit, curiosities about the blacks who lived there grew. The timeworn footage tells an interesting story about how the islanders were imagined during the period—and simultaneously obscures the tensions that permeated life in this unique Jim Crow setting.
Although Fox Movietone producers left the footage of Sapelo Islanders singing on the cutting room floor and chose other images to represent Coolidge’s southern sojourn, their attempts to recreate scenes of the islanders “in action” speaks volumes. Believing that the islanders embodied the island’s exotic, “timeless” atmosphere, the filmmakers in Coolidge’s entourage made every effort to bring this fantasy to life. They organized a chorus comprised of the island’s best singers, and arranged for the oxcart and its driver’s participation. They made sure that cameras rolled, and several “takes” were acted out while there was enough sunlight to capture the singers moving down the twisted dirt road nestled between towering oaks covered with Spanish moss. Singing spiritual standards “Old Time Religion” and “Steal Away to Jesus,” and the popular Stephen Foster tune “My Old Kentucky Home” (with its nostalgic versus about happy “darkies” on a plantation) completed their portrayal as relics of the South’s antebellum past.
The film’s producers were not alone in their imaginings of islanders. Newspaper reports chronicling Coolidge’s trip also borrowed from popular fantasies about black southerners and painted them as artifacts of the past and as supporting characters in Coffin’s occupation of his very own tropical oasis. Articles published in the nation’s leading newspapers described the “250 negroes who” lived on Coffin’s private “game preserve” and who showed “their allegiance to” the millionaire. During the visit, Coffin used islanders to entertain Coolidge. Reports recounted hunting excursions during which “negro beaters worked their way through the surrounding brush, flushing the birds and turning them in the direction of the field” so that the millionaire and the President could shoot their prey. Articles described the “sea island rodeo” where “excited negroes rode” the island’s wild steer “bareback.” Coffin loved slave songs, so it is not surprising that he had islanders sing them for the President and his wife. Papers detailed scenes where “negro girls lined up on the beach and vied with each other in singing the spirituals of their race” and announced that the “island negroes” were slated to “sing their old spirituals for the President’s entertainment” while a “motion picture film is made.”
But Sapelo Islanders were anything but Coffin’s entertaining, jovial and loyal subjects. Most of the islanders who participated in the rodeo and the hunting expeditions, and those who sang songs for Coffin’s guests, were descendants of the newly freed men and women who re-settled the island that they worked as slaves after the Civil War, and who protested the return of their former slave master’s heirs brandishing guns and declaring that the land was theirs. When their protest failed, they organized and purchased and re-sold land to islanders to secure their home. In 1912 when Coffin bought a large portion of the island to establish a hunting preserve, and built his mansion on the very spot where the antebellum “big house” once stood, it was clear to islanders that the tide had once again turned against them. In the face of Coffin’s domination, many islanders took the jobs that he offered at the “big house,” in his cannery, accepted positions tending to his livestock and gardens, or maintained roads in exchange for regular wages.
Surely many of the islanders who performed for Coolidge and the filmmakers were pleased to have the President in the audience of onlookers observing their craft, but their willingness to perform should not be interpreted as merry contentment. In fact, evidence of their discontent can be found in the same musical tradition that was exploited in the film. “Pay Me Money Down” was a popular work song among coastal Georgia blacks by the 1920s. The song’s refrain, “Pay me, Oh pay me, Pay me or go to jail,” echoed the anxieties that blacks who “owed” debts to wealthy whites suffered. Sapelo Islanders’ contributed a very telling verse to the work song that traveled throughout the region: “Wish’t I was Mr. Coffin’s son…Stay in the house an’ drink good rum.” Similarly, blacks on nearby St. Simon’s Island added a verse that featured their “big boss” “Wish’t I Mr. Foster’s son…I’d sit on the bank an’ see the work done.” These lyrics clearly expressed islanders’ critique of the social structure that limited their life chances. When islanders sang that they wished they were Coffin’s or Foster’s son, they were acknowledging freedoms, wealth, luxuries and power that Jim Crow denied them—they were articulating their frustration with the hierarchy that forced them into grueling work routines and debt that threatened their freedom.
When the cameras stopped rolling, and after Coolidge departed the island, interest in Sapelo Islanders’ cultural lives did not wane—it grew. In the years after the President’s visit, Sapelo Islanders would contribute songs to a “slave song” collection; they were captured in photographs printed in National Geographic Magazine; their dialect was recorded and featured in a groundbreaking linguistics study; and their memories were included in the Federal Writers’ Project folklore volume. Inspired by a mixture of popular fantasies about the South’s black “primitives” and competing theories about blacks’ racial inheritance that dominated American intellectual and cultural life during the 1930s, these works established Sapelo Islanders as one of the most unique populations of southern blacks. Even though their culture would attract the interest of people around the globe, the material realities of their lives, and their yearnings for equality would continue to be ignored for decades after they were first introduced to the nation in 1928.
Written by Dr. Melissa Cooper, Assistant Professor, Institute for Southern Studies