Billionaire Mansions and Gullah Geechee at Sapelo Island

15 October 2021

Sam McLean

On Friday October 15th, our class took a day trip to Sapelo Island near Brunswick, GA. This tiny Georgia Sea Island is a place rich with Gullah and Geechee culture. After a short 15-minute ferry ride, we arrived at the docks where our Georgia DNR hosts met us to tour around the island. We departed, and as we drove to their interpretation center through the dense maritime forest, we discussed the 30-person population of the island and the history behind what had made it such an important place.

Upon our arrival to the local interpretation center, we began to discuss the history of the center itself and the fact they had processed sugar cane next door using a donkey to grind the cane down to syrup. We entered the center and began to discuss the plants and animals native to the region. As we discussed the myriad of species native to the island and their importance to the location it became apparent that the culture on the island was rich with not only people, but also animals. We spent the rest of the day touring the island via bus seeing everything from the mansions of billionaires where presidents had stayed, to the tiny one trailer grocery store on the island. The division between the wealthy and the happy evident at every turn.

Building at the Sapelo Island Center, photo by Joshua Hall

The home we entered of R.J. Reynolds was incredible, but it was made even more immaculate by the stark contrast against the trailers we passed on the way in. In many ways the home of R.J. Reynolds, meant to symbolize his wealth at the time of his death, is deeply saddening. Staring upon the large empty house full of decorative walls makes you consider the parties and life he had there before his death. The power embodied in the grandeur of the landscaping and the romantic pools with porcelain statues exemplifying the definition of wealth. This home, now hotel, reminds me that while we worship the rich and famous, money can’t buy you happiness. We tell ourselves these idealistic narratives that money will fulfill a void, and yet it is the Gullah Geechee people and others doing the things they love, who are truly the happiest.

Passage in the Reynolds Mansion Library Room, photo by Joshua Hall

The trip to Sapelo Island and experience visiting a place so divided economically was extremely impactful to me. As a young man attending a private school in Virginia, I found it important to understand the past and how it influences the future. Our class has discussed idea of culture and place as it relates to the space. Oftentimes the Gullah Geechee people of these Georgia islands were very isolated until their land became exploited for tourism. As a tourist on the island, I felt very out of place and that I was in someone else’s backyard, sometimes literally. It is important that as more of these areas become points of interest, we remember to observe the habitat before we are too quick to exploit it. Sapelo is a beautiful island because of its isolation and the culture of the Gullah Geechee people has been able to survive here because they are respected, and their beliefs appreciated by visitors from all over.