BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — Cornelia Walker Bailey devoted her life to documenting and preserving the Saltwater Geechee culture on Sapelo Island until her passing in 2017, but it seems the isolated island’s beloved matriarch has more wisdom to impart.
Bailey’s interactions with the island and its people are the focus of the award-winning documentary, “Sapelo.”
The documentary made its U.S. premiere Thursday on PBS. An episode of the American ReFramed documentary series on WORLD Channel, the film can be streamed at worldchannel.org.
Directed by Swiss documentarian Nick Brandestini, “Sapelo” looks through Bailey’s eyes at the fading Saltwater Geechee culture in the island’s Hog Hammock community. Here in this last enclave of the Georgia sea islands’ unique Geechee people, the film captures Bailey’s efforts to preserve this rich African American culture for posterity in the face of increasing development pressures. At the same time, Bailey perseveres with the raising of her two adoptive boys, JerMarkest and Johnathan, on this unbridged island.
Sapelo Island is accessible by ferry.
The filming of “Sapelo” took place before Bailey’s death at age 72 on Oct. 12, 2017, but editing and final production work was not completed until recent years. The film has since had several film festival screenings, earning Best Documentary Feature at the RiverRun International Film Festival in the spring of 2021 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Thursday marked the documentary’s public premiere.
“Cornelia Walker Bailey was an amazing woman who I shared a lot of laughs with,” Brandestini told The News. “She was a powerful voice for Sapelo who worked tirelessly to preserve the Gullah-Geechee culture.”
Like the Gullah along the shores of South Carolina, coastal Georgia’s Geechee culture emerged from the fierce determination of enslaved Blacks to maintain their African roots and traditions. Despite enslavement, an advanced knowledge of rice cultivation and a resistance to malaria afforded them a degree of independence under which their African traditions were preserved and adapted over the generations.
When emancipation came, the newly-freed Geechee settled on barrier islands such as Sapelo, employing their understanding of the unique coastal environment to forge self-sufficient farming and fishing communities.
Born on Sapelo Island, Bailey grew up immersed in the Geechee culture and traditions. She was a direct descendant of Bilali, the literate enslaved man who practiced his Muslim faith while rising to overseer of Thomas Spalding’s Sapelo Island plantation in the early 19th century.
Bailey became a tireless champion of the Geechee and their place on Sapelo Island, the secluded beauty of which has brought increasing pressure from developers of luxury homes in recent decades. A gifted storyteller, Bailey was much in demand as a speaker.
She founded the Sapelo Island Cultural Day Festival to raise further awareness of Geechee culture. Perhaps the defining book on this unique coastal Georgia culture is Bailey’s 2000 memoir, “God, Dr. Buzzard,” and the “Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island.”
Brandestini said getting to know Bailey was a highlight of the film’s making. Tapping into her wisdom and keen sense of humor was key to the film’s success, he said. In the process, he learned that family members such as son Maurice are working to keep her dreams alive.
“Her unique legacy lives on in many ways,” Brandestini said. “Her stories remain alive and her agricultural projects are now being led by her son, Maurice. I am hoping that viewers will be called to action to ensure that this historic community continues to thrive well into the future.”