Darien Rep. says HB273 was not to diminish Gullah culture on Sapelo

Mar. 18—State Rep. Buddy DeLoach, R-Townsend, says House Bill 273 was intended to clean up a section of Georgia code that in the 1980s created the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority and strengthen the presence of Hog Hammock community residents on the authority's board.

It was not to diminish the power of Gullah-Geechee people on the authority he says was created to protect the culture on the island.

The bill entered the spotlight recently after a group of organizations created to protect Gullah-Geechee culture on Sapelo Island, where one of the last vestiges of the culture of formerly enslaved people on Georgia's coast still thrives, said they were unaware of the changes the bill could make to the authority's board until after it passed the state House of Representatives.

They worried that if it passed as it was written, the door would be opened for residents of the community who were not former slave family descendants to serve on the board, which would in turn create opportunities for new and unwanted development on what they consider culturally sacred land.

The authority was created in the 1980s and essentially gives the board first right of refusal to purchase properties in Hog Hammock as they become available.

"The purpose of this authority was to provide an alternative, that if property became available (in Hog Hammock), the authority could buy it and it would not be developed," DeLoach said in a phone interview Friday.

Updating the makeup of the authority's board, which is what HB273 will do, was necessary for two reasons, DeLoach said. The first was because the governor is listed as the chairman in the law creating the board, but the governor can't often be present for meetings. The second was to remove the commissioner of human relations from the board because that commission no longer exists.

House Bill 273 seeks to change the makeup of the board by making the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, which owns and manages most of Sapelo Island, the chairman; making the governor the vice chairman instead of the chairman and allowing him to appoint someone to serve in his stead; removing the human relations commissioner and replacing that position with another Hog Hammock resident, bringing the total guaranteed resident representation to two.

"This bill actually gave them something more than they currently had," DeLoach said. "I thought it was important that if there was another seat available on the board, that it go to another resident of Hog Hammock."

But the organizations seeking to preserve Gullah-Geechee heritage worried that by not specifying that the "resident" board members had to be formerly enslaved family descendants, new residents or property owners could gain power in the authority and erode its cultural mission.

That language was changed this week by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment to say that the board would consist of "Two resident descendants" of Hog Hammock.

That left the organizations' other requests still unfulfilled, which was that the Governor's appointee must be an elected or a state official so that they can be held publicly accountable. That change still could come as the bill works its way through the General Assembly, which is the hope of the organizations and their representatives.

DeLoach said he was fine with the language change this week.

"We agreed to what the Senate committee wanted to do, and when it comes back to us, I am going to agree to it in the House," DeLoach said.

The Sapelo groups said after coming together in the past two weeks to seek changes in the bill that DeLoach was unwilling to work with them on changing the language.

DeLoach said he is always available to his constituents and that he had no record of direct contact personally or through his staff from the organizations. With that in mind, however, DeLoach acknowledged there is an opportunity moving forward to make more efforts to communicate with the people of Hog Hammock directly when bills like this come up.

DeLoach said he has fought for years to ensure the Hog Hammock community remains a cultural haven for the descendants of formerly enslaved African Americans and to ensure the authority is funded so it can carry out that mission.

"I have a long history of doing everything I can to protect the heritage of Hog Hammock because it is important," DeLoach said. "There never was ever any intention to do anything to diminish their rights."

As for comments made in the Senate committee hearing by Sen. Gail Davenport, D-Jonesboro, saying that assembly members shouldn't try to sneak bills through, DeLoach said he introduced this bill early in the session and that it went through several House committees for which all meetings are available online live and in recordings.

There was never any attempt to sneak anything through, he said.

"That was out of line," DeLoach said.