Ibo Landing historic marker takes place in local history

May 25—About 100 folks gathered Wednesday at the grounds of the Old Stables on St. Simons Island for the dedication of the Ibo Landing historical marker, an occasion marked by moving speeches from key players in the plaque's fruition.

But perhaps the most poignant moment began after the prepared tributes when a graying African American man began crooning a gospel standard from his seat in the audience beneath a shade tree.

"Oh, Freedom; Oh, freedom; Oh, freedom," St. Simons Islander Chip Wilson intoned in his mellow baritone.

"Oh, freedom over me," many African Americans in the audience sang along, instinctively joining the refrain.

"And before I'd be a slave," the subdued chorus echoed melodically above those gathered, "I'd be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.

"Oh, freedom."

And then silence.

This day had been long in coming. Some would say it was more than 200 years in the making. And Wilson's impromptu conclusion to the ceremony served as a fitting summation of a marker that finally recognizes the ultimate sacrifice the Igbo people made in the name of freedom over enslavement.

The historical marker that recognizes the Ibo Landing event in May 1803 on St. Simons Island at nearby Dunbar Creek resulted from the combined efforts of several people and organizations. Prominently among them were the young men and women of Glynn Academy's Ethnology Club, who led the way that adults would follow in making the marker a reality.

It is the first of the many historical markers on St. Simons Island that recognizes a piece of the past from the Black perspective, noted the Coastal Georgia Historical Society (CGHS), which guided the high school students in their application process with the Georgia Historical Society.

The St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition assisted with "vital perspective" in the wording of the marker, said CGHS Executive Director Sherri Jones. And the St. Simons Land Trust provided the space on its Old Stables green space for placement of the plaque.

The marker is at 15 Market St., on a service road that runs along the Old Stables grounds in the shopping plaza near the intersection of Frederica and Sea Island roads.

"People have always been fascinated by the story of Ibo Landing," Jones told the audience, which represented a balanced cross-section of the Golden Isles. "It's a compelling story, it's a tragic story. And it's one that needs to be recognized ... And leave it to the young people to see all the possibilities and not just the obstacles."

Members of the ethnology club were moved by the story of Ibo Landing and troubled by the lack of official recognition, said sophomore Cash Roberson.

"The whole club is about the study of cultures," Roberson said. "We have a lot of history here, and a lot of it gets overlooked. And this was a way of bringing attention to this event."

The students' Ibo Landing marker application was among only five approved from 25 submissions statewide in 2021, said Elyse Butler of the Georgia Historical Society.

"It feels nice to play a role in preserving something that many people did not know about and to share this important piece of history," said Ashley Ramirez, a GA sophomore and ethnology club vice president.

The Ibo Landing story has long been part of the historic oral tradition of the local African American and Gullah Geechee communities. While it contains elements of myth, the incident is grounded in historical fact.

Captured members of the Igbo tribe in present-day Nigeria rebelled against their captors on the ship Morovia while in transit from a slave market in Savannah to plantations on St. Simons Island. The ship came ashore nevertheless at Dunbar Creek off of the Frederica River, where numerous tribal members facing their would-be owners walked as one in chains into the water. "The water brought us here, the water will takes us away," they chanted.

Witness Roswell King, a White plantation overseer, reported that the Igbo "took to the swamp and drowned." While many were saved, anywhere from 10 to 13 members of the group drowned. Igbo spiritual tradition holds that they simply went home, entering the waters that took them away.

Scholars and others say the Ibo Landing event is the source of the mythical "Flying African" legend of the enslaved taking flight to soar above their bondage and oppression.

The tribe spells its name Igbo, but the local tradition has adopted phonetic spellings of Ibo and Ebo through the centuries, as noted on the historical marker.

Amy Roberts, executive director of the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition, took part in the marker's unveiling alongside GA Ethnology Club President Rachael Walters. She noted that the Ibo Landing tradition holds worldwide recognition for its powerful message about freedom's priceless value.

"I have been taking people to Ibo Landing for many years," she said, referring to spot on private property off of Atlantic Avenue on Dunbar Creek where it is believed the event took place. "And I am talking about people from all over the world. Not just Africans, but people from Germany, from England, from China and also from Africa. You name it. It is important to my community, it is important to your community and to other communities around the world that this marker is placed here."

Many of those on hand noted that the tragic history of Ibo Landing has a redemptive contemporary lesson.

"I came for the historic side of it," said Brunswick's Shawn Slay. "And I like knowing that a marker will be placed here to understand the past in hopes of a brighter future."

John and Deborah Smith are longtime Ohio on snowbirds who recently became permanent St. Simons Islanders.

"In this day and age, it's just good to see people come together from their respective backgrounds," said John Smith after shaking hands with one of the young ethnology club members. "It's just so positive to see it."