“When I was growing up in Georgia I guess we were supposed to be poor…but we weren’t poor. We had all the crab and fish and vegetables that we could eat.”
NFL great and St. Simons Island native Jim Brown
In the Gullah Geechee communities of coastal Georgia accessibility to food sources offered healthy meals year-round. From the years of freedom through civil rights (1865-1965) most African American homes had vegetable gardens or small farm plots with rice, corn, peas, and greens. Apple, orange, or fig trees grew along the clapboard homes. Muscadines trailed in a nearby arbor. Chickens scattered around the swept yards, and pigs and a cow or goat stood in household pen. Residents harvested seafood and freshwater fish, oysters, shellfish from the ocean, creeks, and marsh. They hunted deer, racoons, or squirrels in the nearby woods. In small neighborhood confectionaries or bigger stores on the mainland, families purchased flour, sugar, salt and the bagged bread and peanut butter that made up each child’s school lunch. Everybody shared. Fishermen with a large catch of mullet split their catch and placed small batches on the nail on their neighbor’s porch. Hunters shared their deer meat. Brick mason “Buck” Buchanan owned five acres of land planted with various trees, e.g., tangerines, navel oranges, pears and different types of figs. Each summer he sold fresh figs from a fruit stand on Demere Road on St. Simons Island. Mrs. Ruthie Cobb made fig preserves from the bounty in her backyard off LaCosta Lane in the historic Jewtown community on St. Simons Island. Harrington resident Emory Rooks recalled, we had a very active life:
“We had a [10 acres] farm; we had a horse and a mule. We had chickens, we had fruit trees, and we had hogs. We had a large area to grow things — even pecan trees. We had all kinds of environments that were good for a growing person. My grandmother was a midwife so she had a bunch of herbs growing in the garden. We had a smokehouse to smoke our meat in and a barn for the horse and eventually a mule after the horse died…. We had a [frizzle] chicken which was supposed to be for good luck.”
Canneries in Pin Point and Shellman’s Bluff shipped oysters and crab to northeast cities. Shrimpers worked all night to haul in their loads. And there was always a little extra to share with neighbors and family. Canning vegetables and putting up fruit preserves provided well stocked pantries for families and friends.
A Department of Agriculture study in the 1920s reported that there were more African American farms in the coastal region than other areas of Georgia. Family-owned Gillard Farms began in 1874 when Matthew Raiford’s great-great-great-grandfather Jupiter Gilliard bought 476 acres outside Brunswick. Raiford has fond memories of growing up on Gilliard, of the tomatoes, okra, peas, peppers, and muscadine grapes. “I didn’t know that people shopped at the grocery store for fruits and vegetables until I was an adult because we grew everything,” he says. “I thought the store was where you went for flour and sugar, those kinds of things.”
Sources that contributed to this posting: Mercer University Student Robert Goolsby interview with Emory Rooks, 2014; Southern Living article about Gillard Farms (Feb. 24, 2020). Drums and Shadows, 1940.
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