African American communities in coastal Georgia were settled for land, labor, and legacy. St. Simons Island’s Harrington and South End were settled by families descended from those enslaved on the Couper, Butler, Retreat, and Gould plantations. Harris Neck and Hogg Hammock likewise began with freedmen from nearby plantations. Jewtown on St. Simons Island, Dixville, and ARCO on Brunswick were built for workers at nearby factories, mills, or docks.
The community consisted of related families, a church, a small grocery, a barber shop, a school, a juke joint, a café, maybe a gas station. An African American community was the basis of the proverbial “It takes a village to raise a child” often illustrated when your mama and daddy knew what you had done before you got home. “Because there was so much family there, a whole community of people who cared about each other. See, that was my foundation. I’d hate to have come up without that.” said South End native Jim Brown. “A person’s life depends on foundation,” said Emory Rooks. His community Harrington, like others, “had a good foundation.” Emory Rooks.
Over time, the legacy of community shrank because of pressure by developers, by government coercion, or by difficulties caused by heirs property. Changing economies, the beginning and the end of world wars, and the closing of factories disrupted communities. When younger generations moved away and higher taxes went unpaid or properties were sold, African Americans communities lost that foundation that had supported them for centuries. Family members came back annually for a church homecoming, family reunion, or for funerals. A few moved back, but the community was dissolved.
“We were [becoming] forgotten communities.” said Eloise Spears of Harrington. In the last few years, however, Mrs. Spears said, “We are finally starting to work on our heritage” pointing to organizations like St Simons African American Heritage Coalition (SSAAHC), the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, and the federal Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org.)
This February for Black History Month we will look at three communities on St. Simons Island; three communities founded by work, and the mutual aid societies that historically and currently provided a foundation for African Americans.