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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.

Sources: Gullah Geechee in the Golden Isles (Lotson and Holladay). Interviews by Mercer University students of Dr. Melanie Pavich.

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In the 1980s and 1990s if you had business guests or family members visiting St. Simons Island or Sea Island in the 1960s you took them to Alfonza’s Olde Plantation Supper Club in Harrington.

If you were an African-American traveling down the Dixie Highway to a gig in Miami and found yourself playing at one of the South End juke joints on St. Simons Island, you joined South End community at Hazel’s Café for the weekend low country boil.

Olde Plantation Supper Club

Alfonza Ramsey worked at Don Gentile’s Bennie’ Red Barn with other Harrington residents. They wore white jackets and recited the menu. In 1979 Alfonza opened his own restaurant on Harrington Lane, just a half mile from Bennie’s and deep in the African-American community where he lived. Ramsey was “a master marketer and restaurateur” according to frequent diner and real estate agent Roland Daniels in his company’s Facebook posting in April 2019. When Daniels’ clients from Atlanta ordered seafood, Alfonza, ever working the dining room, told them they had to try his steaks and returned and strategically set on the table “a platter of mouthwatering T-bones.” ’’You got to have some steak to balance those 3 o’clock swimmers; these are on the house," Ramsey declared. Of course, Daniels recalls, “they really weren’t always on the house; often as not [the steaks] would appear in the total of our bill at the end of the night. It didn’t matter. There was an unspoken agreement that whatever was served, this wizard of a restaurant man knew how to help us close a deal with his service and his delicious food. And we loved the place.” The Supper Club was known for their steaks. Why were they so good?, asked a student interviewing him for Ebb Tide . “Because I cooked them,” replied Ramsey.

Once considered the biggest black-owned restaurant on the Southern coast Ramsey abruptly closed the supper club in 2000 after he was robbed at gunpoint and shot in the head after closing on New Year’s Eve.

Hazel’s Cafe

When the Jones shipyard in Brunswick closed and she lost her job building Liberty Ships, Hazel Floyd, with her husband Tom Floyd, opened Hazel’s Café in 1947 and store on Demere Road in St. Simons’s Island. A direct descendant of slaves brought to the island on The Wanderer Thomas was from Hazelhurst, arriving on St. Simons Island after serving in the Army during World War II (1941-45). “He was a darned good cook” and Hazel was an island native. “Together, the couple whipped up a recipe for success that would feed the community for three decades.”

The café was at the center of a thriving community on the South End that included a rooming house, juke joints, a theater, small inns, and homes. “It was all African American, of course” stated Amy Roberts in her book Gullah-Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles. “Many of Hazel’s dishes were favorites of islanders, including sandwiches, fried fish and “an amazing deviled crab.” The café was mainly takeout, Roberts recalled. “The menu at Hazel’s always pleased a clientele on the go. A lot of the folks worked in what is known today as the service industry — either at island resorts and hotels, or in private homes.” Sometimes people would eat outside the restaurant especially when there were barbecues or Lowcountry boils on the weekend. The café was open seven days a week. On Sunday, Roberts told local writer Larry Hobbs, “Hazel would start cooking early, then head down the road to Emanuel Baptist Church for the service before returning home to feed the afternoon dinner crowd. “

Hazel’s Café closed in 1978 but the building still stands along with the Floyds’ house next door both preserved by Fred Mars, owner of Pane in the Glass.

Sources that contributed to this article: Brunswick News June 16, 1981 and Ebb Tide June 1981 interview by student writers Dianne Douglass, Fontaine Harper, Amy Horton and Nicki Narcisco (courtesy of Brunswick Library librarian Rebecca); Patrik Jonsson, Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 2002; Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles (Amy Roberts and Patrick Holladay, 2019); Larry Hobbs, The Brunswick News, Sept. 2018.

Were you a guest or employee at these restaurants? Do you recall a favorite African American restaurant? Share your memories by email at harringtonschool@ssiheritagecoalition.org, or call 912-634-0330.

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Southern cooks are known for not using written recipes, opting for “a smidge of this and a good bit of that.” In the Georgia Sea Island kitchens it was the same. Recipes were rarely written down: they were kept alive in an oral tradition of watching and asking the cook. Sometimes a cook might omit a step to preserve his or her reputation. The reputation of coastal African American cooks may be traced back to Cupidon (chef to Marquis de Montalet on Sapelo) and his protégé Sans Fox (chef for the Coupers at Cannon’s Point on St. Simons Island) in the 18 th century. Sans Foix’s technique for deboning a whole turkey was a never-told secret.

The St. Simons African-American Heritage Coalition’s annual festival “A Taste of Gullah” brings to guests one-pot rice dishes with shrimp or chicken reminiscent of recipes carried from Africa. As a griot and keeper of local African-American history SSAAHC Executive Director Amy Roberts collects recipes for foods served at church suppers, community barbecues, or family reunions, and “secret” techniques for preserving fruits or canned vegetables. She is glad to have saved recipes for canned okra and tomatoes, and peas and rice from her late friend Annie Cummings. Pound cakes for Church homecomings, whole hog barbecues on weekends, and smoked mullet all taste of tradition. Many of the recipes today were derived from traditions and foodstuffs passed down through Muslim traditions. Katie Brown, the great granddaughter of Belali Mohomet on Sapelo spoke to writers in the 1930s about her grandmother Margaret’s rice cakes which she described as “funny flat cakes’ called ‘sakara.” She said that her grandmother made the rice cakes with honey or sugar on the same day every year, “a it big day,” possibly referring to a Muslim celebration to offer thanks for their blessings and remembering Allah. Shadwick Rudolph, who lived between St. Marys and Folkston, told the same writers that his grandmother Sally makes the best rice cakes with brown sugar, not honey.

Since the 18 th century coastal African Americans have served their knowledge of local produce and traditional foodstuffs in their homes and outside to the white community. Hoppin’ john (black-eye peas), collard greens and pot likker, sweet potatoes or yams, okra, gumbo, hibiscus, and watermelon can be found on tables across the U.S. Often chefs have carried these simple dishes from their childhood kitchens to James Beard award winning restaurants.

Adults in Savannah recall enjoying “thrills” in the summertime. The sweet sticky snack is essentially, frozen juice or Kool-Aid inside a plastic cup with a popsicle stick in the middle. Today James Beard Foundation award chef Mashama Bailey offers thrills at her restaurant The Grey as a palate cleanser. Bailey’s pops are derived from muscadine, and yet the effect mirrors the original. They remain fun, nostalgic, a tether of memory yanking at the heart and tongue.

And no doubt some of the recipes recorded in the Cassina Garden Club cookbook echoed the talents of their African- American housekeepers and cooks.

Sources that contributed to this article: Drums and Shadows, Georgia Writers Project 1940; Article by Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid , July 2015 on website www.sapelosquare.com; articles about Thrills: Savannah Morning News, Sept. 14, 2023 and Gabrielle Ware, GPB. July 2015.

What food/recipes do you recall?? Memorialize your cook, or share a favorite recipe with us at harringtonschool@ssiheritagecoalition.org, or call 912-634-0330.

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WEEK 2

“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.

SHARE YOUR STORIES about family gardens, farms, or hunting and fishing by email to harringtonschool@ssiheritagecoalition.org, or call 912-634-0330.

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