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Isolated island home to ancestors of slaves maintaining Geechee traditions

David Goldman / AP

Sapelo Island, Ga. resident, Kent Grovner, fishes off a dock on May 15.

David Goldman / AP

Stephen Wilson, 68, walks onto the front porch of his home that his father built in the Hog Hammock community of Sapelo Island on May 15. "Dad built this house with his labor. Every time I put the key in the door, I remember coming home as a child saying, 'Hi, papa. Hi, mama.' It has a lot of remembrance."

David Goldman / AP

Lula Walker, 65, owner of Lula's Kitchen, rests after serving lunch to a tour group as her granddaughter Stephanie Grovner, 21, helps in the kitchen in the only restaurant in the Hog Hammock community of Sapelo Island on May 15.

Roughly 47 residents, most of them descendants of West African slaves known as Geechee, remain on Sapelo Island off the Georgia coast where their ancestors were brought to work a plantation in the early 1800s. Once freed, the slaves were able to acquire land and created settlements on the island, of which only the tiny 464-acre Hog Hammock community still exists.

Isolated over time to the Southeast's barrier islands, the Geechee of Georgia and Florida, otherwise known as Gullah in the Carolinas, have retained their African traditions more than other African American communities in the U.S.

Residents say a sudden tax hike, lack of jobs, and development is endangering one of the last remaining Geechee communities from Florida to North Carolina. "People not going to be able to hang on to their property," says Lulu Walker, island resident and business owner. "The people don't make that kind of money on this island."

David Goldman / AP

Ire Gene Grovner walks through remnants of the old slave's quarters at the Chocolate Plantation where his ancestors lived some eight generations ago on Sapelo Island on May 16.

David Goldman / AP

Kyle Alexander, 20, steps out while working at the Graball County Store, the only convenience store and one of the few businesses in the Hog Hammock community of Sapelo Island on May 15.

David Goldman / AP

J.J. Wilson 9, rides a school bus to catch a ferry to the his school on the mainland from his home in the Hog Hammock community of Sapelo Island on May 15. Eight children catch a ferry in the morning to attend school on the mainland since the last school operating on the island closed in 1978.

David Goldman / AP

Marvin Grovner, 16, plays with a basketball after returning home to the Hog Hammock community of Sapelo Island, Ga. from school on the mainland on May 15.

David Goldman / AP

Eddie Wilson, 65, puts on his glasses while riding the ferry from the mainland to attend a church service for the 129th anniversary of St. Luke Baptist Church on Sapelo Island on June 9.

David Goldman / AP

Cathleen Hillary, 93, the oldest resident of Sapelo Island, leaves a church service with her great granddaughter Milaika Ellison, for the 129th anniversary of St. Luke Baptist Church on the island on June 9.

David Goldman / AP

Donna Smith, a resident from the mainland who came over by ferry to attend the 129th anniversary of St. Luke Baptist Church, sings during the church's service on Sapelo Island on June 9.

David Goldman / AP

Cornelia Bailey sits on the front porch of the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society in the Hog Hammock community on May 16.

"You can't have a Geechee-Gullah Corridor without the preservation of the Geechee-Gullah people," she says. "They need to make sure the Geechee-Gullah people keep this land. This fight is not for us. The fight is for the next generation."

-- Associated Press