Cornelia Bailey is one of a last generation of African-Americans born, raised, and schooled on Sapelo Island, GA. For generations, this Geechee community, descendents of Africans enslaved on the Sea Islands, lived isolated from the mainland. Now, just 69 black residents live on Sapelo. Children attend school on the mainland, and most move off the island as soon as they are old enough to find work.
Cornelia describes growing up on Sapelo as a struggle in many ways. Her father made nets and fox traps, and provided for his family with wild fish and game - including, sometimes, alligator. Men plowed the fields with oxen and mules, and Cornelia says she can still cook better on a wood stove than an electric one.
As a child, Cornelia visited churches on the mainland and wondered why worship there was slightly different from her Baptist church on Sapelo. It wasn't until she read The Autobiography of Malcolm X that she became aware that many religious practices on Sapelo had Muslim origins. Cornelia was the descendent of a Muslim slave named Bilai Mohamed who was enslaved on Sapelo in 1803. Bilali could read and write Arabic, wore a fez, and was buried with a copy of the Quran. His wife, Phoebe, wore a veil, and her daughters had Islamic names, such as Medina, Fatima, and Hester.
Cornelia sees Islamic origins in the way Sapelo women cover their hair in church and men and women sit on different sides of the aisle. All of the churches and gravestones on Sapelo face east, like mosques, and children were taught to always pray facing east. Cornelia also remembers making white rice cakes with molasses, much like the Islamic rice cakes that her great-great-grandmother gave out to children as charity (saraka).
When Cornelia was 12, she was sent out "seeking." This tradition, common in many Sea Islands churches, involved meeting regularly with a church elder for advice and Bible instruction. Late at night, Cornelia went out in the woods alone to pray and dream, and would later recount her dreams to her elder. She finally had a dream of an angel in a yellow dress, and was deemed worthy of baptism and entry into the Church. In A Peculiar People, Margaret Washington notes that this practice is similar to African rites of initiation.
Cornelia and her family operate a lodge and give tours of Sapelo. They are active in trying to revive the economy and encourage Sapelo youth to return to the island. Cornelia is a storyteller, folklorist, and the author of God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man, a book about growing up on Sapelo Island.