Local Black History A Tale Of Fortitude, Perseverance

Bilali Muhammad was left in charge of Sapelo Island by plantation owners in 1812

-- The enslaved man called Neptune was bound to the King family of Retreat Plantation on St. Simons Island. But it was a lifetime of enduring friendship, not bondage, that spurred Neptune to retrieve Henry Lord King’s body from the carnage of a Civil War battlefield. 

Today, the man and his unconditional act of love serve as the namesake for Neptune Park. The sprawling oceanfront green beside the Pier Village on St. Simons Island serves as a place where a rainbow of cultures now gather in fellowship and harmony.

Farther north on St. Simons Island is Ebo Landing, a lesser known but more striking testament to the harsh legacy of slavery. It is said that here on Dunbar Creek 13 members of the Igbo tribe, newly-arrived from Africa, drowned themselves en masse rather than endure a life of slavery.

Examples of both Neptune and the Igbo inform the proud traditions of the Geechee. These Coastal Georgia people kindled their African customs in a new land despite centuries of enslavement. The Geechee value their independence just as they honor their allegiances to place and people.

Geechee culture fairly mirrors that of the South Carolinian Gullahs, but an outsider should not try to bandy the two words about, local historian and Darien native Buddy Sullivan said: “Gullah is South Carolina — Geechee is Georgia.”

Some historians say that the term Geechee may be derivative from the Ogeechee River near Savannah. Like their Gullah kin, the Geechee are unique in the sad tale of slavery in America. Human and geographical circumstances afforded them a certain degree of independence scarcely seen among enslaved people elsewhere.

The agricultural technology and irrigation practices employed on Coastal Georgia rice plantations were of African origin. When it came to planting and harvesting, most knew the process involved better than the whites who profited from it. And the Africans themselves were better acclimated than the white Europeans to the malarial conditions that prevailed in the region.

In fact, Thomas Spalding assigned the slave Bilali Mohammad as overseer of his Sapelo Island cotton plantation. The Muslim Bilali was captured near present day Guinea in the West African Fulani States, where knowledge and learning were valued traditions. He was literate and spoke English, French and Arabic before his capture as a teenager.

During the War of 1812, Spalding retreated from Sapelo Island with his family. However, Spalding left 80 muskets for Bilali and the slaves in his charge to defend Sapelo against the likelihood of British invasion. The plantation was intact and awaiting Spalding when he returned at war’s end.

Born around 1770, Bilali died in 1857, having fathered 19 children with his wife, Pheobe. Many of Bilali’s proud descendants live among us on the Georgia Coast still today, Emory Rooks of St. Simons Island among them.

“He is an important part of our local history,” said Emory, who is active in historic First African Baptist Church on St. Simons Island.

With the freedom gained following the Civil War, the Geechee attained independence in the most literal sense. Melding their African ancestry with new traditions, the Geechee developed a distinct dialect, musical tradition and culture. After generations of immersion in the local environment and the riches of its natural resources, they were able to settle in among the barrier islands without much need of outside assistance or influence.

Cornelia Bailey, the beloved Sapelo Islander and author of the intriguing book “God, Dr. Buzzard and The Bolito Man,” noted how the Geechee made Sapelo their own after working the land in bondage for generations. Bailey, who died last October at 72, is a direct descendant of Bilali. In her book, Bailey notes, “we all lived on land that had been in our families since shortly after the Civil War. When freedom came, our ancestors knew the only way to stand on their own two feet and feed their families was to have their own land. So as soon as they could, they bought land on the island they had worked the soil of during slavery days.”

Unlike Bilali and those 13 tribesmen at Igbo Landing, Neptune was born into slavery, the son of enslaved parents on St. Simons Island. His mother was Sukey, a head nurse at Retreat’s hospital. Neptune was chosen at birth to be a playmate of Henry Lord King, born just a few months earlier. The two quickly formed a lasting bond. It is said that plantation matriarch Ann Page King taught Neptune to read and write alongside Lordy.

Although he led a comparatively privileged life, Neptune was enslaved nonetheless. So when Lordy went off to war as an officer in the Confederacy, Neptune followed as a manservant.

Lord King later volunteered to carry a message across dangerous territory during the Battle of Fredericksburg (Va.).

When he did not return by sundown, Neptune ventured into the bloody no-man’s land between the battle lines and found Lordy in the dark among the dead and dying. He then made the arduous trek home with his beloved friend’s body. After the war, Lord was buried in the family plot at Christ Church on St. Simons Island.

Neptune adopted the last name Small upon gaining freedom, apparently a self appraisal of his physical stature. But his stout heart earned him the title of landowner, a gift of gratitude from the King family.

“They were so grateful for that gesture that they gave him property from their lands,” Sullivan said. “It’s really one of the nice stories that comes from St. Simons during that era.”