Photograph by Patrick Heagney.
African American, Storytelling, Cultural Activism
In her own words, Cornelia Bailey was a Saltwater Geechee and a storyteller. Her research, writing, cultural, and environmental activism in her birthplace in Belle Marsh on Sapelo Island, part of the Georgia Sea Islands, defined her contribution to the folklore field. Bailey was eloquent in both the English taught on the mainland and in the language of her Geechee forebears.
Born to Hicks Walker and Hettie Bryant in 1945, Bailey is recognized as a griot as well as a pioneer in the development of community directed agency in cultural tourism.
Bailey traced her lineage and that of her community back to West Africa, where her ancestor, Bilali Muhammad, a Fulbe Muslim, was born and later seized into slavery, ending up on the Thomas Spalding plantation in Sapelo in 1803. In 1989, her research took her to Sierra Leone where she studied connections between Sea Island cultural practices that she practiced and their ancestral correlates on the African continent.
Bailey was a fierce advocate for the revitalization of the heritage of her island’s African descendants, and by extension, for African American history and cultural agency. As a community-based folklore scholar, she learned and recorded oral histories, traditional medicine, as well as agricultural practices, foodways, vernacular architecture, crafts, and other vital lifeways of Sapelo. She both practiced and fought to sustain these traditions as the island underwent numerous threats ranging from environmental neglect, economic devastation, to ever present and causative systemic racism. Cornelia Bailey’s public folklore work included lectures throughout the United States.
As a founder and vice-president of the Sapelo Island Cultural Revitalization Society, she engaged several research-based cultural tourism strategies intended to bring much needed revenue to the island’s African American residents. These and other indefatigable efforts on behalf of Sea Island heritage earned her a Governor’s Award in the Humanities in 2004.
Constance Walker Bailey’s publications include:
With Christena Bledsoe. God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia (2000)
Ray Crook, Cornelia Bailey, Norma Harris and Karen Smith. Sapelo Voices: Historical Anthropology and the Oral Traditions of Gullah-Geechee Communities on Sapelo Island, Georgia (2003)