Remedying Disparate Treatment of Sapelo Island’s Black Gullah Geechee Community

In August 2022, Relman Colfax settled an historic case challenging the failure of McIntosh County and the State of Georgia to provide equal services to the largest intact Gullah Geechee community in Georgia, on Sapelo Island. In the litigation, the Plaintiffs alleged that the County and State failed to provide adequate water, emergency medical, fire, road maintenance, trash, and accessible ferry services to members of the community.  As a result of the settlement, McIntosh County will provide financial compensation to the Plaintiffs—Gullah Geechee residents and landowners on Sapelo—and will dramatically increase the services it provides to that community, remedying decades of malign neglect of the Black population on Sapelo. Earlier in the case, Plaintiffs settled with the State when it agreed, among other things, to invest millions of dollars into the ferry and docks serving Sapelo.

Background: A Historic Black Community Endangered by Taxation and Government Neglect

The firm represented dozens of Black, Gullah Geechee descendants who live and own property in the Hogg Hummock community on Sapelo Island, a barrier island off the coast of McIntosh County, Georgia.

The Black Gullah Geechee community has owned land on Sapelo Island since the 19th century. During the 20th century, white industrialists Harold Coffin and R. J. Reynolds engaged in large-scale efforts to defraud Gullah Geechee descendants of their property, acquiring the vast majority of land on Sapelo Island through suspicious land transfers and forcing the Black Gullah Geechee community into a single neighborhood, Hogg Hummock. The Reynolds estate then sold the land it had taken from the descendants to the State of Georgia, which now owns about 97% of the Island.

McIntosh County has long collected taxes from Sapelo Island residents, despite providing little in the way of municipal. In 2011, the County’s Board of Tax Assessors dramatically increased the property assessments on Sapelo Island, producing exorbitant tax hikes, with Islanders’ annual payments increasing by as much as 30-fold. Taxation has historically been a primary instrument for towns and counties in Georgia and South Carolina to drive Gullah Geechee people out of their homes on the barrier islands, and the Hogg Hummock Gullah Geechee community feared that it would be forced to leave the island where their families had lived for generations. Members of the community sought legal assistance from Relman Colfax, and the firm successfully challenged the tax increases, returning taxes to their earlier levels.

In 2015, the firm filed federal civil rights claims against the County and State.  The claims against the State were settled in 2020, with the State agreeing to  make extensive improvements to the passenger ferry and docks to make them accessible to people with disabilities and to expand the schedule to make it easier for residents going to jobs and school on the mainland.  

The complaint alleged that the County had engaged in a decades-long practice of collecting taxes from Sapelo Island residents while failing to provide municipal services such as emergency medical treatment, fire protection, road maintenance, and trash collection. This differential treatment impacted Islanders’ day-to-day lives in tangible ways. For example, while mainland residents received curbside trash pickup, people on Sapelo had to haul their trash to a buzzard-infested compactor, despite paying the same trash fee. And while people on the mainland can expect a fully stocked ambulance to respond to medical emergencies in about 15 minutes, the County typically failed to respond to emergency calls from the Island, forcing residents needing urgent care to get to the mainland before receiving any County services. The County left the oldest, often inoperable, decommissioned fire truck on the Island for fire protection and left it for many years sitting out uncovered and exposed to the sun and rain.  While the County maintained dirt roads on the mainland once a week, it only worked on Hogg Hummock roads once or twice a year.

Although Sapelo Island residents complained about the lack of services, the County dismissed and ignored these concerns because Hogg Hummock is a majority-Black community.

Key Case Developments

Early Litigation Victories

Plaintiffs filed their initial complaint in December of 2015, raising claims under the Fourteenth Amendment, Title VI, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1982, the Fair Housing Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Plaintiffs challenged the State’s and County’s provision of services including ferry, water, road maintenance, trash collection, fire protection, emergency medical assistance, leisure services, and mosquito control.

Defendants moved to dismiss the case three times, and each time, the Court determined that Plaintiffs’ claims should proceed.

Plaintiffs and the State Reach a Settlement

Sapelo Island is reachable only by ferry operated by the State. For years, the docks at the ferry landings and the boat itself were inaccessible to people with mobility impairments, making it difficult for the aging Gullah Geechee population that lives on Sapelo Island to access the mainland. After extensive discovery involving more than 60 depositions, in May of 2020, the Plaintiffs reached a significant settlement with the State, providing for financial compensation and for changes to the ferry infrastructure to allow people with disabilities ready access to the ferry. Since the settlement, the State has made substantial improvements to the ferry valued at over $10 million.

Plaintiffs Secure Summary Judgment Victory

The case continued against Defendant McIntosh County, and in the fall of 2020, the County moved for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiffs’ claims should not proceed to trial. Plaintiffs successfully defeated this summary judgment motion, securing a ruling that they had produced sufficient evidence for a jury to find that they had suffered differential treatment because of race. The court denied a second County motion for summary judgment asserting that Plaintiffs’ claims predated the statute of limitations period. The Court found that Plaintiffs had provided sufficient factual support to show that the County’s “discriminatory funding and provision of the respective municipal services constitute systemic continuing violations.”

Plaintiffs and the County Reach a Settlement

The case against the County was set to go to trial on July 25, 2022. Just prior to trial, the parties agreed to a groundbreaking settlement, providing for a payment of $2 million in damages and attorneys’ fees to the Plaintiffs and ensuring a period of tax stability and substantially increased municipal services on Sapelo Island.

Impact: Righting Past Discrimination and Providing a Path Forward

This is the first federal suit challenging the government’s treatment of Gullah Geechee people, and the settlements with the State and County contribute significantly to remedying past discrimination. As part of the settlement agreement, the County will station emergency medical equipment and an emergency medical vehicle on Sapelo Island, ensure that the fire protection equipment is modern and functional, maintain the roads in the Hogg Hummock community, and reduce the trash fee Island residents must pay to reflect the difference in trash service they receive.

In addition to remedying the past effects of discrimination, the agreement ensures that Sapelo residents will enjoy improved public services and infrastructure, which is critical to the continued viability of the Gullah Geechee community. Moreover, under the settlement agreement, the County has agreed to keep taxes on the Island at their current levels for three years, protecting against a near-term, sudden tax increase that would drive people off the Island. The financial compensation under the settlements also provides a meaningful opportunity for building financial security in the Hogg Hummock community.

The Case Team

The Relman Colfax litigation team includes Reed Colfax, Rebecca Livengood, Lila Miller, and Zoila Hinson, with paralegal assistance from Charlotte Saltzman and Don Scales. Robert Jackson of Robert B. Jackson IV, LLC serves as co-counsel on the case. 

Case Caption

Drayton, et al. v. McIntosh County, Georgia, et al., No. 2:16-cv-53-RSB-BWC (S.D. Ga.)

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