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St. Simons Island, Ga., was the site of slave ship rebellion, now the stuff of legend

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Today, St. Simons Island along the coast of Georgia is a vacation getaway. But in 1803, Africans arriving on a slave ship rebelled. Natalie Mendenhall of Georgia Public Broadcasting explains that rebellion has become a legend, the meaning of which is still being debated today. A warning - this story contains references to suicide.

NATALIE MENDENHALL, BYLINE: Dunbar Creek looks like any other tidal creek you might drive across on your way to the beach at St. Simons Island. But this place is special. A new roadside historic marker only begins to explain why. It reads in part, in 1803, Igbo captives from West Africa revolted while on a slave ship. That's one history. Amy Mitchell Roberts knows another.

AMY MITCHELL ROBERTS: You had to go to people. Once I heard it...

MENDENHALL: Roberts is descended from enslaved people who worked this island, which means she's Gullah Geechee. She remembers a warning a childhood neighbor got from his mother about going down to Dunbar Creek.

ROBERTS: You know, she wouldn't let her son go fishing down there because it was the end of the world.

MENDENHALL: The end of the world, because once the 75 Igbo finished the three-month voyage from Africa to Georgia's coast...

ROBERTS: They decided that this was not the life that they wanted. This was not what they bargained for.

MENDENHALL: So they took control of the ship and drove their captors into the water. But there were still men on shore waiting to force the Igbo onto plantations.

ROBERTS: When the ship or boats docked, they just walked over into the water.

MENDENHALL: What you believe happened next depends on what you or your ancestors needed from the story.

GRIFFIN LOTSON: Even this story now has grown into something larger than what happened on that day.

MENDENHALL: That's Griffin Lotson, Amy's cousin and the vice chairman of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission. He remembers being told by his father that when the Igbo went into the water, they didn't drown. They flew home.

LOTSON: And the flying African stories come about because the only thing you had in your mind, like the Igbos, was being free.

MENDENHALL: Freedom was not on the mind of the Georgia planters after the incident. In a letter written not long after the rebellion, slave trader William Mein saved his sympathy for a white overseer. Poor fellow lost his life, Mein wrote. As for how Mein and others of his class felt about the 12 Igbo in the group that ultimately drowned...

AMIR JAMAL TOURE: These Africans are money to them. They are wealth to them.

MENDENHALL: That's Amir Jamal Toure, Gullah Geechee Fellow at Georgia Southern University. Toure says it's wrong to interpret what happened at the Igbo landing site as a mass suicide.

TOURE: That's somebody else shaping the narrative.

MENDENHALL: Instead, he says, see the drowning as an act of resistance.

TOURE: They're like saying that basically, no man owns my soul. Only God owns my soul.

MENDENHALL: Bobby Aniewku says that's a story that's traveled the globe.

BOBBY ANIEWKU: And it's called the first freedom march in the United States.

MENDENHALL: Aniewku is an Atlanta attorney born in Nigeria. He's also a ozo, or spiritual advisor in the Igbo tradition. Aniewku and other leaders from Haiti, Brazil and Barbados believed the souls of the rebel Igbo were still trapped in the water.

ANIEWKU: After all these years, they never left. They died a violent death.

MENDENHALL: So in 2016, Aniewku and others performed a rite at Dunbar Creek called ikwa ozu, which means something like celebrating the dead. Their actions, that rite, fulfilled the words now written on the historic marker for the rebel Igbo, which Amy Mitchell Roberts has known all her life.

ROBERTS: The water brought us, and the water will take us away.

MENDENHALL: For NPR News, I'm Natalie Mendenhall in St. Simons Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KURTZLEBEN: Benjamin Payne of Georgia Public Broadcasting also contributed production for this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Natalie Mendenhall
Benjamin Payne
Benjamin Payne is a contributing reporter and floating host at KUNR. He is currently pursuing his master's degree at the University of Nevada, Reno's Reynolds School of Journalism, where he also works as a teaching assistant.