Robert S. Abbott was born on St. Simons Island, but left shortly afterward and went on to become one of America’s first black freedom fighters and entrepreneurs during the late 19th Century.
Many other African Americans from that post Civil War era lived and loved and died on St. Simons Island, evidence of their lives here largely erased by the march of time.
However, folks are invited to Fort Frederica National Monument today (Feb. 29) to remember Abbott, as well as those lesser-known African Americans whose stories are no less remarkable. The latter ceremony will take place on what archaeologist believe is a recently-discovered 19th Century African American burial ground.
These events as well as Gullah Geechee cultural demonstrations, guest speakers, music and more will take place during the African American History Festival today at the fort, located at 6515 Frederica Road. The festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is free to the public.
Additionally, a trolley will be available to ferry visitors to nearby Historic Harrington School Cultural Center, 291 S. Harrington Road, where still more activities celebrating African American history will take place.
Abbott never forgot his humble island roots. He was the son of Thomas Abbott, who was enslaved on the Stevens family plantation but died a free man in 1870. Robert Abbott returned to the island in the 1930s and placed the granite obelisk in honor of his father on or near Stevens family property, with the family’s blessing. The obelisk also pays tribute to Abbott’s aunt, Celia.
Today the obelisk stands on the grounds of Fort Frederica. Abbott was schooled as a lawyer but had trouble finding work in that field because of the dark rich hue of his skin. So he turned to newspaper publishing. The Chicago Defender became the leading African American newspaper of its day and was a nationally recognized voice for racial justice. Abbott became one of America’s first black millionaires in the process of publishing the Defender. The Defender is still in print today.
Not far from that tall granite memorial to Abbott’s family, archaeologists last summer discovered a more humble resting place for African Americans who lived on the island in the late 19th century. Records of black burials from Christ Church correlate convincingly with evidence discovered during an archaeological dig at the fort last summer.
During the dig, archaeologists discovered layers of whelk shells, pieces of broken colored glass from wine bottles, bits of ceramic and broken marble chips — all items that cash-strapped Gullah Geechee people would combine to adorn the graves of their loved ones. “I’m pretty comfortable that we found what we were looking for,” national parks archaeologist Eric Bezemek said last June. Among those listed on the aged Christ Church burial records were a “child of Polly Jackson,” and a man named Miles, possibly Millican.
The site is located along a footpath just beyond the national park’s parking lot. It is now enclosed in a rail fence. Today a ceremony will take place to honor the grounds. The day’s events will close with a traditional religious ceremony at the site.
Saturday’s events, including speakers on topics related to Abbott’s life, will coincide with the 80th anniversary of his death on Feb. 29, 1940.
Other events include demonstrations of Gullah Geechee culture, from sweet grass basket weaving to indigo dyeing. Folks are encouraged to bring a piece of white cloth to get dyed in this traditional method. Also not to be missed, the Geechee-Gullah Ring Shouters will perform their traditional combination of music and rhythm.
Various guest speakers on Gullah Geechee culture and African American history also will be on hand.
Over at the Harrington School, coauthors Amy Lotson Roberts and Patrick Holladay will be on hand to sign their new book “Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles.” There also will be soul food for purchase from Luvenia’s Kitchen catering as well as vendors offering homemade bracelets, crocheted items and art work. Folks can also take tours of the restored schoolhouse that once instructed the island’s African American children.