Sapelo Island is about seven nautical miles off the coast of Georgia, south of Savannah. The barrier island is only accessible by state-run passenger ferry or private boat. The island is home to Hog Hammock, believed to be one of the last intact island-based Geechee-Gullah communities in America. The Geechee or Gullah people are the descendants of slaves that once worked on the island and coastal plantations from North Carolina to northern Florida. Because of their isolation, they were able to retain many of their traditions from West Africa, including basket-weaving, net-making, their foodways, music and language.
Sapelo Island also is the site of what some historians believe was once one of North America’s earliest known Muslim communities, dating back to the early 1800s. Around 1802, politician and agriculturalist Thomas Spalding purchased a Muslim slave, Bilali Muhammad (also known as Ben Ali), in the Bahamas, and brought him to his island plantation on Sapelo. He became Spalding’s slave driver or overseer, and again, because of Sapelo Island’s isolation, Bilali Muhammad, his family, and other Muslim slaves on Sapelo Island were able to freely practice their faith and its traditions.
Bilali Muhammad was a Fulani, and he was educated and believed to be from Timbo Futa-Jallon. His wife's name was Phoebe, and they had twelve sons, whose fates are unknown, and seven daughters -- Binto, Charlotte, Fatima, Hester, Margaret, Medina and Yoruba. In the 1820s, Bilali Muhammad hand-wrote a 13-page Arabic text of Islamic laws and traditions. That text is now in the archives of the University of Georgia.
Surely Bilali Muhammad's life must have been fascinating and complicated, as he had to play the role of both slave driver and family patriarch in his island community. Most of Sapelo Island Geechee-Gullah descendants can trace their ancestry back to Bilali Muhammad, and most of his daughters are believed to be buried in the island's largest cemetery, on the former site of the Behavior slave settlement.
Hog Hammock Public Library on Sapelo Island is the recipient of a BridgingCultures Bookshelf Award called “Muslim Journeys.” The award is from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association, and the library is using it to honor Bilali Muhammad and to tell his American story. The award includes a collection of books, films, and other resources chosen to familiarize the American public with Islam and the cultural heritage of Islamic civilizations around the world. Our library also has created this blog as a source of more information about Bilali Muhammad and his family.