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Muslims in Early Georgia: Introduction

This Research Guide is an introduction to resources about Muslims in antebellum America, with special focus on the stories of Bilali Muhammad of Sapelo Island, Georgia and Salih Bilali (aka "Tom") of St. Simons Island, Georgia.

Geechee-Gullah Heritage

The Geechee, or Gullah, as they're known in the Carolinas, are the descendants of West African people who were brought to this country to labor as slaves on coastal plantations stretching from North Carolina to northern Florida, near Jacksonville. Because of their isolation, these people were able to retain many of their West African traditions, including crafts, religious  practices, music, dance and foodways.

Sapelo Island is about seven nautical miles off the coast of Georgia, near the town of Meridian. The barrier island is accessible only by state-run ferry or private boat. Sapelo Island his home to the Historic Hog Hammock Community (originally known as "Hogg Hummock"). The community is believed to be one of the last intact, island-based Geechee-Gullah communities in America. St. Simon's Island is off the coast of Brunswick, Ga. The island and its mainland sister city are connected by a bridge, so its Geechee communities have been engulfed by development.

Sapelo and St. Simon's are part of the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor, which is managed by the National Park Service.

Learn more:

New Georgia Encyclopedia

Sapelo Island: Nine Generations

Quote

"I am here to represent Sapelo Island, a little hammock on the Georgia Coast. It's a dying form of life we have here. In some ways I relish the new way while at the same time I feel such a heavy loss for the vanishing of the old ways." -- Cornelia Walker Bailey

Read the entire essay: http://www.gacoast.com/navigator/iamsapelo.html

Introduction

Muslims have a history in America that spans as far back as the earliest explorers of this continent to the present day. Scholars have estimated that from 10 to 30 percent of enslaved West Africans were of the Muslim faith. This Research Guide provides information about two prominent Muslims who were enslaved in Georgia in the 1800s. While there are numerous selected books, films and other materials included here, it is meant to be a doorway to additional resources that tell the story of Muslims in Early America. Comments and feedback are encouraged.

Bilali Muhammad (c.1770-c.1857) was an enslaved man who lived on a plantation on Sapelo Island, Georgia. He was a Fula, originally from Timbo, in the Muslim empire of Fouta-Djallon, in present-day Guinea. Bilali Muhammad and his wife, Phoebe, had twelve sons, whose fates are unknown, and seven daughters -- Binto, Charlotte, Fatima, Hester, Margaret, Medina and Yoruba.

Muhammad was purchased in the Bahamas around 1801 by Georgia politician and agriculturalist Thomas Spalding. who owned a plantation on Sapelo Island.

Salih Bilali (c.1770-c.1846) also was a Muslim Fula, and he was from the Kianah on the Niger River, in the kingdom of Massina. He was purchased in the Bahamas by John Couper, and taken to St. Simons Island, Georgia, were he was enslaved. Salih Bilali, like his contemporary, Bilali Muhammad, also served as the Couper plantations slave driver.

Sapelo Island and St. Simons Island were very isolated, which allowed both men and other Muslim slaves to freely adhere to their Islamic faith, as well as other traditions from their ancestral home. Both Sapelo and St. Simons are part of the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor. The Gullah-Geechee are the descendants of West African slaves who lived on islands and in mainland communities stretching from North Carolina to northern Florida, near Jacksonville. Their isolation allowed them to retain their West African traditions.

In the 1820s, Bilali Muhammad hand-wrote a 13-page text in Arabic. That document is housed in the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia. There are two stories that have been passed down about Bilali Muhammad. One tells of his heroism during a hurricane in 1824, when he saved lives by leading people to high ground on the island's north end. The other story takes place during the War of 1812, when Spalding decided to allow Muhammad and other slaves to defend against a British threat. Bilali Muhammad reportedly to Spalding, "I will answer for every Negro of the true faith, but not for the Christian dogs you own.”

The lives of Bilali Muhammad and Salih Bilali were no doubt fascinating and complicated, as they had to play the roles of both slave drivers and patriarchs of their island communities. 

Subject Guide

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Michele Johnson
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Praise House on Sapelo Island

Muriel and Malcolm Bell shot this photograph of a "praise house" on Sapelo Island, Georgia, in 1940. The image was used in the book Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Coastal Negroes, published by the Georgia Writers' Project. In the book, Sapelo Island residents Katie Brown and Shad Hall share stories of Bilali Muhammad's daughters.

"Magret an uh daughtuh Cotto use tuh say dat Belali an he wife Phoebe pray on duh bead. Dey wuz bery puhticluh bout duh time dey pray an dey bery regluh bout duh hour." -- Katie Brown.

While some scholars consider Sapelo Island and St. Simon's Island, Georgia, to be the sites of two of America's earliest Muslim communities, most of the descendants of Georgia's enslaved Muslims converted to Christianity.

Photograph by Muriel and Malcolm Bell