While the whole world watched the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama in Washington DC our team was far away on the island of Sapelo in Georgia. We were there to investigate links between the US and Islam going back centuries to the Africans brought to this country as slaves. After almost being refused seats on our American Airlines propeller flight from Miami to Jacksonville due to an “excess in weight” and taking a rickety boat from the Georgia mainland, we were met by our host, Cornelia Walker Bailey.
Ms. Bailey is a direct descendent of Bilali Muhammed, a West African slave brought to Sapelo in the early 19th century. She is a writer and preservationist of the island’s unique culture and is proud of her Muslim heritage. Attempting to ignore it, she said, would be like “chopping off an arm.” Although Bilali’s descendents converted to Christianity, the isolation of the island meant that certain Islamic practices remained. We were surprised to discover that men and women commonly sit on opposite sides of the church during services as in a mosque, and all shoes had to be removed in services until recently. The churches face Mecca and people are buried facing Mecca. The island only has around 50 slave descendents living there today, and history is all around, from the old plantation house bought by tobacco titan R. J. Reynolds to a slave cemetery we visited with graves dating back well into the 19th century.
It was incredible to spend both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the inauguration with Sapelo’s inhabitants, who were thrilled to see Obama sworn in. The legacy of slavery wears upon them heavily—it is not in the past but continues to permeate life—one can still feel the ghosts of that age. The first American president of African descent is enough of a change in itself, but to have a president with a Muslim name—like Bilali’s—is doubly significant. In some ways, the journey of these African-Americans has come full circle. Despite this feeling Cornelia cautioned that there is still much work to do both in creating opportunities for African-Americans and accepting Islam as an American religion equal to any other.
The case of Sapelo illustrates some of the deep links between Islam and America going back to the founding of the country itself. Here are Americans talking with pride about their Muslim roots many years before the immigration booms of the late 19th century. At a time when some have dismissed Islam foreign, dangerous, and “un-American” it is a story and legacy worth remembering.