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Sapelo’s History Grows at African American Museum

Feb 26, 2019 | Healthy Habitats, Reserves, Sapelo Island, Georgia

Live oaks trees have become cultural ambassadors for Sapelo Island: their seeds are growing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo courtesy of Adam Mackinnon, Sapelo Island Reserve.

For generations, the live oaks of Sapelo Island have provided cooling shade for residents, including the descendants of 400 enslaved West African people who overcame tremendous hardship to form a culture that thrives today. With the support of Georgia’s Sapelo Island Reserve, these historically significant trees—and the cultural heritage they symbolize—are growing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

  Smithsonian Horticulturist Brett McNish traveled to Sapelo Island to meet with staff from the Reserve and Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources and learn more about the island’s unique history, cultural traditions, agricultural practices, and language. While there, McNish harvested oak seedlings to plant on the grounds of the African American Museum. (Read more about his quest.)

Once mature, these seedlings will shelter a green space with sculpted benches at the African American museum’s reading grove. The oaks will be sited in a microclimate—an outdoor space heated by the museum’s underground galleries— that will help these southern trees flourish in a colder climate. The grove has been designed to symbolize hope and optimism and honor Sapelo Island’s history and people.

Sapelo’s community is under threat from coastal development and lack of economic opportunity, making the work of the Reserve and partners to preserve the island’s cultural, historical, and natural resources more vital than ever. The collaboration with the Smithsonian is an opportunity to share the value of these resources with people from all over the world who visit the museum and its gardens.

“The Reserve works with partners to protect Sapelo Island from the impacts of development with an eye towards facilitating research, education, monitoring and sound stewardship of important natural and cultural resources,” says Fred Hay, Sapelo Island Manager for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. “The Reserve is an essential part of Sapelo’s protection. It sets clear priorities for sustaining vital ecosystem processes. This is becoming more critical as coastal development pressures increase along the southeastern coast of the United States.”

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What We Work ForHealthy HabitatsSapelo’s History Grows at African American Museum