Sapelo Island Seedlings Harvested for National African American Museum

The Takeaway: The Sapelo Island Research Reserve played an important role.

Live oaks canopied by Spanish moss dot the 18,000-plus acres of Georgia’s Sapelo Island. Starting in the 1800s, Sapelo Island served as home to more than 400 West African slaves and their descendents, who overcame tremendous hardship to forge a culture still alive today in traditional foodways, agricultural practices, and a distinctive language. A Smithsonian Institution horticulturalist visited the island to collect live oak seedlings, and his cultural and historical tour guide was a staffer from the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. The oak seedlings will be cultivated in the Smithsonian Greenhouse Complex and later planted on the grounds of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Once reared to maturity, the live oaks will shelter a green area with sculpted benches at the African American museum’s reading grove. This spot houses a microclimate—heated by the museum’s underground galleries—where the live oaks can flourish in a colder climate. The grove symbolizes hope and optimism and is considered the right place to honor Sapelo Island’s history and people.

The horticulturist was invited by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which stewards the Sapelo Island Research Reserve. The reserve tour guide is a nationally known sweetgrass basket artist who shed light on islanders’ cultural and historical contributions.

Historians believe that the island’s earliest African slaves chiefly planted sea island cotton, sugar cane, and rice. Following the Civil War, the emancipated islanders settled the land and established communities. The isolation of this island enabled Sapelo’s people to retain many West African traditions. (2018/Updated 2020)

More Information: Quest for Historic Seedlings