Cornelia Walker Bailey

Location of Interview
Collection Name

Georgia Black Fishermen


African American participation in marine-related careers began as early as 1796, when the federal government issued Seamen’s Protection Certificates to merchant mariners defining them as “citizens” of the United States effectively making maritime employment one way for  Blacks to shape their identities. This collection This project documents the fishery-related occupations of African Americans in coastal Georgia 1865 to present and gather information for future work that may ascertain the relationship between their decreased participation and changes in regional fish populations and the fishing  industry.

Date of Interview

Michelle Duncan, PhD.

Principal Investigator
Biographical Sketch

Mrs. Cornelia Walker Bailey, a prominent historian on Sapelo Island—Georgia’s fourth largest barrier island only accessible by ferry, boat, or plane—was born on June 12, 1945. Mrs. Bailey’s family tree and presence on the island is well documented and can be traced back to her ancestors who purchased the island after the end of slavery. Mrs. Bailey witnessed first-hand the changes that occurred in her Gullah-Geechee community and dedicated her life to preserving traditions, oral histories, and the land of the Gullah-Geechee people. Mrs. Bailey continued to raise awareness about the issues present in the Gullah-Geechee community until her death in 2017.

Scope and Content Note
Mrs. Bailey recalls how and when fishing occurred and the significance for the men, whom each owned a cast net, to provide for their family. She recalls that while her father was at work, her mother fished during the day, catching yellowtail and red drum, and when he returned he would night fish for mullet. The catch was sold or shared and was the foundation of their social structure on and off the island. Mrs. Bailey recognized, through her travels, that customs, fishing practices, and foods on Sapelo Island were similar to West Africa. Additionally, she recognized that the tradition of African American fishing had declined because of more educational opportunities. The struggle between education and honoring cultural practices continues to present problems for the Gullah-Geechee community.

Please Note: The oral histories in this collection are protected by copyright and have been created for educational, research and personal use as described by the Fair Use Doctrine in the U.S. Copyright law. Please reach out to let us know how these interviews are being used in your research, project, exhibit, etc.  The Voices staff can help provide other useful resources related to your inquiry. 

The NOAA mission is to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. The Voices Oral History Archives offers public access to a wide range of accounts, including historical materials that are products of their particular times, and may contain offensive language or negative stereotypes.

Voices Oral History Archives does not verify the accuracy of materials submitted to us. The opinions expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewee only. The interviews here have been made available to the public only after the interviewer has confirmed that they have obtained consent.