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2009 Annual Report of the Ossabaw Island Education Alliance

January 2009


As we approach the second decade of this century, the Georgia coast faces a critical issue. On the one hand, it remains remarkably well preserved in contrast to the coast-line of neighboring states. One-third of the salt marsh that exist on the entire east coast today are found within the waters of Georgia, and nine of the thirteen barrier islands boast sand dunes, maritime forests and marsh where the human presence is minimal. On the other hand, development of the mainland along the coast is inevitable, and pressures on barrier islands for greater usage are increasing.

This paradox places a special burden on the Ossabaw Island Education Alliance. Created in 2005, the Alliance exists to stimulate usage of the island by faculty and students of the University System, create educational programs that will benefit the young, and reach out to conservationists, naturalists, artists and writers. The dilemma we face is simple. How do we share this island without destroying it? In the past year, 2008, the Alliance reaped the benefit from the groundwork laid down in previous years. The following is a brief synopsis of the high points.

The Symposium

In August, 2005, the Alliance held a roundtable discussion on Ossabaw of historians, educators and archaeologists to discuss how best to interpret the three tabby slave cabins that stand at the North End. The outcome was a recommendation for a symposium on a much neglected topic, African Americans life in the Georgia Lowcountry from the eighteenth century onwards.

The symposium attracted an array of sponsors. Three regional universities agreed to be co-sponsors with the Ossabaw Island Foundation: Armstrong Atlantic State University, Georgia Southern University, and Savannah State University. The Georgia Historical Society lent its support as did the University of Georgia Press. Finally, the Georgia Humanities Council joined in. Eleven leading scholars were invited to present original research. All but one accepted. This distinguished group included three winners of the Bancroft Prize.

The topic attracted a broadly based audience. Thanks in part to exceptional marketing, 445 people attended the three-day symposium at the end of February 2008. They came from eighteen states and three countries. The participants took part in visits to the cabins on Ossabaw Island, teacher workshops, and a tour of African American sites in Savannah, including the place where the largest slave sale took place in Georgia. The Symposium illustrated a fundamental principle of the Chancellor’s program: finding resources outside the University System to fund university activities. The Alliance raised $71,500 for this occasion and another $30,200 in ticket sales for the special events.

University of Georgia Press

Nicole Mitchelle, Director of UGA Press, supported the idea of a book on African Americans in the Georgia Lowcountry and had her staff give valuable assistance at every step of the way. At the end of May, all ten writers turned in their manuscripts. By September, two reviewers produced an evaluation of the articles and made constructive recommendations. And in December, final revisions were received. At the moment, the senior editor of UGA Press, Nancy Grayson, and I are selecting as many as fifty photographs and images to illustrate the book, which is scheduled to come out this fall. Their intention is to make this a trade book aimed at a general audience as well as specialists.

NEH Planning Grant

The Education Alliance, together with the Foundation, is submitting a request to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a Planning Grant of $40,000 to continue the planning for the interpretation of the three tabby cabins on the site of the North End Plantation. The project will build on the work of the symposium. We spent the past fall assembling a team for this undertaking, writing the proposal, compiling a bibliography and researching the evidence. The cabins offer the opportunity to tell three different stories over time— the enslaved workers of the colonial and antebellum periods, the freedmen of the second half of the nineteenth century and their struggle to carve out an existence for themselves, and the African Americans who left the island in the 1890s to create a small community on the mainland and whose principal activities and culture reflected their earlier life on Ossabaw.

The Georgia Power Island Observatory

Ossabaw Island is a national treasure. Thirty years after its purchase by the state of Georgia, the 26,000-acre island offers a rich set of overlapping eco-systems, with verdant foliage, wildlife peculiar to each system, and a natural beauty that cannot be surpassed. The island consists of a 40,000-year-old backbone and a 5,000-year-old arm attached at the southern end that boast different vegetation and land formations. In going from one to the other, the visitor feels as if she is crossing from one time zone into another.

A main thrust of the Alliance is to share that pristine state with the wider world in a responsible way. The primary thrust is the creation of an ambitious network of sensors, monitors, and video cameras to capture the life cycle of the island and convert it into real- time information and images available on Internet. In the fall of 2007, the Foundation received grants totaling over $200,000 to create the first stage of this observatory. Several organizations are now at work to bring the barrier island’s unique environment into focus in classrooms and household across the nation through the use of broadband technology. Partners include Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, Georgia Research Alliance, Armstrong Atlantic State University and NOAA through its grants to SKIO.

In the past several months, two 100-foot towers have been purchased and taken to the island by barge. The first of the towers will be erected near Bradley Beach. Sensors for measuring water quality, salinity and other variables are to be installed on the North End dock. A video camera will be placed on the tower at Bradley Beach. At the present time, the weather station is producing real-time data while a camera on the North End dock offers a 360-degree view.


This past summer, the first wave of students and teachers took advantage of the network and went back to their classrooms this fall to develop projects using the information provided by the Observatory. Armstrong Atlantic State University, under Dr. Ashraf Saad, chair of the Computer Science Department, obtained a grant of $1.1 million from the National Science Foundation to use the Ossabaw Observatory to interest young people in computer technology. During August, 40 students and 30 teachers from the Savannah-Chatham County School System came in four teams to collect weather data, take GPS measurements and to select some object or animal for further study. That study is resulting in a web-based field guide to Ossabaw Island. The teachers spent seven days on Armstrong’s campus to develop lesson plans.

The Savannah Morning News quoted a student from Savannah Arts Academy as saying how delighted he was with what he found on the island: “Aside from the bugs, this place has been great! In a lot of places it’s just untouched, just like it was 500 years ago when the Indians lived here.” That thought captured an essential part of the experience.

The Torrey-West House

In July 2008, seven consultants came together to explore the possibilities for the Torrey- West House when that structure passes back into the hands of the state and then comes under the direction of the Ossabaw Island Foundation. For many years, the Foundation Board has kept discussion of the House off limits in deference to Mrs. West and her desire for privacy. This event marked a turning point. Mrs. West was fully supportive of the effort and spoke at length with the visiting team.

The report affirmed the principle that the optimal use of the House would replicate the spirit of the Ossabaw Island Project of the 1960s and ‘70s. During that period, individuals from different fields of endeavor came together to pursue their own interests and gather for informal conversation. Potential users were identified, including scholars in residence, small think tanks, study tours, group retreats, cultural events, a meeting of scholars, and non-profit board retreats. Suggestions were made about developing partnerships, creating a “ramp-up” strategy that would use the house sooner than later, outlining options in operating the House, and establishing a sound financial base.

The on-island educator for the Foundation and I journeyed to Sapelo Island to survey the Reynolds Mansion and its operation. That structure comes closer than any other to providing a model for how to manage a barrier island study center. The annual budget is $500,000 and the facility is close to but not quite at the break-even point. The manager emphasized how little he and his small staff have to do for host groups. Once on Sapelo, visitors are stunned by the live oak trees, marsh, wildlife and exotic sub-tropical appearance and take over their own experience. Although the Reynolds Mansion does not have the same commitment to “study, research and education” as the Education Alliance, its workings offer insights in how to handle food, linen, room service, and maintenance. “Keep matters as simple as possible; that is what people want,” says James Maunde, who directs the estate.

Visits to Other Sites

This fall, a team from the Foundation and Alliance visited Hobcaw Barony and Yawkey Wildlife Center near Georgetown, S.C., to see how these two locations handle using coastal sites for study, research and education. Hobcaw Barony consists of 17,000 acres given to Clemson and the University of South Carolina for marine biology, and forest and wildlife research. There are fifteen full-time faculty members present as well as 35 graduates and associates. Yawkey Wildlife Center consists of three islands off Georgetown, with 22,000 acres. It has an enormous endowment and is open to college students and faculty at no charge. Hobcaw Barony was a bit like the UGA Marine Institute on Sapelo except more extensive and active. Yawkey is a good illustration of what a sound endowment will do for serious research. It was interesting to note that UGA classes go over to this location for study. Again, there is no charge in reaching the island and no charge once on the island. The only requirement is that visitors bring their own food.

I want to thank Dr. Cathie Mayes Hudson for participating in two of the biggest events of the year. She came to the symposium and attended three days of presentations and activities. And she joined the team of consultants to examine future possibilities of the Torrey-West House, devoting valuable time to helping establish ground rules for considering how best to use this structure.

Paul M. Pressly,Ph.D.
Ossabaw Island Education Alliance