On a recent Saturday, the second annual Butler Island Day commemoration honored the area’s earlier residents with “From Africa, to America, to Butler Island,” a day of  presentations of libations, songs, praise dance, a skit, and speakers to reiterate the history of African Americans.

The Butler Island Plantation was a rice plantation dating back to the 1700s and owned by Major Pierce Butler. Over 900 West African men, women, and children were brought to the plantation by slave traders to work the rice fields. More than 400 of the enslaved workers from Butler Island were sold during the Weeping Time Auction in 1859. It was the largest sale of human beings in the United States. After the auction, the Butler family retained 479 enslaved workers at the plantation. Living conditions on Butler Island were poor; it was hot and steamy and full of large mosquitoes that transmitted malaria.

Pieces of the Oct. 22 program gave a glimpse of the hard life on the island and its legacies.

Performer Bruce Ingram conducted a dramatization of what it was like to be a runaway slave, entitled “Runaway Luke.” Ingram, dressed in rough clothing of the era and a runaway “R” painted on his face, sprinted around the perimeter of the audience, who heard the sound of dogs barking and men yelling at him. Ingram ran to the stage and began to tell his story: “Runaway! Before I remain a slave, I’ll die and go to my grave.” 

Dr. Kwesi Degraft- Hanson was the keynote speaker for the 2nd annual Butler Island Day Commemoration. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current GA

The keynote speaker was Dr. Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson a native of Ghana and founder of Ocean, Inc. DeGraft-Hanson is an Emory graduate whose doctoral research explores the physical landscapes as  intersections of African American history, culture and literature. He began with a moment of silence to remember the slaves of Butler Island. One slave driver he called by name was an African man named Samuel who was selected by Major Butler in 1793 to “tame this landscape.” The first thing slaves had to do was cut down the seven-foot-wide cypress trees that grew in the swamp area infested with alligators and water moccasins. 

To make the rice fields work efficiently, slaves were forced to build dikes throughout the plantation to regulate water flow. Servant Emmanu’el Branch, founder of Black History Bible Prophecy News, said that the slaves were turned into human bulldozers and were forced to create trenches by hand to cultivate the growth of rice. BHBP News was a sponsor of the day’s activities.

Branch said he has a passion for spreading the knowledge of events surrounding Butler Island. He said he feels compelled to speak out because if he was alive in that era, he would have been one of the people enslaved there. 

Elder Freddie Palmer

Elder Freddie Palmer of the McIntosh Shouters sang the spiritual “Wade in the Water.” Palmer grew up in nearby Darien and said he didn’t know about all the slaves that were sold back then. He said that “I went to school right here in Darien and didn’t know nothing about it until right now….It is a great honor to celebrate this historic occasion.”