The past practice of slavery in the United States is a cold, dark part of America’s history. While many stories involve heartbreaking accounts of men and women ripped from their families and forced to participate in backbreaking labor, there are also stories of hope, commonly shared amongst the people. The stories give them hope for the future and encouragement to be strong in the wake of great adversity. One of those stories is centered around the history of the “Flying Africans”, otherwise referred to as the slave rebellion on St. Simon’s Island.
In 1803, a group of Igbo people were taken from their home in what is now modern day Nigeria. They were loaded on a ship and suffered weeks and months at sea, not knowing where they were or where they were going. The Igbo people were commonly captured as they were known for being a strong, able bodied people. They were also a very spiritual, intelligent, and defiant people.
After arriving the Middle Passage, they were docked and forced to participate in the slave market. After being forced to strip naked and succumb to tests of their physical strength, an estimated seventy five men were sold for $100 each and loaded on a small vessel. Again, they were forced to struggle through another ship and another voyage in deplorable conditions.
The men banded together. One day, they banded together and rose up in rebellion. Many white slave agents were thrown overboard and drown. Others met an even more perilous end. Ultimately, the vessel was boarded at St. Simon Island. The men were shackled together and taken to the swamp, their plans thwarted but their hope not lost.
Some stories go on to say that the men called to the spirits of their native land and that they were turned into buzzards. They were released from their prison and rose into the sky. They were referred to as the “Flying Africans” as many were freed and used their freedom to return to Nigeria.
History accounts tell a different story. Participating in what is now known as one of the first freedom marches, one of the leaders of the brave Nigerian men began to pass a whisper down their line. One by one, they passed their strength down the length of their line until each man knew what they were about to do.
In the largest mass suicide in opposition to slavery in the United States, the men turned and walked toward Dunbar Creek. While they walked, they chanted “The water brought us, the water will take us away” over and over. Before the agents could figure out what the group was doing, shackled together they had all entered the cold, feet slapping on the water.
Some of the agents tried to go after the men but were unable to stop them. They had found their freedom at St. Simon Island. Thirteen bodies were later recovered, three of them the bodies of white men who had lost their lives in the struggle on the ship or by trying to stop the men.
Today, the island is still haunted by the men who participated in that fateful evening. Some say it is the brave Nigerian men, others say it is the agents, bound to spend their eternity at St. Simon. The area was designated as a holy site and prayers were offered, along with a blessing to release the trapped slaves of the Igbo peoples and give their souls rest. Many refuse to go to the island, despite its beauty due to common reports of chains rattling, voices screaming, sounds of feet slapping on the water, feelings of being pushed, and the faint singing of the Igbo people as the water that brought them here also took them away.