Coastal Georgia Research Initiative

Coastal Georgia Research Initiative

Mercer University’s College of Professional Advancement provides post-traditional learners with educational programs that help them advance into leadership roles. The College of Professional Advancement also offers multidisciplinary experiences that benefit students and the community, including the Coastal Georgia Research Initiative. Mercer students gain insight into cultural and historical issues by interviewing members of African-American communities in the coastal Georgia region.

Through the Coastal Georgia Research Initiative, students participate in a semester-long project centered on research-based, service-learning courses that include conducting interviews and producing digital stories in collaboration with the St. Simons African-American Heritage Coalition under the guidance of Project Director, Dr. Melanie Pavich. Dr. Pavich is an Associate Professor of History and Interdisciplinary Studies, and Writing Coordinator for the college. In addition to the public presentations, digital stories are written and produced by the students and archived. Interviews and digital stories have centered on the Harrington School, a one-room African-American schoolhouse on St. Simons Island in use from the 1920s through the 1950s, along with family histories and important sites of African-American history on St. Simons and in coastal Georgia. Read this article to learn more about the work of students who have participated in this project and African-American history on St. Simons Island and in Coastal Georgia.

Under Dr. Pavich’s leadership, the Coastal Georgia Research Initiative has received two grants, each totaling nearly $2,000. The grants were awarded by Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, through funding from the Georgia General Assembly.

The Coastal Georgia Research Initiative also received Seed Grants in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 from Mercer’s Provost office to support travel to conduct interviews on St. Simons, as well as for the public program held on St. Simons in 2019. Additionally, there is also support from Mercer’s Center for the Study of Narrative.

In 2017, the project began a multi-year focus on mapping African American cemeteries on St. Simons Island and interviews and digital stories centered on families with ancestors buried in the slave cemetery at the former Retreat Plantation. At the May 20, 2017 program titled, “Telling our Stories: African American Life and Culture on St. Simons Island, Dr. Christopher Lawton and Dr. Stephen Berry served as guest speakers. Dr. Lawton is Director of Experiential Learning, Putnam County Charter School System and Executive Director of the Georgia Virtual History Project. Dr. Berry serves as Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era and Co-Director of the Center for Virtual History at the University of Georgia.

In 2018, the public program was titled, “Facing Home: Stories of St. Simons Island and Rural Putnam County” and was held on May 19 at the Harrington School on St. Simons and included presentations and interviews by students from Putnam County High School in Central Georgia.

The second Georgia Humanities grant was also provided through the support of the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Georgia General Assembly. The grant supported a public program of digital stories by Mercer students titled, “This Is My Dirt: Stories of Saint Simons Island.” The May 18, 2019 presentation was based on oral history interviews of African American residents of the island in Glynn County whose families date back to the time of enslavement.

Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, Professor and Chair of the History Department, and Oliver H. Radkey, Regents Professor in History, at the University of Texas at Austin, served as a guest lecturer and met with students and local residents. The public programs are free and open to the public.

The work of the Coastal Georgia Research Initiative effectively showcases the efforts of students and faculty focused on aiding the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition in preserving African-American history and historic sites on the Georgia coast.