Board of Directors
Executive Director – Malinda Peeples
President – Margaret Murray
Secretary – Monica Williams
Treasurer – Alexia Bibbs
Financial Manager – Kathryn Taylor
Gullah Geechee – Historian Edith Harris
Elkton Representative – Willie Mae Steward
A small trailer, sitting just off the dirt parking lot of the First Baptist Church in Armstrong, is the center of giving and support for a number of communities along State Road 207.
The trailer is home to the SEA Community Help Resource Center, a small organization developed to provide various services to the residents of Spuds, Elkton and Armstrong.
“You name it, we do it,” the group’s executive director, Malinda Peeples, told The Record Wednesday morning.
She was seated at the end of a table inside that trailer along with friends Margaret Murray, Kathryn Taylor and Edith Harris, who all serve as officers in SEA.
Currently, the group is planning next weekend’s Rails to Trails Festival, an annual fundraising event that benefits SEA. This year — their ninth — the festival will be in Armstrong Park at 4950 Harvey Ave. on Dec. 5th, 2020.
Although the festival can be traced back nine years, the beginnings of SEA are a little more difficult to ascertain.
The women at the table agreed that they got their 501(c)3 nonprofit designation in 2013, and that their literature says the group, that started as an outreach ministry with the church, formed in 2005. But before that — before the trailer — they and others were meeting in the parking lot trying to help whoever they could, however they could. No one could say for sure when it all started.
“We’ve been here a while,” Peeples said finally, a smile on her face.
These days SEA runs a small food pantry and clothing closet on site. They also organize a summer lunch program to make sure that school children on summer break get meals in the middle of the day. They coordinate visits from the St. Vincent’s Mobile Health Outreach bus, organize a book bag drive and work to support migrant farm workers who visit every year to work the fields in the rural part of the county.
That connection to the farms runs deep in the black community along Armstrong Road, just south of the St. Johns County Fairgrounds.
“All of us are basically former farm laborers,” Taylor said.
As they sat around the table, the women traded stories about their families, the work they did and what life was like in Armstrong in the days when the railroad was still there.
Armstrong, they said, has a unique history in that the farm workers who settled there all owned their own homes rather than living in quarters provided by the more wealthy farm owners.
Keeping that so wasn’t always easy. When farm work was slow locally, many families packed their belongings and headed north or “up the stream” in search of more work.
“Personally, I’ve been a migrant since I was 5 years old,” Harris said. “And I was a migrant until after my senior year of high school after I went off to college.”
The families would go every year, traveling with the seasons. But they’d always return to their homes in Armstrong where there is often little distinction between family and community.
It’s that lack of distinction that makes it so hard to determine SEA’s beginnings. The name, the 501(c)3, the trailer are all things that merely formalize a way of life that goes back generations, according to the women at the table. The families there took care of each other and they helped each other succeed.
Harris said she felt that when she went away to college and would come home to visit.
“I was everybody’s daughter,” she said. “It was an awesome responsibility, but it made you kind of proud.”
That pride, and understanding the importance of a supportive community, carried through to when she and Murray started their own families.
“You were as happy for Margaret’s child as you were for your own child,” Harris said, motioning to her friend to her right.
She said she worries that some of that community fabric is wearing these days, but, for the most part, the women of SEA seemed undeterred and motivated to keep their traditions alive in a changing landscape.
The railroad is gone now — traded for the bike trail that gives their annual festival its name.
It is hoped that the trail, which is planned to be a part of a larger network of trails, will generate new traffic.
It got some help in recent years when St. Johns County was recognized as part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which earned Armstrong a stop on Bike Florida’s 2017 Spring Gullah Geechee Tour.
All the women seated at Wednesday’s table have ties to the Gullah Geechee, a cultural group made up of descendants of slaves brought to this continent from West Africa. According to the Heritage Corridor’s website, they worked primarily on rice plantations in the coastal regions of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
After slavery, most stayed on the sea islands and in the low country. Recognized by a distinctive dialect and “a strong sense of place and family,” the Gullah Geechee keep ties to their past by celebrating their “arts, crafts, religious beliefs, folklore, rituals and food preferences,” the website says.
Harris, who serves as SEA’s Gullah Geechee coordinator, said she only recently learned of her own ties to the cultural group, but, she said, she can remember that dialect when she would visit family in Georgia while heading north to work as a child.
“We would say, ‘Oh he’s a Geechee, or she’s a Geechee,’” she said, laughing. “And, ‘My don’t they like rice.’”
She said learning new details about her heritage and the origins of her enslaved ancestors was a powerful revelation.
“It was like a new birth for me,” she said.
SEA produces a “souvenir book” for each year’s festival. Looking through the ones from years past provides a glimpse into all the things the SEA officers say they hold dear.
The contents of the first year’s book look more like a family photo album than a festival keepsake, with pictures of the community’s families posed for group portraits or celebrating various achievements. By the third year, the book’s cover mentions the deeper community ties with a Gullah Geechee version of the Lord’s Prayer and pictures of traditional food.
This year, the women say, all of those things will be celebrated again, with arts and crafts, a farmers market and great food and music.
“Come and enjoy,” Peeples said. “And bring your family too.”