ST. HELENA ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINATime has stood still for more than a century on this rural island off the Atlantic Ocean. Dirt roads lead to houses where Gullah families live in clusters the way their ancestors did in Africa. Women wearing head wraps and aprons weave baskets from sea grass and sell them to tourists on their way to the affluent outlying islands.
Sandwiched between the lavish golf courses and gated condo communities of Hilton Head Island and the trendy riverfront village of Beaufort, St. Helenauntouched by massive developmentis one of only a few remnants of a bygone era in the South Carolina low country. And the people who live there want to keep it that way.
The Gullahs who live on the island are descendants of West African slaves who worked the rice and cotton fields before they were freed and offered a chance to purchase their land. As whites deserted the coast in favor of milder climates inland, the Gullahs lived in isolation for generations, allowing them to maintain their African culture longer than any slave descendants in America.
But more than 300 years after their arrival, some fear the Gullahs' grip on the past as well as their land is slipping. As older generations die, coastal development moves in and young people leave to find work, the people who once thrived along the coast from northern Florida to North Carolina are struggling to hold on to the ancient customs that defined their culture and remained intact almost a century after the emancipation.
"These are proud people who have always had a strong sense of history and tradition particularly on St. Helena, which was a point of entry for slaves," said Veronica Gerald, a historian on the island. "There was a time we owned all of this land. We helped to build this coastal area and we are fighting very hard to keep St. Helena as true to its natural state as possible. We see what happened to Hilton Head, and we don't want it here."
Theirs is a familiar story of assimilation as told by American Indians, Cajuns in Louisiana and highlanders in Appalachia. No longer able to live in isolation, groups with roots in old America are sucked into the mainstream, where local traditions are forfeited in favor of popular culture.
Saving the Gullahs From Extinction
The National Park Service soon will complete a three-year study to determine what role the government might play in saving the Gullahs from extinction. But it is almost impossible, federal officials concede, to protect them from encroachment. Some land could be set aside as a national park, and crafts and linguistics could be documented in books and exhibits.
No one knows exactly how many Gullah people remain. Estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000. The recent resurgence of interest, activists said, could help connect Gullah communities in all parts of the country, including Texas and Oklahoma, where they mixed with the local Indian population.
The unique language, a melodic blend of 17th and 18th century English and African dialects, is rarely spoken among the Gullahs, or Geechees, as they are called outside South Carolina. Since the 1950s, their farms, their fishing holes and the sea grass fields that fueled their artistry have fallen victim to bulldozers. Other traces of the culture, such as cooking, medicines, storytelling and even magical hoodoo, are increasingly harder to find.
"For a long time, it was considered negative to be Gullah, though we didn't grow up feeling negative about ourselves," said Delo Washington, a retired professor at California State University at Stanislaus. "But we were considered strange people with a strange language. You couldn't get a job speaking that way.