Gullah Culture in Danger of Fading Away

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"In the '60s, scholars and others began to take a different view of the Gullah-Geechee culture. Africa was seen in a more positive light, particularly by African-Americans," Washington said.

Events, such as the 15-year-old Gullah Festival held in Beaufort last month, will help to spread word of the plight and keep customs alive, said Washington, whose family still owns land on an adjacent island. And Gullah-Geechees who have moved away, such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, are stepping up. Thomas, who grew up on the Georgia coast, has said he would like to write a book about the culture.

Still, the tug-of-war over land is likely to go on.

Land Sold or Stolen for Posh Resorts

All along the coast, land that was passed down through generations is being sold and sometimes stolen, as developers seek to create posh resorts like those found on St. Simons Island, Georgia and Hilton Head. Once predominantly owned and occupied by blacks, the properties have become playgrounds for wealthy, mostly white vacationers.

St. Helena, where the population of about 10,000 remains overwhelmingly Gullah, is one of only a handful of the Sea Islands still controlled by blacks. Here, they own 90 percent of the land and control, for the most part, what happens to it. Activists recently persuaded the Beaufort County government to approve a cultural protection overlay district that makes private developments with gated communities, golf courses and tennis courts illegal on the island. But that doesn't keep developers from trying.

"Some people call us land rich and cash poor, but that doesn't matter. Most of the people here won't give up their heart," said Marquetta Goodwine, a lifelong resident and activist on St. Helena. "Most of us don't believe the land of milk and honey is outside St. Helena. Those who bought into that notion, look where they are now. They've been pushed off their island."

According to Emory Campbell, executive director of the Penn Center, a cultural center on St. Helena, property values have skyrocketed on the islands. Though tributaries surround the island, an acre that sold for U.S. $3,000 there a decade ago could go for as much as $20,000 today. Oceanfront property in other areas can sell for $100,000 to $400,000 an acre, he said. But the Gullahs are not the ones getting rich.

After the Civil War, blacks outnumbered whites in the area 11-1 and were allowed to buy the land for $1.25 an acre. But because much of the land is now shared by heirs, many of whom have moved away, it sometimes is sold for below-market prices set by the courts. In some cases, young family members, eager for cash, practically give it away. But often, the land is forfeited because landowners, many of whom are domestic workers at the posh resorts, cannot afford to pay the escalating property taxes.

"This land is valuable to us because it symbolizes freedom," Campbell said. "We're the ones who stayed here and withstood the heat, the mosquitoes and the malaria. It hurts to see what happens when highways and streets are paved, access to waterways is privatized and we are blocked out."

While outsiders have written much about the Gullah-Geechee people, those who know the culture best failed to write it down. Except for St. Helena, where nuns started one of the earliest schools for former slaves, history has been passed on through word of mouth. But like in many cultures, oral history becomes distorted, and as the older storytellers die, no one is left to inform the young.

"Culture is a dynamic phenomenon. There is no such thing as it remaining constant anywhere in the world," said Beverly John, a sociologist and executive assistant to the president at Chicago State University. "People often say, 'Show me the Gullah culture.' But culture comes from within. It isn't openly practiced. Therefore, the Gullah culture will survive."

(c) 2001 Chicago Tribune

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