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Being Gullah or Geechee, Once Looked Down On, Now a Treasured Heritage

The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor links historic African-American communities in four southern coastal states.

Emory Campbell remembers growing up Gullah on Hilton Head Island, before the golf courses and the resorts. He remembers hunting in the forests and roaming free in the marshes. He remembers an island where white people were a rarity and his family was part of a close-knit community of African-American farmers and fishers, of teachers and preachers. He remembers the curse and blessing found in the island's isolation, of having to take a ferry to get to the outside world.

And he remembers the year it all changed: 1956, when the first bridge opened and the developers poured in. Campbell was 15. Today, the cemetery where his ancestors are buried is corralled by vacation homes set back from a fairway at the Harbour Town Golf Links. To visit, he needs to get waved through at a guardhouse.

"This part of the South used to be too hot for anybody to care about before mosquito control, before bridges and air conditioning," said Campbell. "We were the ones that endured, and ironically, it is us who is now suffering."

Most Threatened Places

The Gullahs or Geechees are descendants of slaves who lived and still live on the coastal islands and lowcountry along the coast of the southeastern United States, from the St. John's River in Florida to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. (Gullah tends to be the preferred name in North and South Carolina, Geechee in Georgia and Florida.) Their communities dot the 400-mile strip, and they are slowly disappearing, casualties of progress and our love affair with coastal living.

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In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Gullah/Geechee Coast on its list of most threatened places. "Unless something is done to halt the destruction," the trust said, "Gullah/Geechee culture will be relegated to museums and history books, and our nation's unique cultural mosaic will lose one of its richest and most colorful pieces." (Read "Lowcountry Legacy" in the November issue of National Geographic magazine.)

Congress created the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission in 2006, and the agency published its first management plan in 2013. With limited funds and authority, it is working at the grassroots level across the region. It has teamed up with transportation departments in the four states to place road signs informing motorists when they are in the corridor. And it's also getting involved with public policy.

You can see the commission's efforts in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, which lies just across the Cooper River from Charleston. The town is known for its sweetgrass basketmakers, who have sold their work from small stands along U.S. 17 for many years. Mount Pleasant's population is now about 75,000, up almost 60 percent since 2000.

When the highway was widened two years ago, the gravel shoulders were eliminated. The commission was one of several agencies that devised a plan to rebuild the basket stands, and in some cases move them to the entrances of shopping centers. It's an imperfect compromise that made the road safer while still allowing the artisans some access to customers.

"People are taking note of the Gullah community and not making decisions without including them," said Michael Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Park Service at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, north of Sullivan's Island. He has worked closely on the planning and implementation of the heritage commission.

In addition to the road project, Mount Pleasant has embraced its basketmakers in other ways. Council member Thomasena Stokes-Marshall is the executive director of the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association. She said the town has set aside areas where the basketmakers can gather their raw materials, a task that had become more difficult as development placed more of the lowcountry off-limits.

Stokes-Marshall was born in Mount Pleasant and moved away as a child, but returned in 1993 to care for her aging mother. She then became immersed in politics and preserving what is left of the Gullah culture. "It's woven into the fabric of this community, and many people don't even realize it," she said.

Pressures Intensifying

The pressures on Gullah communities are intensifying, she said. The soaring value of coastal property drives up property taxes. Regulations designed to make homes more storm-safe increase the cost of building, making it difficult for people of modest means to build new homes on long-held property.

In addition, the land is often held communally by numerous family members. This diffuse ownership can lead to forced sales under what is called "Heirs' Property" law. Stokes-Marshall and others say that these laws allow developers to pit family members against each other and push short-term profits at the expense of long-term community stability. "All the white-owned tracts are gone," she said. "Now they're coming for the black landowners."

An environmental impact statement published in 2005 estimated that 200,000 people of Gullah and Geechee heritage live along the southeast coast. But these numbers don't tell the full story. Many people left the area to seek opportunity in other cities, taking their culture and cuisine with them.

"It is everywhere," said Jonathan Green, an internationally acclaimed artist who lives in Charleston and whose paintings celebrate the Gullah world. "This is the beautiful thing about the Gullah culture. It is a culture. So it becomes submerged in groups of people. You hear it in the language, the tone in which people speak, the dialect, the words they use, the cuisine they favor, the facial attitudes, the expression. So the culture is very much alive."

Green grew up in Gardens Corner, a small community near Beaufort, South Carolina. In recent years he has turned much of his attention to researching the role of rice in the region's history. It remains a staple of Gullah cuisine and was the crop that brought his ancestors here in bondage from the west coast of Africa. Their labor and knowledge of rice cultivation—everything from the sweetgrass baskets used to winnow the crop to the construction of the dikes and canals that managed the flow of water—helped create enormous wealth, and it's a contribution that has been long ignored.

Hiding in Plain Sight

You can still see the remains of a rice dike near Bill Wilder's house on James Island, which is across the Ashley River from downtown Charleston. Wilder lives in the Sol Legare community, which is set behind a supermarket along a marsh and an inlet.

A few hundred yards from his house is the Seashore Farmers' Lodge No. 767, which once served as a gathering place and provided assistance for families facing hardship. Built in 1915, it fell into disrepair but was saved and now is a small museum that tells part of the story of Sol Legare and how its residents found strength in their isolation.

Like many Gullah and Geechee communities, Sol Legare is hiding in plain sight. It's also aging, said Wilder, filled with retirees like himself who don't mind the slower pace. He is worried about the future, about a time when his generation is gone, when Sol Legare yields to high-end development and there's little left but memories.

Almost all of the people involved in the preservation efforts are middle-aged or older, and they recognize the need to bring younger people into the effort. I met Shirley Carter as she was cleaning the Sol Legare Community Center, a former school built in the 1940s. "[Young people] don't see it the way that we do, but when you explain to them the heritage, they appreciate it."

In the past, many Gullahs and Geechees were looked down upon. They spoke their own language, a Creole that had roots in both English and African words and sentence structure and a singsong cadence that is still heard today. But not everyone was proud to be Gullah, said Allen, and that creates a need to build trust across the corridor and be respectful of privacy while telling the larger story.

Since retiring in 2002 from the Penn Center, which was created in 1862 as a school for the Gullah Geechee on St. Helena Island and the other sea islands, Campbell has given tours of his Hilton Head. He takes visitors down Beach City Road, once the site of the Mitchelville community, created in 1862 as a town for freed slaves. It's gone now, but the town of Hilton Head and a local group have developed part of the area as a park, a place for recreation and paying tribute to the island's Gullah heritage.

As a former chair of the Gullah Geechee commission, Campbell is encouraged by what he sees, but he also understands the uphill nature of the struggle and the need to move quickly to preserve both places and a way of life. "Whatever happens," he said, "is going to require a lot of work, a lot of sweat, and a lot of cooperation."

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