Gullah Culture in Danger of Fading Away

Dahleen Glanton
Chicago Tribune
June 8, 2001
ST. HELENA ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA—Time 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. Helena—untouched by massive development—is 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.

"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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