Since the 1960s, retirees have flocked to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and nearby coastal resorts to live in new developments near golf courses and beaches. This influx of prosperous outsiders has uprooted thousands of Gullah-speaking people, descendants of African slaves forced onto rice plantations along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida, who have lived there since the end of the Civil War. Now local activists are waging a last-ditch battle against resorts and wealthy "gated communities" that threaten the unique Gullah language and culture.
"Gullah is about land," says Jabari Moketsi, publisher of the biweekly Gullah Sentinel newspaper in Beaufort, South Carolina. "If you can’t hold onto the land, you can’t hold onto the culture."
When Ashantis, Fantes, Fulas, Ibos, Mandingos, and Yorubas arrived as slaves, they established a creole language—Gullah—from English and West African sources. And from generation to generation, the Gullah people managed to retain pieces of their old world culture—from African grammar to religious beliefs, arts and crafts, stories, songs, and proverbs.
This culture and language survived the slavery era because blacks on Southern rice plantations had little contact with white owners, who fled the malarial swamps most of the year. "So many Africanisms survived in Gullah culture," writes William S. Pollitzer in The Gullah People and Their African Heritage (University of Georgia, 1999), that to some degree "it was a re-creation of Africa within the New World."
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After the Civil War, many Gullah people assimilated into Southern black society or headed north for better jobs. But others became small landholders on the sea islands, where they subsisted for generations, still largely isolated from whites and town blacks, by farming small plots, gathering clams and oysters, and netting shrimp, crabs, and fish.
Though racial integration, the civil rights movement, and economic opportunities for Southern blacks all have contributed to the decline of Gullah culture, large-scale development now poses the greatest threat. Starting in the late 1950s, developers began building upscale resorts on the South Carolina coast, and land values shot up. Since then, highways, condos, golf courses, and hotels have replaced farms, villages, and "praise houses." Unable to afford the rising taxes spawned by resort development, many Gullah people have had to sell their land and move away.
This land is often owned collectively as "heirs property," and while local Gullah families may desperately want to maintain it, heirs who live elsewhere are often eager to sell off what has become increasingly valuable coastal land. "You see heirs fighting each other," says Moketsi. "Some people are selling out their family legacy."
And when local families do decide to sell, community activists say they often get cheated. "A developer offers elderly landowners what seems a large sum, but it’s really not," says Elizabeth Santigati, director of the S.C. Coastal Community Development Corporation, on St. Helena Island. The developer then subdivides the parcel and makes huge profits.
St. Helena Island is a bastion of Gullah culture, and local activists are determined to save it. "We don’t want any zoning loopholes to exist for developers to sneak through," says Marquetta Goodwine, founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition. Island residents have established a "cultural-protection overlay district" as part of the Beaufort County zoning ordinance. The district’s standards prohibit gated communities, golf courses, and resorts. "We’re dealing with zoning regulations because we want to defend ourselves against what’s trying to come onto our island," Goodwine says.
Gullah can survive, she adds, but only if the people can hold onto their land and teach their children about their traditions. "Keeping the land is a priority. Yet we also need to keep spirits intact, to nurture and restore minds, to remind ourselves what our language is, what our culture is."
Updated from an article in Coastal Heritage (Spring 2000), the magazine of the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, which researches environmental and economic conditions in the coastal region of South Carolina. Subscriptions: free upon request from 287 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC 29401. John Tibbetts is editor of Coastal Heritage.
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