Ever since their arrival on U.S. soil as enslaved Africans, the people who became Gullah/Geechee have fought to protect and preserve their culture and land. The Gullah/Geechee Nation spans from Jacksonville, NC all the way down to Jacksonville, FL and prides itself in having its own language, customs, and distinct culture that includes celebrating and maintaining their African and indigenous roots and honoring the land.
One of the largest existing Gullah/Geechee communities can be found on St. Helena Island in Beaufort County right here in South Carolina. While this Island is home to a beautiful and rich culture and natural landscape protected and cared for by the Gullah/Geechee community, there are many active threats encroaching upon this sacred space and community, creating concern about the future of the Gullah/Geechee people.
Charleston, SC was one of the first ports of entry for enslaved Africans and remained the place where most enslaved Africans were brought over and sold. Many of those enslaved Africans would be transported down to St. Helena Island to work the rice and Sea Island cotton plantations there.
One of the major concerns of enslavers was uprisings from the enslaved. They attempted to prevent this by forbidding enslaved Africans from speaking in their native languages and engaging with their native culture. Many enslaved Africans rebelled against this and found ways to preserve their cultures, blending elements together to form a new and stronger culture. This is the bedrock for the Gullah/Geechee Nation and its unique culture and language. That fortitude has carried the community through many decades of attacks and attempts at erasure.
Following the abolition of slavery, General William T. Sherman issued an order that would set aside the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida for formerly enslaved residents. However, President Andrew Jackson attempted to take this land back from those formerly enslaved by issuing a proclamation that former Confederate landowners could reclaim their land if they swore loyalty to the United States. However, many former enslaved Africans in Beaufort County were the lawful owners of their land, because they had acquired it during tax forfeiture auctions.
Present Day St. Helena Island
The St. Helena community has always relied on seafood and agriculture to thrive. Today, that is no different. The Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association was founded by members of those seafood families and are continuing those oyster shucking and fishing traditions today. The entrepreneurial spirit always has been and remains strong in the St. Helena Island – including small shops, carpentry, and construction.
It has also been home to many talented people who have gone on to have an impact on people all over the world. A few of these people include singer Candice Glover, writer and performing artist, Ron Daise, who starred in “Gullah Gullah Island” with his wife Natalie and children Sara and Simon, author, lecturer, environmentalist, and Art-ivist Queen Quet, and visual artists Sam Doyles, John the Drawingman Bradley and Saundra Renee Smith.
The Threat of Tourism & Development
Having survived slavery, the Great Depression, the Great Migration, and many other historical threats, the current threat to the Gullah/Geechee community on St. Helena Island is development as a result of tourism. As Hilton Head and other surrounding tourist and residential areas continue to grow, developers are looking at St. Helena Island as a place of interest. As beachfront tourism continues to grow in the South Coast, Gullah/Geechee people are adamant about protecting their land and culture.
The Hilton Head District has not only dispossessed Black communities, but it also glorifies the antebellum South with gated communities that are named for plantations. While this trend continues to devour communities on other islands near Hilton Head, St. Helena is determined to keep their community from the same fate. There are citizen action groups, like the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, the St. Helena Island Corners Community Preservation District Committee, and the St. Helena Island Cultural Protection Overlay District Committee, that are actively in the trenches fighting against resorts, highways, and bridges that would lead to the destruction of the existing community.
In addition to preserving the culture, the St. Helena Gullah/Geechee community is fighting to protect the land. As climate change continues to have an impact on the coast, one of the key issues with development in this region is the heat island effect. As more cities crop up, the main materials retain heat, making them warmer than areas with natural flora and fauna that absorb and release heat better. That trapped heat caused by urbanization, as well as the removal of natural vegetation, leads to greater climate risks, such as rising sea levels and shoreline erosion.
The effects of climate change make it more difficult for the Gullah/Geechee Nation to maintain their economic independence, land sovereignty, and cultural heritage. Therefore, protecting the culture and preserving the land go hand in hand for the St. Helena community.
St. Helena Island is more than just beautiful land that is worth protecting. It is the rich culture, history, and heritage of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. It is community and home for a vibrant people. It is sovereignty and land rights. The fight for St. Helena Island is a fight for cultural continuation and self-sufficiency and independence for the Gullah/Geechee community, and that is something we should all be standing up for.
All information about St. Helena Island found on the St. Helena Island website here.