In Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, along Highway 17, a middle-aged African American man sits on a lawn chair in the afternoon sun, a bucket of butter-colored strands of sweet grass at his feet. Little by little, he weaves the grass together into a braided basket. Beside him, more than 20 finished baskets hang on nails along the porch of an abandoned home converted into a kiosk. Like generations before, he learned this custom from his family, members of the Gullah Geechee nation. This distinct group of African Americans, descendants of West African slaves, have inhabited the Sea Islands and coastal regions from Florida to North Carolina since the 1700s.
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Today sweet grass is harder to come by in Mt. Pleasant. Beach resorts and private residences have restricted access to its natural habitat along the coast. For the past 50 years, such commercial and real estate development has increasingly encroached upon the Gullah and Geechee way of life throughout the South. Now the federal government has passed a Congressional Act to protect their traditions, naming the coastal area from Jacksonville, Florida, to Jacksonville, North Carolina, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and committing $10 million over ten years to the region. The project is still in its infancy. As the National Parks Service selects a commission to oversee the corridor, the Gullah and the Geechee wait to feel its impact.
In the early 1900s, long before developers and tourists discovered the area, Gullah family compounds—designed like African villages—dotted the land. A matriarch or patriarch kept his or her home in the center, while children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren lived around the perimeter. The family grew fruits and vegetables for food, and the children ran free under the protective watch of a relative never too far away. They spoke a Creole language called Gullah—a mixture of Elizabethan English and words and phrases borrowed from West African tribes.
Their ancestors had come from places like Angola and Sierra Leone to the American South as slaves during an agricultural boom. Kidnapped by traders, these slaves were wanted for their knowledge of cultivating rice, a crop that plantation owners thought would thrive in the humid climate of the South's Low Country.
After the Union Army made locations such as Hilton Head Island and St. Helena northern strongholds during the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman granted the slaves freedom and land under Special Field Order No. 15. The proclamation gave each freed slave family a mule and 40 acres of land in an area 30 miles from the Atlantic Ocean that ran along the St. John's River. The orders, which were in effect for only a year, prohibited white people from living there. The descendants of these freed West African slaves came to be known as Geechee in northern Georgia and Gullah in other parts of the Low Country. They lived here in relative isolation for more than 150 years. Their customs, their life along the water and their Gullah language thrived.
Yet real estate development, high taxes and loss of property have made the culture's survival a struggle. For many years after the Civil War, Gullah land "was considered malaria property. Now it has become prime real estate," says Marquetta Goodwine, a St. Helena native also known as Queen Quet, the chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation. "In the 1950s, there started an onslaught of bridges. The bridges then brought the resorts. I call it destruction; other people call it development."
Over the next few decades, construction continued and the Gullah people could no longer access the water to travel by boat. "At first it wasn't bothering anybody. People thought this is just one resort," says Queen Quet. "People started putting two and two together. It was just like our tide. It comes in real, real slow and goes out real, real slow. It's so subtle."
Although many Gullah did not have clear titles to the land, their families had lived there for generations, which enabled their ancestors to inherit the property. Others had free access to areas controlled by absent landowners. As the value of the property heightened, taxes increased, forcing many to leave the area. In other cases, outsiders bought deeds out from under the families.
"A lot of the land that is now being developed was literally taken, and in many instances, illegally," says Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, whose wife is of Gullah origin. They began not only to lose their homes but also their burial grounds and places of worship. Soon, as waterfront properties became even more valuable, they lost access to the sweet grass, which grows in the coastal dunes of this area.
Had nothing been done to preserve Gullah land and traditions, says Queen Quet, "we would only have golf courses and a few places that had pictures that showed what the Gullah people used to look like." She decided to take action and started the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition. "When one culture dies, another soon follows. I didn't want to see my culture die."
A Gullah proverb says: Mus tek cyear a de root fa heal de tree—you need to take care of the root in order to heal the tree. Queen Quet intended to do just that when she flew to Switzerland in 1999 to address the United Nations Commission on Human Rights about the Gullah Geechee people. Her speech roused interest in the Low Country community, and the United Nations officially named them a linguistic minority that deserved protection. Over the next few years, the Gullah Geechee people named Goodwine their queen.