Representative Clyburn also became increasingly concerned about his Gullah constituency. "I get to Congress and see all of these efforts being taken to protect the marsh and prevent sprawl," says Clyburn, who in 2006 became the second African American in history to ascend to the position of Majority Whip of Congress. "No one was paying attention to this culture that, to me, was sort of just going away."
In 2001, he commissioned a National Park Service study to look at threats to the Gullah Geechee culture. He then crafted the findings into a congressional act that named the coastal region from Jacksonville, Florida, to Jacksonville, North Carolina, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
Only 37 national heritage areas exist in the United States, and "this is the only one that spreads over four states," says Michael Allen of the National Parks Service in South Carolina. He helped Clyburn with the study and is currently selecting a commission made up of representatives from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina to oversee the formation of the corridor and the allotment of the money. The National Parks Service plans to select the commissioners, who will serve for three years, in May.
Despite the unprecedented congressional act, many Gullah know very little about the corridor. "People who are aware of the corridor are very skeptical of it," says Queen Quet. "They think, 'What do they want? Do they want to help us or help themselves to our culture?'" They have, after all, learned from their past. Although the outside community has shown interest in Gullah traditions by purchasing baskets and taking tours focused on the culture, very few concrete things have been done to help the people. And now that millions of dollars are involved, some Gullah worry that the commission will include profiteers instead of those genuinely interested in helping.
Only time will reveal how the money will be used and what impact it will have on the Gullah Geechee nation. "I hope [the commission] understands the full extent of the law to protect, preserve and continue the culture, and not make it a tourist area, not to have it museumized," says Queen Quet, who has been nominated for the commission. She would like to see the money fund such things as a land trust and heir's property law center, along with historic preservation and economic development. She says, "We need to take ten million seeds and then grow a whole bunch of more plants."
Clyburn's ultimate mission echoes that of nearly everyone involved: "The long term goal is to make sure we keep this culture part of who we are."
Whitney Dangerfield is a regular contributor to Smithsonian.com.