Zenobia Harper, a Gullah Geechee woman from Georgetown, S.C., recites a poem in the Gullah dialect. Nathaniel Cary, [email protected]
The first enslaved African people arrived in the New World with the English colonists in the mid-17th century, sometimes aboard the same ships arriving in Carolina from overseas or with colonists resettling from outposts in the Caribbean, particularly Barbados.
From the start, under the authority of the 1669 Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina authored by English philosopher John Locke, who wrote that “every Freeman of Carolina shall have absolute Power and Authority over his Negro Slaves,” slavery took root. Its effects are still being wrestled today.
As those early colonists established livestock and agriculture as means of survival and later to enrich the Royal Crown on land granted by King Charles II, slave traders increasingly targeted people from West African regions. The first wave of enslaved West Africans arrived from 1670 to 1690.
They possessed knowledge and culture, strength and ingenuity developed in their own agrarian lifestyle. The enslaved brought those traits with them.
And those traits, alongside back-breaking field work under the harshest of conditions, made the Carolinas into wealthy colonies. Once the Carolinas split into North and South in 1712, they each became wealthy, with the southern Carolina becoming the second-wealthiest colony in America.
The new plantation owners found indigo to be a cash crop. And enslaved Africans grew it along the sandy river banks and mixed its ink in vats until their arms stained permanently purple. And when the Crown reduced its reliance on indigo from America, those plantation owners developed a new cash crop, rice.
The labor needed to clear the land’s black cypress trees, dig canals and plant and harvest the rice fell to the enslaved, and numbers of West Africans poured into the Carolinas. Eventually 90 percent of the populations of counties such as Georgetown were made up of enslaved Africans. In some places, they grew cotton or sugar cane. In others they raised hogs or cattle. But rice was king.
Some of the enslaved escaped south to Florida or north to Canada, but those who remained melded their language, religion and culture — brought from African regions and further developed where the United States would later rise — into its own unique culture, passed down orally from generation to generation.
Once the Civil War emancipated enslaved Africans who had been brought to the Carolinas for their agrarian knowledge and physical labor, ex-slaves across the South fled from white terrorism.
But along the coast from roughly Jacksonville, North Carolina, to south of Jacksonville, Florida, many ex-slaves remained. They claimed land from abandoned plantations, opened businesses during Reconstruction along the main streets of cities and then, as Jim Crow took hold, increasingly isolated themselves into communities along the coastal corridor, especially on sea islands where many have remained for generations.
What developed is seen now as the most African place in America. The people became known as Gullah Geechee though the title’s origin is unknown.
They farmed collards, lettuce, tomatoes and butter peas, fished for oysters, shrimp and sea bass, and raised hogs and chickens. Their relative isolation from white society left intact much of the traditional culture that had developed during slavery and hearkens back to African or Caribbean roots.
Gullah communities built wooden one-room praise houses to worship with energetic singing and shouts. Many painted their shutters and porches haint-blue to ward off angry dead spirits. The Gullah culture can be seen in the sweet-grass baskets some still weave on the sidewalks of Charleston or in the creativity and adaptability of Gullah soul food that incorporates the rice, sea food, sweet potatoes, grits, local vegetables and basic spices available to cooks during slavery.
More than anything else, Gullah people share a distinct dialect, a creole language that shares similarities with some West African languages that meld with English to create a quick-paced, easily flowing language.
During Reconstruction, Joe Fields’ grandparents purchased 11 acres on Johns Island, South Carolina, where they first raised hogs and lived a quiet lifestyle of subsistence farming in the poor, rural communities south of Charleston. His parents bought more acreage across the winding two-lane road in the 1960s and expanded as commercial farmers.
Then took over Fields, the youngest of eight children and a third-generation farmer who began by spreading chicken and horse manure over 46 acres and growing tomatoes, collards, cabbage and peas. He returned the farm to its organic roots in 2010 and now farms 35 acres of organic collards, lettuce, kale, spinach and more.
The land is important and keeping the family farm alive is just as important, Fields said. Photos of his parents and grandparents hang in his roadside market, as does a photo of his grandson, now 15, who wants to take over the farm one day.
On a cool January morning, two family members used a chainsaw to cut through muscadine grape vines they were removing while another pulled weeds by hand from a patch of broccoli. Fields fed chickens and petted Shetland ponies that take up residence along Joseph Fields Family Lane, a dirt road that leads to his house. The lane bisects Fields Family Lane, which leads to other houses on the back of the farm.
The entire family still lives here, and many work the farm together.
“We all built around the farm, so all of the houses that you see are brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews,” Fields said. “It’s something we love to do. Farming is in our heart.”
Fields doesn’t plan to go anywhere, but real estate signs have posted all along the stretch of road nearby. It’s a sign of the rapid suburban development that’s reached its tentacles from Charleston and the resort-heavy sea islands nearby. Some have sold, and sprawling estates back up to river access points while subdivisions take shape nearby.
Development pressure, and the gentrification it can bring, is one of the leading threats to the Gullah way of life, numerous Gullah preservationists said.
Because of isolation, the Gullah Geechee people lived in tight-knit communities with families often sharing land passed down through generations. Most remained poor and suffered through segregation, poorly educated and bereft of wealth-building opportunities afforded white landowners who ranched cattle or managed forestry operations.
Parents left no more than oral wills, telling their children not to sell the land but to share it and live on it. Many did, and because the children shared ownership and often passed it down to their children, the land ownership has gotten murky.
Children who owned shares of land got married or took jobs and moved away. Others who stayed now shoulder the burden of paying property taxes, sometimes for more than their share of the land. Because of shared ownership, many Gullah people can’t get mortgages to build houses on their property. Since they can’t afford to pay cash, often they’ve bought trailers — which are taxed as personal property, not houses — and placed them on their land.
Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine, Chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation and a native of Saint Helena Island, one of the sea islands along South Carolina’s coast, said encroaching development and family dynamics of heirs’ properties present some of the main challenges to the Gullah people’s way of life today.
“Many that have not grown up on the land do not value it in the same manner that those that live on it do,” Goodwine said. “They often see if as a ‘cash cow’ for an instant, but they do not look at the long-range value of it and how you cannot calculate the value of cultural heritage and self-sufficiency on property that is actually owned and not mortgaged.”
Unable to afford rising property taxes because of land value with water or beach access that’s become valuable, some families have chosen to relocate, Goodwine said. Others have ended up in court as families who share land can’t agree on whether to sell or stay, she said.
Ed Atkins took over Atkins Live Bait, which his parents started in 1957 on the side of the Sea Island Parkway that spans Lady’s Island and Saint Helena Island. He said his family has fished for oysters and shrimp on the river’s edge for longer than that.
He lives on inherited land along with his 10 brothers and sisters and their families, and he’s watched as his fishing-based livelihood and that of others has eroded with increasing development.
“So much regulation has run the poor man off the river. Used to be you could go out and catch a little something to feed your family or trade shrimp for peas to somebody who do farming. They limit you on the shrimp you can catch. They limit you on the fish you can catch. They limit you on the oyster you can go out there and get. It’s a mess.”
Besides that, he said, tourists are over-fishing for oysters and shrimp, and land-clearing for expensive homes is removing oyster and shrimp habitat along the river’s edge.
Increasing fees, taxes and development pressure are placing the largest challenges on maintaining the Gullah presence on the sea islands, he said. On islands such as Hilton Head or Kiawah, the Gullah people have disappeared, with few exceptions.
A Johns Island-based non-profit organization has been working to stem the tide of families feeling forced to sell to developers. The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation has cleared 215 titles for families since 2005 over the 15 counties it serves, said Jennie Stephens, the center’s executive director.
The group helps families obtain clear land titles, educates communities on the dangers of oral wills and helps heirs property landowners establish income-producing uses for their land such as sustainable forestry.
At least 108,000 acres of heirs property remains in the South Carolina coastal region. When natural disasters such as hurricanes Matthew and Florence hit the area, heirs properties didn’t qualify for FEMA assistance because they had no clear ownership title, Stephens said.
By that time it was too late for her center to clear their titles in time, she said.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., inserted language into the Farm Bill approved by Congress in December that set aside money to help heirs property owners obtain farm loans and to clear land ownership issues.
Those measures lend hope to families such as Atkins’. He hopes one day to pass down his share of his family’s land to his children or grandchildren.
Despite the challenges, Queen Quet said the embrace from Gullah people of their history and culture over the past few decades can be seen in Gullah people who have begun to speak the dialect more openly and have begun to open businesses with “Gullah” or “Geechee” in the title.
Where once school-bound children abandoned the dialect, told it was backwards or broken English, students now speak it proudly.
Much of that re-embrace has to do with the work of Gullah activists such as Goodwine or Zenobia Harper, a Georgetown woman who is a docent at Hopsewee Plantation, a former rice plantation, and has started the Gullah Preservation Society of Georgetown County.
Harper walks visitors up the creaky wooden steps to the second-floor Rice Museum and shares a fuller history of rice cultivation in Georgetown. Or she leads them on a tour of the plantation to share her ancestors’ history. She tells visitors of the wealth of knowledge and culture of those who created those cash crops and of the way the Gullah culture first developed under those harsh circumstances as those disparate African people became “a people in the New World and tried to figure out how to mesh together all of those traditions and languages and religious beliefs… under extremely hostile situations.”
“I’ve been trying really hard to get an expansion of the narrative so that when people come out they’re not just focused on the planter-class narrative,” Harper said while standing next to one of two remaining structures that served as slave cabins on the plantation.
Louise Cohen carries on the Gullah culture in Hilton Head, where she’s restored her father’s 1930s one-bedroom house into a museum on the land where he lived and she was raised. Gated communities and giant resorts stand just down the street, but the Gullah survive, one generation passing its traditions to the next.
And in Georgetown, Natalie Daise sits and paints inside an old red-brick building on the city’s main drag where oral history says slaves once changed hands. Daise and her husband, Ron, starred in the mid-90s Nickelodeon television series “Gullah Gullah Island,” which has been partly credited with bringing awareness of the Gullah culture to national exposure along with the 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust,” written and directed by Julie Dash. Beyonce used imagery from Dash’s movie in her 2016 visual album Lemonade.
Daise’s husband wasn’t allowed to speak Gullah at home, she said. It had been trained out of him. They weren’t aware that the creole language was “a sign of great creativity and the ability to adapt in difficult situations,” as Daise put it.
Then he wrote a book about it, began to share Gullah culture in schools and eventually landed on television.
“Where before, Gullah was a thing you didn’t want to be… now it’s like, ‘I’m Gullah,” Daise said. “I have such gratitude to see that embrace.”
Now, Daise’s children speak Gullah with friends, and her daughter, an Afro-futurist, says she wants to move the Gullah culture forward — not locked into a period during slavery or Reconstruction but adapting.
Or, as Dash’s character Viola Peazant in “Daughters of the Dust” says quoting Shakespeare, “What’s past is prologue.”
This is one of a series of stories celebrating Black History Month by telling the stories of South Carolina’s black leaders in sports, education, entertainment, business and politics.