The distinct Gullah-Geechee people, located near the coast of South Carolina, have survived slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow. But in recent decades, the historic Black community has been threatened by gentrifiers and commercial developers who have taken their land. In a struggle that most Americans have not noticed, the Gullah-Geechee continue to fight the political and legal battles needed to preserve as many of their homes and as much of their culture as they can.
A long-enduring Black community threatened by gentrification
The descendants of people from central and West Africa who were brought to the southern United States as slaves, the Gullah-Geechee people have been able to retain elements of their home cultures. This includes the Gullah dialect, a mix of English and several West African languages, as well as distinctive foods and other expressions of culture. The community lives along the Atlantic coast and on several coastal islands in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The total Gullah-Geechee population has been estimated at about 1 million. But over time, much of the land previously held by the community has been taken over by mainly white developers who have transformed it into resorts and golf courses. In recent years, what’s left of the Gullah-Geechee lands and culture have been threatened by efforts to displace the remaining members of the culture and to remove the protections that are in place to preserve their land.
Protecting St. Helena Island
Recently, the fight to preserve Gullah-Geechee territory has been centered on St. Helena Island. The Beaufort County, South Carolina, community currently enjoys protection from the Cultural Protection Overlay (CPO), a 1990s law meant to protect the Gullah-Geechee community by limiting the ability of commercial developers to encroach. But an ambitious investor has been attempting to change the law in order to develop a new golf course and a new gated community, potentially gentrifying thousands of acres of land in the process. Hundreds of members of the Gullah-Geechee community have been active in fighting against this change, holding public hearings and convincing the Beaufort County Council to reject the proposed changes. However, with developers filing legal appeals against this decision, the threat to the community remains.
Fighting to maintain Gullah-Geechee land on Hilton Head Island
The fight to preserve the CPO in St. Helena represents an effort to halt a decades-long process by which much of the Gullah-Geechee land has been repurposed over decades. Most famously, Hilton Head — the South Carolina island where hundreds of Gullah-Geechee people had lived since the Civil War — was converted into a popular resort and golf destination. Today, Gullah-Geechee neighborhoods remain scattered throughout the island, and even this territory is under threat. In one current notable case, developers are fighting to take the land of 93-year-old Josephine Wright, who has refused to sell the property that has been in her family since the Civil War. Amid harassment and lawsuits, Wright’s family has raised over $300,000 to fight to protect her property; Kyrie Irving and Snoop Dogg are among the people who have donated to her campaign.
Wright and other members of the Gullah-Geechee community can use all the help they can get, celebrity and otherwise, as developers remain determined to control as much of these lands as possible. Losing this fight would threaten the existence of one of the most unique and inspirational communities in the United States. But the Gullah-Geechee community, having endured slavery and racism for centuries, remains determined to preserve itself from the challenge of gentrification as well.