The Impact Of Gentrification On Gullah-Geechee Culture In South Carolina

Here's how gentrification in the Southern Corridor threatens the preservation of Gullah-Geechee culture

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| April 12 2019,

11:27 pm

Gentrification is a dirty word tied to the increasing number of young, white adults moving into urban areas. They often push out older Black residents due to higher rent. However, gentrification isn't limited to cities — it’s also rampant in the Gullah-Geechee Corridor, the coastal region of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

One of the lasting remnants of the Atlantic slave trade is the Gullah Geechee. They are the descendants of formerly enslaved West Africans who made barrier islands their home following their emancipation in 1865. As a result, South Carolina Lowcountry developed into a distinct strip of coastal land with its own cultural identity separate from the interior of the state.

According to The Los Angeles Times, "In the Carolinas, the people are referred to as the Gullah. In Georgia and northern Florida, they identify as either 'saltwater Geechee' or, if they live near rivers, 'freshwater Geechee.' A firm count of their total population on the Sea Islands and the interior coast is difficult, with some communities as small as 70 people living in remote hummocks and islands. As part of an application for protected status in 2005, the Gullah-Geechee estimated their total population at 200,000."

Nelson lives in Varnville, South Carolina, which is located near Georgia's barrier islands. With a population of roughly over 2,000 people, it has all the trappings of quintessential small-town America. The 30-year-old shared that he believes his family’s roots in the peach state are connected to the local Gullah Geechee, explaining how learned a lot about his past while attending community functions, like fish fry gatherings. His relatives' heavy accents still maintain strong traces of the distinctive Gullah language, a dialect that’s historically made up of English and West African languages like Krio, Mende and Vai. He also grew up eating a rich diet of red rice, okra soup, fired chard, oysters and crabs.

"Enslaved Africans here were known for rice farming; not necessarily cotton farming," he told Blavity.  

It wasn’t until Nelson started traveling that he realized his staple diet was considered unique in other areas of the country. To him, rice and shellfish were just as essential as his home on the sea coast. His grandmother, father and uncles also passed down the delicate art of crabbing, which he too intends to share with his children, in an effort to preserve these cherished traditions.

Once a Black economic haven, the Corridor has since been ravaged by those who do not realize the significance of the land. The gorgeous islands have attracted tourists from the mainland for their exclusivity, and as more luxury resorts continue to pop up, more Black locals are being forced to relocate. Although white citizens currently outnumber the Black population in popular tourist destination Hilton Head, Nelson noted it was once a majority-Black island.

"My parents used to tell me Hilton Head didn't always look like this," he said. "This [land] used to be all Black-owned. The beauty of it now is that we have social media — people are becoming more aware of it, but it has been going on for decades. If you go to Hilton Head now, you wouldn't necessarily know that it's a Black area. It has been overtaken by development, millionaires and billionaires. You got your everyday Black people with waterfront properties and mobile home trailers."

At the forefront of those pushing back against rampant land development are community leaders and activists.

"The state is not as concerned as the people living there," Nelson said. He also shared that he hopes to become wealthy enough to purchase up Gullah-Geechee land, in order to create museums and preserve long-standing neighborhoods.

Following Hurricane Florence in 2018, the Gullah Geechee's struggle to maintain a stronghold on their land became even more challenging. Many of the Black landowners in dozens of South Carolina counties became vulnerable to losing their properties, due to a policy that qualifies certain areas as "heir property." Heir property refers to land that has been informally passed down to relatives over generations after the passing of a landowner, who died before composing or formally finalizing a will. Many present-day Gullah Geechee had been able to maintain land ownership under this law, because their ancestors, who were newly freed slaves, bought property in the Southern Corridor that was then passed down to their relatives. Although these beneficiaries may reside on and pay property taxes for their land, they may not have formal deeds to it because of laws related to heirs' property.

While advantageous in theory, the problem with these policies stems from the lack of a primary landowner. As the deceased's family tree continues to splinter off and grow over time, more heirs become eligible for ownership. When that occurs, a "too many cooks" scenario can emerge. Because each relative is entitled to the property, no matter how small their stake in the land, they have a right to file a claim in court regarding its sale and distribution. In some states, the decision on whether or not to divide the land among living relatives or to sell the property at auction is completely up to the court's discretion, despite "evidence of use of the property as a primary residence, longstanding family ties to the property, or other extremely important noneconomic considerations."

"According to the Census Bureau, 80 percent of land owned by Blacks has been lost since 1910 due to their property," the USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights states. After slavery, Black people owned nearly 15 million acres of land across the United States, most of which was in the South. That number has since dwindled to abysmal figures, as reportedly less than 2 percent of Black farmers and 1 percent of Black rural landowners remain today. Between the fallout of Hurricane Florence and archaic heirs' property regulations, over 108,000 acres of Lowcountry land became up for grabs.

“And we know that is an underreported number,” said Jennie L. Stephens, executive director of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, commented in an article for CityLab.

Developers see these landowners as financially vulnerable. The high property taxes and the exclusive rural — and often impoverished — locale makes it easier for developers to lowball property owners. 

While actual land is being scooped away from Black people, there are some external forces that attempt to protect the Gullah Geechee. Since 2006, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor commission serves the inhabitants of the region by helping to preserve Gullah Geechee festivals, cuisines and other cultural activities, like songs and dances, and keep their traditions alive. For example, as a way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation, which essentially served as the catalyst for the Gullah Geechee's ability to settle down as free citizens in the Corridor, the commission organized a special event called the Watch Night and Emancipation Day Celebration.

YouTube | Gullah Geechee Corridor

Among the other sacred areas protected include the Penn Center, which was one of the first schools dedicated to the education of formerly enslaved individuals, and the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Penn center holds a special place in history, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights leaders congregated there for important matters. Founded in 1816,  Emanuel A.M.E. Church is one of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal churches in the South.

Emanuel A.M.E. Church is also where one of the most horrific mass shootings in history occurred, when Dylann Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, infiltrated the congregation in 2015. During the attack, nine innocent parishioners were murdered as they prayed. Among them was Clementa Pinckney, a member of the state senate senior pastor at the church, who spent his life advocating on behalf of Gullah-Geechee cultural preservation.

"The word genocide is one that a lot of people can't handle me using," Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, spokesperson of the Gullah Geechee Nation, said following the tragedy in an interview with Al Jazeera. "Because so many people in the world don't realize that those were Gullah Geechee people that were massacred. Those were Gullah Geechee people whose rights were being violated."

Despite years of adversity, the resilient Gullah-Geechee people refuse to back down from what seems to be an assault on their way of life. Residents are fighting for their land in court, at the United Nations and via online campaigns, while offering accessible literature and hosting educational initiatives and events. Their efforts are making an impact. For instance, the Gullah language is now considered a cultural artifact, and learning the language has even become an integral part of the curriculum for Charleston County public schools. However, it's evident that more community support, as well as legislation designed to protect the Gullah-Geechee's vibrant cultural legacy against profit-mongering land developers and ignorant white supremacists, is critical to ensuring that future generations will never forget the important role the Gullah Geechee have played in American history.


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