A Vanishing South: Gullahs v golfers: Preserving the culture of the Sea Islands
Jan 31st 2008 | ST HELENA
From The Economist print edition
THE coastal sand flats of South Carolina are a tranquil place. A local newspaper carries a front-page story about a mother and daughter who bit each other. But controversy over development is stirring the calm waters. Developers from Florida want to build a supermarket on St Helena, one of the Sea Islands that dot the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Many locals object. Last year they mounted a letter-writing campaign against another proposed supermarket, and that one backed off. They worry that a big chain would imperil the region's distinctive black culture, called Gullah or Geechee.
The white planters who settled the Sea Islands imported thousands of slaves from West Africa, and in the comparative isolation of the islands they developed a culture that retains a strong African influence. Patricia Jones-Jackson, a linguist who spent much of the 1970s among the Gullah people, found a transatlantic connection in everything from the islanders' basket-weaving to their belief in a tripartite soul.
Perhaps the most notable feature of Gullah culture is its creole language. Structurally and grammatically, Gullah has much in common with the West African languages from which it is derived, but most of its vocabulary is English. (The term "Gullah" probably comes from Angola; "Geechee" may refer to the Ogeechee river in Georgia.) Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court judge, was born in the region and grew up speaking Gullah.
St Helena itself is an important historical site. Early in the civil war whites fled the Sea Islands after the Union Army won a battle in Port Royal. The newly freed Gullah people became parties to an experiment often described as a rehearsal for Reconstruction. Northern missionaries established a school for freedmen, the Penn Centre, on St Helena in the 1860s; 100 years later, Martin Luther King held organising meetings there.
Robert Middleton, an islander since infancy, gives tours of the island and says he welcomes residential development. But he has a limit: "I wouldn't like to see it get like Hilton Head." The best known of the 100 or so Sea Islands used to be a sleepy community until the 1950s, when a bridge was built connecting it to the mainland. Shortly afterwards developers descended. The island still has its live oaks festooned with ghostly grey moss, but now they shade golf courses and resort communities, one of which is owned by Disney.
The question of how to balance economic development with cultural preservation has always been a tough one. In 1862 a northern missionary noted in her diary that one of the Union generals was worried about speculators buying up land on the Sea Islands: "He thinks matters are being, injuriously to the people's interests, hurried forward in favour of purchasers." St Helena has an ordinance against golf courses, but a supermarket may be a step in that direction. There is already one (Publix) on the adjacent island, and another (Piggly Wiggly) on the mainland.
More formal efforts are under way to preserve Gullah culture. In 2006 Congress declared a swathe of coastline stretching from North Carolina to Florida the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The project has yet to get started, but it has already raised interest in Gullah culture. Gardenia Simmons-White, who was born on St Helena in the 1930s, recalls when use of the language was discouraged. "We were taught not to speak 'broken English'," she says. But she believes the future looks brighter: in 2005 translators released a Gullah version of the New Testament.