Joanna Heyward’s family has owned land for six generations on South Carolina’s Saint Helena Island, a center of Gullah Geechee culture. Credit: Sara Novak

USA - On U.S. Barrier Islands, African-Rooted Traditions Protect Against a Relentlessly Rising Ocean

A way of life nurtured for hundreds of years in the U.S. Southeast guards coastlines from climate change

Once you are across the bridge onto Saint Helena Island, S.C., trinket shops and strip malls give way to fishing shacks and saltwater marshes. Secluded from the bustling tourist traffic just a bridge away, the island remains largely untouched. It preserves traditions fostered even before some of its residents’ ancestors were forced to traverse the more than 4,000 miles of ocean that separates the Saint Helena salt marshes from Africa.

A logical first stop after arriving on Saint Helena from the mainland is the Penn Center, a school for formerly enslaved West Africans that’s now a cultural center. The Gullah Geechee people—members of an ethnic group living on Saint Helena and other islands and coastal areas in the U.S. Southeast—are descendants of Africans who were enslaved on plantations in the region. Their culture is still defined by a rich heritage of West African traditions adapted to fit life on the barrier islands where they lived, largely isolated from the rest of the American colonies before the American Revolution.

Sign for the Penn Center.
A school for formerly enslaved West Africans is now an African-American cultural and educational center on Saint Helena Island called the Penn Center. Credit: Sara Novak

Tabby homes—built from a type of concrete made of broken oyster shells and sand—are still a common sight. Residents line their irrigation ditches with shells, hang blue bottles from trees to ward off evil spirits and weave intricate baskets with seagrass found along the coast. There are still an estimated one million Gullah Geechee people living on the coastal areas between Jacksonville, Fla., and Jacksonville, N.C., according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Many still make their homes on what are called heirs’ properties: land that’s passed down without deeds from generation to generation.

Saint Helena is one of the few remaining sea islands in the U.S. that recalls an earlier era. Some Gullah Geechee people have held onto their lands since the first enslaved people arrived in what would become South Carolina in the 16th century. Elsewhere along the coast, Gullah Geechee families have yielded their lands to developers of hotels and vacation homes and upscale gated communities. Dating from the end of the Civil War, Gullah Geechee families have lost more than 14 million acres of family property, and only around one million acres owned by the formerly enslaved group is still in family hands.

Occupying 64 square miles, Saint Helena is one of the centers of Gullah Geechee culture. It’s a vast swath of pristine coastal land dotted with maritime forests and salt marshes. Gullah Geechee people on Saint Helena still own their land because their ancestors put up cash to obtain deeds in the 19th century. On other sea islands along the South Carolina coast, formerly enslaved people were given the lands initially and then were pushed off them after Reconstruction. After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson, who held deeply racist beliefs, became president, the land was returned to former plantation owners.* But on Saint Helena, Gullah Geechee people bid on land at auction and split it up into family compounds such as the one owned by the Heyward family, who still live on their property more than 150 years later. The island has a cultural protection overlay (CPO), a zoning ordinance that gives protection against development of these lands.

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