DAUFUSKIE ISLAND, S.C. -- "Every goodbye ain't gone."
-- Gullah expression
Although a boat bringing supplies from Hilton Head sank and a departing ferry had to return to pick up some stranded passengers, some people would say that Daufuskie Day went off without a hitch. Sallie Ann, Willie and Jake were at the dock, welcoming folks to the festivities. Vendors selling famous Daufuskie deviled crabs did a booming business, and the sound of blues broke the island's stillness. But change is coming to Daufuskie, and old-timers said Daufuskie Day will never be the same. And it's all a question of land.
Granted the opportunity to buy land they had worked as slaves, hundreds of blacks lived on this most southern of the sea islands off the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas, at first raising cotton and produce. Isolated from the distractions of the mainland, they clung to the authenticity of their African past, even teaching the children in both English and Swahili.
They performed backbreaking labor, but they also had big fun: eating deviled crabs prepared from a secret recipe, hunting rabbit and deer, telling folk stories in the Gullah dialect (English spoken with an African rhythm), singing hymns and blues.
After the boll weevil killed the cotton, a thriving oyster industry developed. When pollution from the factories in Savannah killed the oyster beds in the 1950s, the oyster plant closed. And with the subsequent decline of farming, many islanders moved away to Savannah and other places.
Meanwhile, as the Daufuskie population dropped to around 90 in the past 25 years, a dramatic transformation was taking place across the Calibogee Sound at Hilton Head. From a haven of black-owned land where islanders rode horses, farmed, hunted and fished, Hilton Head became a tourist's delight, complete with condominiums, hotels, security checkpoints and no-trespassing signs to keep the islanders out of sight.
Now, change is coming to Daufuskie, as it has to hundreds of other places throughout the country where land has slipped through the hands of black people. Nationally, black land loss has been an issue since the 1920s when black ownership of farmland peaked at 15 million acres. Now black farmers have lost ownership of all but 3 million acres. So the difficulties faced here are familiar: Blacks owned only small plots, which limited their farming versatility, and most of the older people, lacking education, left "heir's property," land conveyed without a will to children and others in extended families who live off the island. Here, as in much of the South, legal entanglements of heir's property are contributing to black land loss.
The one-man personification of the change here is developer Charles Cauthen, 49, a southerner who started buying up property on Daufuskie in 1979. Last year, Cauthen's group sold its interest to International Paper Co., and that land is being built up more every day. Staying on to help run things, Cauthen expects to have 900 families living here in six to seven years.
"We came up with the concept of not building a bridge from the mainland to Daufuskie," Cauthen said. "We'll have no cars and low density to keep the island more in line with what Daufuskie has been." So keenly attuned to Daufuskie's spirit does Cauthen claim to be that he said he heard bloodcurdling screams when he slept in the lighthouse that the Daufuskians declare is haunted. "Now we'll have jobs and the people of Daufuskie can come back home," he said.
But many Daufuskians don't see it that way. "A lot of people want to come back," said Joseph Bryant, a former resident. "But they done got rid of their land and don't have no place to come back to."
Some white Daufuskians complain that developers tried to shave off some of the acreage from their cemetery and they had to go to court to save it. They won, but one of them, Francis Berns, is still paying off the legal fees out of his and his wife's Social Security checks.
"The developers want to take the best and push us off the southern end of the island," said Sonny Smith.
Some Daufuskians, such as Sallie Ann Coleman, 28, who has started her own cleaning service, welcome the change. Others, such as Emory Campbell of St. Helena Island's Penn Center, are trying to help slow the loss of black land by seeking changes in some of the laws and advising the residents.
But development is advancing steadily, irrevocably, and I left Daufuskie with sadness that this place that was the soul of Afro-American culture would be no more. Yet I knew the island people would survive. After all, they survived slavery, cotton and the closing of the oyster plant. Surely they can survive "progress."