I first heard of the Gullah Geechee when my family moved to South Carolina more than 40 years ago. I remember hearing there were African Americans living nearby who spoke a distinct Creole English. Many years later, while living on Hilton Head Island, I began to document their culture after becoming aware of how rampant development and gentrification was threatening their land and way of life.
Today, there are about 200,000 living in the Sea Islands and along coastal areas from North Carolina to Florida, where they have long maintained unique customs rich in West African traditions, such as weaving baskets out of materials like sweetgrass and palmetto fronds.
Congress officially recognized their cultural importance by designating these coastal areas and up to 30 miles inland as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor in 2006. The Gullah Geechee have owned land in the corridor since the Civil War’s end, but keeping the property has been an ongoing challenge.
With little access to the legal system, newly freed slaves couldn’t officially transfer land ownership. Instead, they informally passed their land down through the generations as heirs’ property. When an heirs’ property landowner dies, each of his children receives an equal right to the land. As generations come and go, the land continues to be passed down, and eventually, dozens of relatives can own a single tract.
In some cases, property owners who don’t live on the land have sold it out from under their relatives. Surging property taxes and predatory developers have instigated many of these sales. And the gated communities, country clubs and resorts that have sprung up around them have cut off access to hunting and fishing grounds and even cemeteries — leaving the Gullah Geechee who remain struggling to preserve not only their land but also their culture.