This is a place of spirit. 70 percent of the enslaved Africans who came to this country came ashore here on the coast of South Carolina. These Africans brought with them a set of traditions, skills and beliefs that came to be known as Gullah Culture.
The coastline from South Carolina to Northern Florida is home to an estimated 300,000 Gullah people. TheSea Islands among them Edisto Island, Coosaw Island, Daufuskie Island, and St. Helena Island have provided Gullah roots of millions of African Americans.
Before the Civil War, the Gullah were more autonomous than other American slaves, thanks to the heat and mosquitos along the swampy Atlantic coast line, which drove slave owners inland during the months of April through October.
After slavery, the Gullah were isolated without bridges to the mainland, without the white presence - their West African culture thrived. They refined their crafts, developed their own cuisine, and even spoke their own language.
But it's in their relation to the land that their culture is made most manifest.
GULLAH GEECHEE SEA ISLAND COALITION:
This land is living. These waterways are living. The oak trees are living. Even snakes that most of us don't wanna see comin', they're living. For us, everything you touch, everything that you encounter, has certain energy to it. And that energy is very real, and you have to know how to respect that energy.
St. Helena Island was and is divided into communities that still bear the names of antebellum plantationů Fripp, Pope, Coffin's Point..Frogmore. Here in Frogmore in 1862 the Penn School was founded. It was the first school for freed blacks in the south. Teachers' diaries remark that their students - children, nursing mothers, old men and women, all came to classes first held under the oak trees, hungry and eager to "catch the learning."
EMORY CAMPBELL, DIRECTOR EMERITUS, PENN CENTER:
They came to school to learn to read and write so they could sign their name to a deed. And so land was the objective of the newly freed people.
It was here in 1865 that Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued his special Field Order Number 15, promising 40 acres to blacks. Later that year, the order was rescinded and the black-held land was returned to the Confederate owners who had fled when the Union Army came. Through sacrifice and hard work some former slaves were able to buy land, especially in the Sea Islands. By 1868 half of Beaufort County was owned by Gullah. But ownership here meant something very different than it meant to the rest of the country.
Families never thought that it was necessary to subdivide land and become individual owners of land. Land was used together and therefore the-- the whole culture was based on just joint-- community use of land.
It was that communal ownership of land that helped hold Gullah culture together in the 19th century but in recent decades has begun to pull it apart.
Marquetta Goodwine a.k.a. "Queen Quet" is working against that trend. She is the founder of the Gullah Geechee Sea Island Coalition, and organization which seeks to educate people about Gullah traditions.
MARQUETTA GOODWINE, QUEEN QUET:
The Gullah Geechee Nation has seen a lot of changes. And many of those changes have been brought because people did not have a clear understanding of our story.
When it comes to land, the story goes like this: if a Gullah landowner dies without a will, all of his or her heirs inherit the estate with no one person owning a specific part of it. Within a couple of generations as more family members die without wills, dozens of relatives end up owning the land together. This process of inheritance is called heirs' property.
But today that doesn't work because we have a whole new capitalistic system where you have to mortgage land to get a house, or you-- you need to sell a piece to get cash. And-- And therefore they-- the whole problem of heirs proper-heirs' property now has a become a problem that it never has been before.
VERTAMAE GROSVENOR: For developers there is an advantage in the heirs' property system. If one individual or group of landowners is willing to sell, the developer can use that willingness as a wedge against the other owners.
EMORY CAMPBELL: You have heirs, members of the families who've-- who are living on the land. And then they are members who may be living in Washington or New York that don't have the same feeling or sense of place to the land. And you have the third party, the developer or the speculator, who would like to buy the entire tract of land to develop some business. And so they take advantage of this contention between the two groups. And buy one group off and then go to court in what is called a partition sale and force the sale of the entire track.
VERTAMAE GROSVENOR: It doesn't always take a court order to benefit developers... When some members of the Holmes family on Hilton Head Island wanted to sell their heirs' property, another faction disagreed, but decided it was better to go ahead with the sale than to continue squabbling. China Berry Ridge Development now stands on that 40 acre plot.
On St. Helena island, land which once had little value to outsiders and sold for $3,000 an acre a decade ago, now sells for up to $20,000. Much of the Gullah fishing and farming land now has been developed into golf courses, resorts, and gated communities, bringing people from all across the country. And as the Gullah saying goes, "everything change up now."
KENNETH SUMPTER, OWNER, E'S FABRICS: They come and they realize, "It's so dark here. I can see the stars. But it's so dark. Can we bring the street lights?" "Or can we have running water and sewer, and can we have wider traffic lanes and stop lights and all the other things that we had back where we came from? But we like it here. Can we have the Starbuck's? Can we have the conveniences of malls? But the more they come and get involved with the land, the more the land is destroyed.
The Gullah have had an uneasy transition into the 21st century. And the question now is: can their culture enter the mainstream or will it become a tourist attraction, a relic of the past?
PERRY WHITE, OWNER, GULLAH FLEA MARKET:
I don't believe the living generation has the responsibility to preserve a way of life that we call culture and history. We need to establish museums and centers to preserve those things that we think were important part of our history. So that as we become a part of the main stream of life we don't have to burden ourselves down by trying to figure out how do we preserve the culture.
VERTAMAE GROSVENOR: Perry White's family has owned land on Hilton Head Island since emancipation. He owns the Gullah Flea Market, which is operated on family land.
So many people come into this business. And the first thing they've said to me "Isn't it a shame that we can't hear the people speak Gullah. Or that we can't go and see things the way they used to be." Well I grew up here. Prior to the bridge prior to electricity, prior to running water and those things. And I question how many people would like to go back to that.
I think the Gullah culture could-- function very well within our capitalistic culture of today. every restaurant now serves shrimp and grits. I mean that's a delicacy. To us that was just the simple meal that part of the culture, the food ways, the baskets that we weave is now a commemorative art piece. You put it up on a shelf and you would admire it. It's a nice conversation piece. And that, you know, one of those small baskets now can bring $200, $300.
VERTAMAE GROSVENOR: Gazing across the landscape, the Gullah are reflecting on the hard work and sacrifice of their African ancestors and pondering their place in the 21st century.
MARQUETTA GOODWINE, QUEEN QUET: If I were to take now and sell the land, it was as if I was taking my entire family and putting them again on the auction block. And whenever I'm out in the field, when I'm planting things, when I'm harvesting things, I feel all of them in that field still with me. As I was taught , you know, the big fish that eat up the little fish. And you can't have all the big ones just comin'in, chewin'up the smaller ones just because of size. You have to bear in mind that those little one have sumthin' that they give too.