Plantations Again : The Gullahs: An Upside- Down World

Times Staff Writer

On these quiet, dreamy islands just off Georgia and South Carolina, a culture is being lost, a people displaced and, in an odd way, a part of America’s most painful history is being replayed across a 20th-Century stage.

For nearly 100 years, since the land was ceded to their ancestors after the fall of the Confederacy, children and grandchildren of freed slaves lived here in virtual isolation. Many thousands of them came to live undisturbed amid the pristine beaches, bountiful marshes and moss-laden live oaks, and to carve out a life rooted in the land and centered on customs and beliefs that closely resemble those of West African tribes such as the Ibo, Yoruba, Kongo and Mandinka, from whom they were probably descended.

Whites Moving In

Separated from the mainland, they came to be known as Gullahs and developed a unique life style, culture and even their own Gullah language. Their life of subsistence farming, hunting and fishing was not easy, but it was at least their own.


Now their world has been turned upside down. White retirees and vacationers increasingly are coming to claim this paradise as their own playground, and as hotels, resorts, condominium projects and accompanying businesses have gone up, the original people have been pushed aside.

As early as 1958, when Tom Barnwell got out of the Army and returned to Hilton Head Island, where his family had lived since slavery, the changes he found made him uneasy. “The bridge had been built from the mainland,” said Barnwell, who now heads the Hilton Head NAACP. “Electric lights were being put up. Telephones were coming; roads were being paved. Things were really moving.”

That, however, was only the beginning.

By 1974, said Emory Campbell, another longtime resident of Hilton Head, “I realized that whites had taken over the island. At first it was a shock just watching the occupation, the occupation of land that was once black-owned, that was once vacant and commonly used, watching the access to various places closed off to you, like rivers and public roads and landings. Now we live with it every day.”

Initially many Sea Islanders sold their land cheaply, unaware of its real value. Later, some were happy to sell at very good prices as land values skyrocketed. But now, others who were determined to hold onto their homes often see them disappear at auctions as they struggle to keep up with rising property taxes. They find themselves bound by “pass” restrictions that will not allow them access to residential communities, shopping areas and even cemeteries on huge tracts of land they once traversed freely.

They work in communities the new residents have fondly named “plantations.” There, they are often given menial tasks not unlike those their slave forebears once performed on the real plantations that occupied these very grounds. Pay is so low and the cost of living so high that many have been forced to move off the islands, even though they still commute to work here.

On island after island, residents tell the same tale of woe over lost land and a vanishing heritage.

On Daufuskie, a small island just south of Hilton Head, about 1,200 blacks farmed, crabbed, shrimped and harvested oysters until industrial wastes from Savannah, Ga., polluted the local oyster beds and forced most black families to flee the island in search of work in 1956. Now, three-quarters of Daufuskie has been earmarked for development over the next 20 years. Local government estimates are that the “build-out” will result in a permanent population of 10,000, while the remaining natives are forced off by escalating land values.

On Sapelo Island, just off southern Georgia, the once-thriving communities of Bell Marsh, Shell Hammock and Raccoon Bluff are only memories. The few remaining blacks, who number about 40, live clustered together in trailers along tree-shaded Hogs Hammock.

On nearby St. Simons Island, country clubs, opulent private estates and marinas bristling with yachts cover fields where slaves once worked and black families once lived. The native black population, once the large majority, has dropped from 1,100 in 1970 to about 600 today.

Although St. Simons’ newcomers think of all this development as progress, the islanders have watched sadly as pieces of their culture and history disappeared. Ibo Landing, where Ibo warriors and their king marched into the ocean rather than be kept as slaves, has been fitted with a water-treatment facility. The Tree Stump, a town meeting site of the blacks for as long as anyone can remember, was torn up recently and covered with condominiums.

The Sea Islands Golf Course has replaced the former plantation and cemetery where Jasper Barnes’ parents and his famous slave great-grandfather, Neptune Smalls, are buried.

On St. Helena and Wassaw islands, black residents tell of developers’ repeated attempts to get their hands on black-owned land valued in the millions of dollars. Land rich but cash poor, they watched nervously recently as what was Datah Island become Dataw Island, the latest of several retirement communities to pop up outside Beaufort.

Up and down these low-lying, marshy barrier islands, natives say it is as if the clock has been turned back and their history has come back to haunt them.

“The planters were run off the Sea Islands before,” said Perry White, a native who returned to Hilton Head recently after retiring from the Air Force. “In a sense, these people coming here now are their replacements.”

Nowhere is this rising tide of prosperity and its accompanying dismay more evident than on Hilton Head, a shoe-shaped island that hugs the South Carolina coast just above Savannah. At first, the stream of white retirees and vacationers lured to the island by Fred Hacks’ and retired Gen. John Fraser’s dream of turning timberland into a resort community went almost unnoticed--that is, except by a few such as Gene Wiley, whose first glimpse of a white person when he was 6 years old was a memorable experience.

“I thought it was a black person took sick,” he recalled.

By the 1970s, however, the trickle of newcomers had become a torrent. Whites flooded down Highway 278 to the new golf courses, resort hotels and beachfront condominiums, followed closely by even more developers and land prospectors. Within 10 years, they outnumbered Hilton Head’s 2,000 natives almost 6 to 1.

Under the name of planned communities, they cordoned off huge, private subdivisions and called them plantations--Sea Pines, Hilton Head, Port Royal and others--until four-fifths of the island was sealed off. To enter what are, in essence, residential neighborhoods, an islander now must have a pass or special permission.

Land worth almost nothing before shot up to $50,000 and $100,000 an acre as condominiums and hotels sprang up virtually in the islanders’ back yards. Despite the efforts of local black organizations to prevent it, thousands of acres of black-owned land were sold to zealous real estate dealers.

And, as property taxes soared, “a lot of people were being taxed off their property,” said Mike Bell, a Hilton Head planner, “especially the older blacks on fixed income. They still are.”

Finally, five years ago, Hilton Head was incorporated, largely as a means of controlling the quality of development. The town quickly instituted sweeping zoning laws that, for all practical purposes, severely restricted land use on the remaining, native-owned property. Now, the natives complain, these new people--these white people--have gotten down to telling them just what they can and can’t do on their own land, their last and only really valuable possession.

As the natives there and on other islands have seen their livelihood, their freedom and now even control of their own lands stripped away, they could reach only one conclusion.

“The whites want us off these islands,” said Jasper Barnes, one of the few blacks on St. Simons who still holds sizable tracts of land. “They want them for themselves. They want it exclusive. We don’t fit in.”

This refrain is heard again and again on other islands, and Hilton Head Mayor Martha Baumberger, a resident there for 10 years, is conscious of that perception.

“I know there is that feeling,” said Baumberger, who first visited Hilton Head 20 years ago. “The older blacks feel that it was their island, and here come all these white people. There’s been a resentment, but I believe, educationally and economically . . . each one of them would feel that they are better off now than if this hadn’t taken place.”

Emory Campbell is director of the Penn Center, a service center and historical site that is trying to help blacks adjust to the new circumstances.

“If you look at the results, black people are more vulnerable than white people in terms of losing their property and losing their position on these islands,” said Campbell, 47, who has been fighting to help blacks hold onto their land for 13 years. “So many people draw the conclusion that the aim of the whole power structure is to have black people wiped off the island. All of these new restrictions say to the average landowner, ‘They don’t want me here.’ If it’s not because of their color, it’s because of their economic condition.”

Blacks have been a fixture on the Sea Islands since slavery, and, when the Confederacy collapsed, freed blacks moved here in large numbers. On Jan. 16, 1885, after meeting in Savannah with a delegation of black clergymen who pleaded for land for former slaves, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, ceding most of the Sea Islands off Georgia and South Carolina to the slaves and declaring that no whites, apart from military officers and others present in helpful capacities, could live there.

Separated from the mainland by marshes, rivers and inlets, the native islanders created their own way of life, their own religion and even their own language.

“They’re as different from the mainland blacks as the Yoruba of Nigeria are from the Ashanti of Ghana,” said Harris Mobley, a Georgia Southern College anthropologist and a native of Georgia’s coastal low country.

Along the islands and parts of the mainland, visitors find medicinal herbs, clairvoyance and pieces of African culture intertwined with everyday life.

During funerals residents follow a West African tradition, passing babies and small children over the coffin to ward off the spirit of a deceased relative, or so they can inherit certain mystical powers.

On Sapelo, where every native traces his or her ancestry back to a Nubian Muslim slave and his seven sons and 13 daughters, islanders still collect sweet grass from the marshes and make baskets so similar to those made in West Africa that an anthropologist once mistook them for Nigerian baskets.

Struck by such occurrences, educators in Sierra Leone established an institute to study the islanders’ culture. Africans there have marveled at the similarities in food, tools and religious practices.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the islanders’ culture is Gullah, the lilting, African-influenced Creole language. It is understandable only to the initiated ear. Once derided but now a source of great pride, Gullah is a language of striking imagery.

Dayclean ,” for example, means dawn. “ On rabel e mout “ (“unravel his mouth”) means talking a lot, and “ tek e foot een e han “ means to hurry away.

The islands, whose baseball-loving people have produced such stars as the New York Mets’ Mookie Wilson and the Cincinnati Reds’ Don Driessen, as well as football great Jim Brown, are rich in tradition. It was on St. Helena that the first school for blacks, Penn School, was established in 1861, and the first black teacher, Charlotte Forten, taught. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made plans there for his March on Washington.

Whites appear in some surprising historical footnotes too: Aaron Burr took refuge on St. Simons after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Edgar Allan Poe found the inspiration for “The Gold Bug” on Sullivans Island near Charleston.

Today, blacks have returned to the new plantations to work as gardeners, waiters and maids, to tend golf courses and tennis courts and to clean private homes. Because of a shortage of labor on Hilton Head, almost half of them are bused in daily from as far as 90 miles away. They leave home at 5 a.m. for jobs that commonly pay just over minimum wage.

Said NAACP head Barnwell: “We have indicated over and over again that these jobs are not producing the kind of income that allow people to live on this island and keep up with the standard of living. . . . We need access to those management positions.”

“I know it sounds farfetched, but it’s almost like South Africa,” said Campbell, 47, over breakfast at one of the island’s exclusive hotels. “We need passes to go to places on the island. We work in the lowest jobs so white people can play. We arrive in these buses every morning and then we’re shipped out again.”

Young white professionals, on the other hand, have flocked to live on the island and work there as lawyers, real estate salesmen, bankers, hotel managers, convention managers and the like.

Particularly galling, natives said, is Hilton Head’s recent incorporation as a “limited service government,” a concept that even city officials admit is unusual. The town provides no services. It owns only two short roads. The others are either within the plantations or owned by the state. Hilton Head offers no water or sewer services to its residents.

Consequently, the native communities, which pay city taxes like everyone else, are the only ones on the island without water and sewer service. The water district assigned to serve those areas contends that the cost is prohibitive, and the city says it is powerless to force a change.

The new zoning laws, set in motion along with incorporation after a condominium development derisively called the “Stack of Shacks” was built, so far affect primarily the native islanders. The plantations, already developed, are excluded from most provisions, but the ability of native islanders to use their own land to take part in the building bonanza has been severely restricted.

As a result, Tom Barnwell is still waiting to get water and sewer service so he can complete a badly needed housing project for low-income and medium-income families. And Walter Singleton, unable to get adequate financing to develop five beachfront acres, sits frustrated on the front porch of Walt’s Place, his two-room watering hole on Singleton Beach.

“What the town has done is put in laws that regulate our land, restrict the use and not provide any services or give any alternatives,” Campbell said. “It seems that if a town governs you, a town should provide some services.”

What lies ahead for the islanders?

On Sapelo, Cornelia Baily, the island’s unofficial historian, said she expects that in a few years all the natives will be gone. Barnes said he thinks much the same will happen on St. Simons.

On Hilton Head, Barnwell predicts, the natives “are going to be squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until either folks are going to rebel or there will be some kind of very direct change within the government system.”

Campbell agreed. He said: “I think there will be a few black families living on Hilton Head. Some black people will be moving into these developments, but as far as the native families, I think there will be very few.”