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Plantations Again : The Gullahs: An Upside- Down World

August 28, 1988|RON HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

THE SEA ISLANDS — 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.

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