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Fighting Against the Tide

Two very different women battle to preserve the Sea Islands, primeval Southern marshes rich in history.


DAUFUSKIE ISLAND, S.C. — This is a place of great stillness, where the wind cuts across the open marsh and swirls up into the palmetto trees, stirring the leaves together and making a sound like rain.

Here a few old people still sit on the beach and weave swamp grass baskets the same way their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. They reach for reeds like the ones that grew in Africa, they speak a musical dialect belonging to a different time.

These are the Sea Islands, off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, one of the most remote areas in the South and the last refuge of an African-based culture dating back to the era of slaves.

But the refuge is going, going the way of the once-rich seas.

Hotels, higher taxes, pollution and time are closing in on the few remaining native islanders and invading their wild, open spaces. The old people are fading away. The younger ones are moving.

Two women who have sunk themselves into their land like stakes are fighting back. Yvonne Wilson and Sandy West don't know each other. They've never met. They live on different islands, 30 miles of marsh between them and a world apart.

Wilson sleeps in a trailer, West in a mansion with a stuffed lion on the wall. Wilson is black, West is white. Wilson grades roads for a living. West lives off the last vapors of a family fortune.

But the two share a powerful connection--a passion to keep the Sea Islands from getting ruined.

"We're fighting the same tremendous fight," West said. "And people not so long from now will be thanking us, if we win."

Yvonne Wilson's trailer is crowded with animals and children. It smells like Ajax. A goat, Jack, is tied up outside. "Come here, boy, come here," she says as Jack steps toward her, hesitates and then bolts behind a swing set.

Wilson is a short, vital, 48-year-old woman who wears combat boots, drives a steam roller and supports a family of six on $14,800 a year. She's a Gullah, one of 23 remaining on Daufuskie, a 5-by-2-mile island of swamp and beach across the water from the fancy resorts of Hilton Head.

The Gullahs are descendants of slaves brought to the Sea Islands 250 years ago from West Africa to pick cotton and rice. The isolation of the islands enabled Gullahs to retain bits of African culture that tended to disappear within a generation or two on the mainland.

Even today, they still do things a little differently, racing through words in a lilting accent, leaving old water pitchers on graves with a whisper of a magic spell (because the dead get thirsty, too) and milking venom from snakes to sell to pharmaceutical companies for $3,000 a jar.

Wilson is a modern Gullah, someone who doesn't regularly use the traditional dialect but understands it, someone who works a mainstream job Monday through Friday but might spend a weekend at a Gullah reunion banging on a goatskin drum and singing African songs. The Gullahs are the most African of African Americans, scholars say, the missing link to a motherland culture that has all but disappeared.

Their language is an English dialect leavened with Caribbean-sounding pronunciations. It has kept alive some African words, like "oonuh" for you and the term "day clean" for sunrise. The word "Gullah" is thought to come from Gola, the name of a West African tribe. The dialect was once widely spoken along the two dozen Sea Islands that stretch from Charleston, S.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., and today is thought to be understood by 500,000 people.

Whether Gullah culture will continue on Daufuskie is a big question. The island has a history of leveling its traditions. The first residents, the Yemassee Indians, were driven to the sea to make way for European farmers, farmers were then cleared out to make way for slaves and not so long ago, tombstones of slaves were ripped up to make way for golf courses. "They threw bones in the water, bones," Wilson said.

Even worse, she said, developers and resort residents made Gullahs feel poor.

"We used to think we had a lot," she said. "But when you see people building big houses and wearing beautiful clothes and having nothing else to do but lie around in the sun, you start to say to yourself, 'Gee, I've been fooling myself all this time.'"

The modern world crashed into Daufuskie around 1950, when the surrounding area began to industrialize. Very quickly, raw sewage and pollution from paper factories along the nearby Savannah River fouled the waters and killed the oyster and fish business, driving away families who had made their living from the sea.

"It was difficult for people who had never been a part of the modern economy to survive--and preserve their culture," said Emory Campbell, director of the Penn Center, a South Carolina research and cultural institute studying Gullah ways.

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