A Vanishing History: Gullah Geechee Nation

On the Sea Islands along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, a painful chapter of American history is playing out again. These islands are home to the Gullah or Geechee people, the descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to work at the plantations that once ran down the southern Atlantic coast. After the Civil War, many former slaves on the Sea Islands bought portions of the land where their descendants have lived and farmed for generations. That property, much of it undeveloped waterfront land, is now some of the most expensive real estate in the country.

I always feel my ancestors out in this field with me i still can hear songs i stay they feel oh i’ll stay there fee stay there fee until the war’s ended on a quiet chain of islands off the south carolina and georgia coast is an almost forgotten community called the gullah or geechee people more than anywhere else in america they’ve held on to traditions their

Ancestors brought from africa they’ve stayed on the isolated former plantation land where those ancestors were once enslaved and developed a cultural language known as gullah it seems pretty isolated back here oh see now that’s what we call insulated so we feel like we’re insulated and kind of kept warmed and keep our culture alive away from the mainland culture

So sure if you went just across the crumple bridges and you ended up on the mainland you’ll hear people speaking like this and then you come across onto these 100 a yeti people the cracker teeth like they show all day long i think like a dead end they say huh mark had a good one also known as queen wet still lives on the land where her great-great-grandfather

Was enslaved five generations ago we have okra we plant peanuts cantaloupe watermelon the same things that my great-great grandfather planted here and he was the person that actually obtained this land in 1862 so my family has continuously owned it legally since then but he was actually enslaved here hundreds of plantations ran down the south carolina and georgia

Coast in an area known as the sea islands after the civil war broke out the islands were abandoned by the plantation owners and thousands of people were eventually able to buy the land they were once enslaved on but today the landscape is changing folks come in with bulldozers and the first thing we defeat is they want to dig up what we’ve already had for all these

Generations and then they want to build something that’s antithetical to our culture golf courses resort in condos i’ve replaced gullah communities hilton head island was the first to be developed once home to about 300 gullah families the 42 square mile island is now home to 26 golf courses it brings in 2 million tourists a year and is considered one of the top

Vacation destinations in the united states gullah burial grounds dating back to the days of slavery are now the back yards million-dollar condos in opulent gated communities that new logos fondly call plantations that development boom is slowly spreading to other areas nearby you can hear right now construction in the distance something else being built yep one

Of the things that you’ll notice that you’ll never see outside of gullah geechee homes usually on signs like that no trespassing well that’s part of the interesting thing is that the land that the gullah geechee zone it’s all community owns absolutely yeah most people live on what is in the law called heirs property and that’s because our ancestors during the

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U.s civil war now bought property and so gullah geechee became the first group of people of african descent in north america to own land in mass gullah landowners sought to own the land community among their extended family over generations this community owned land was passed down to hundreds of heirs often without legal documents like wills or clear titles an

Informal shared ownership system developed which came to be known as ayers property until recently ayers property arrangements kept family properties from being sold because family is depended on the land and each other but today developers are using legal loopholes to acquire ayers property sometimes for pennies on the dollar whether the people living there want

To sell or not we visited willie hayward a local attorney who helps color families protect their property when the ancestors are quieted this was not a very desirable place to live because of the lack of air conditioning mosquitoes alligators and lack of access lack of bridges and so on and so forth and roads but now that has changed so that progress the lack of a

Better word has brought in folks who now want to divest gullah geechee people of that land for development purposes what’s the extent to the threat run out to the actual land and how much land are we talking about having been lost in the past few years areas that i see that in my opinion that were 90 percent above gullah geechee folks that are now less than tenth

If that one of the interesting things that we picked up on is that you know just one owner who owns one small part of it can kind of force the entire thing to be sold how does that even work the law allows that allowed just simply all you have to do is allege that you have an interest that interest maybe one hundredth of a percent errors properties are divided

Into shares with each family member holding a certain portion of ownership the law allows anyone owning part of an heirs property to force the other owners to sell the entire property by going to a judge and asking for their dollar value of their share technically other heirs who want to keep the land could buy out their share but in reality if you have the means

To purchase that share on the open market it’s just too expensive and because there are so many owners the land often can’t be subdivided the only practical solution is to sell the land at a court auction or just go along with development what’s unique about delegating people we have more ears outside of south carolina many cases these ears have lost contact with

South carolina never been to south carolina don’t know anything about south carolina but legally they have an interest in that property in the end gullah people are forced off the land they own to make way for resort communities they can’t afford to live in adolphe brown is a real estate broker on hilton head island here’s a piece right now as you see this in for

Sale sign this is all the answer you can almost tell it by the mobile homes like you’ll see you know a bunch of mobile homes you know together that’s a good indication that you’re on a tract of land that’s is from he showed us a piece of ayers property he’s planning to develop some distant relatives who live out of state recently decided they wanted to work with

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That off to develop the land forcing the sale of the entire property and displacing relatives who live there some of the people don’t want to sell obvious because they they’ve lived here their whole lives you can see there’s a lot of mobile homes so they’re 19 in total that you know there’s gonna be an issue with and so you know what do we do what do they what

Do they do their only option would be to buy those relatives out but they don’t have the means to do so waterfront property here it can go for $800,000 in acre adolph moved to hilton head from new york ten years ago when he discovered he owned shares of an aires property some of the work you’ve done it it’s kind of got you a bad rap on the island right now yeah

Yeah yeah it has it has an island a lot of the islanders think i’m the i’m the bad guy on the city slicker bambuser dude you know anything people here feel like they’re their entire culture is being sold along with this property that the gullah culture is basically fading away as more developers buy up these these lands through the era’s property right i mean do

You understand that anger i understand the anger and i understand the gullah culture my grandmother was a midwife on hilton head so almost every african-american of that was born from in the 60s 50s 40s she brought them into the world that the problem comes in when the world changed my family doesn’t barter with food they go to regular jobs and have nine two fives

And they’ve gone to college and they work fortune 500 companies now so it’s kind of i mean you can see the division like i’m sure there are people who think of this as like like a boon just like they won the lottery almost and those others who think of it as i am losing my way of life i’m losing my home right i’m trying to rectify those two situations i mean what

Solution can you come up with the only solution i’ve ever seen is to develop it and i give people this analogy of the american indians that were you know downtown wall street they had the teepees there they had little communities could you imagine today there being 20 acres that’s indian and reserved in wall street if that one can’t happen that was hundreds of years

Ago what i’m saying is i that you have to be progressive or it will you you will get run over taxed out moved out eventually it will happen up the coast the once quiet community of mount pleasant recently became the ninth fastest-growing city in the country the phillips community settled by former slaves of the phillips plantation is one of two gullah communities

Left there so we’re in phillips community right now which is a gullah community right outside charleston and this kind of used to be a really isolated area but now basically what you have is all these developments that have sprung up around it so it’s kind of like a doughnut hole so it’s only really a question of time how much longer that people here can hold out

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Before they’re either priced out or their homes are bought out from underneath them lawrence palmer i spent his whole life here when i was growing up there’s a close-knit community or someone who got a house to be built everybody join it and help that person build that house going up to pay a dime in time to come around to you or the community get together and do

The same thing to you now it seems like a lot of people are trying to get this property right here oh yeah there are moving in varies swiftly and are people trying to actively get your land right now are they trying to buy your lands oh yeah you try to buy my property or several time i told the noise nut and seal when i should die i hope that some of the family

Member would step up and not try to keep it richard generation this community was one big family but now the community is far divided everybody is all the more like an individual number one looking out for number one the hecklers the rest as the push to sell keeps on building the gullah are running out of options if we can situation on the fussy allen right now a

Lot of native people are gone the few pockets of of gullah geechee on st. simon is drying up like the water of california today it’s all but non-existent how can we stop this we don’t really have a community ardent i guess we have maybe a few neighborhoods but not a real community and i think we need to develop and that’s one way to stop people from encroaching

On your land we need to meet with each other we don’t we want me right after the funeral when emotions are out of control ever seriously roll you across to within the black community without truck we can’t we definitely can’t be unified i mean in my family we lost a lot of land but but the thing of it is is like i started something new i started buying land and i

Want it because i know the importance of land and i want to keep it in the family i want to keep it going this is something that we all need to take with us and to explore ways in which we can do that and one of the ways that we may have to do this is the african spirit and let’s see whether or not the african spirit can calm and some knowledge or wisdom into this

Problem that we are having as a culture and si as a people in addition to these community meetings the gullah turned to traditions rooted in those their ancestors brought here more than 200 years ago the name of god most gracious most merciful the kept accent praises to god our mighty lord of all the worlds master of the day of judgment thee do we worship and die

Aid with the seat show we the squint way the way of those into goa scream i mean in some respects it’s a genuine vacation story one group pushed out by a wealthier one but given the land and people involves a piece of american history is being lost and when it’s gone it’s gone

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A Vanishing History: Gullah Geechee Nation By VICE News