The Gullah Geechee culture is such a special part of American history and Charleston. I recently learned that “Kumbaya” is actually a Gullah Geechee term meaning “come by here.” It was made famous by a song of pleading to God in the face of oppression. It takes on a special meaning when you listen to the song with that understanding.
Let’s not beat around the bush, though. The Gullah Geechee nation is a straight up consequence of American slavery and racism. The Gullah Geechee are descendants of slaves who have maintained a way of life, culture, and tradition on the sea islands along the Southeast United States coast, despite entrenched, social opposition. However, there is reason to be concerned about their continued existence in 2017.
As the instrumental congressman behind the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, James Clyburn states, “Stories and traditions of this fusion of African and European cultures brought long ago to these shores have been slipping away along with the marsh and sand that are disappearing because of encroachment of developments and the pressure to assimilate into the modern world.” And recent developments in Plantersville, S.C. are part of the problem.
The BBC recently posted a story about an enclave of Gullah people in Plantersville entitled Descendants of Slaves Fight for Their Land. As author Brian Wheeler puts it, “Descendants of West African slaves…are fighting to prevent their land from being confiscated and auctioned.”
Jackson Village is the Gullah area in Plantersville where new sewer infrastructure has been built on claims that the septic tanks being used by residents were failing. The sewer line installation was supported by the local NAACP as an improvement and the process began in 2006 but wasn’t completed until 2014, according to records provided by Georgetown Water and Sewer District Executive Director, Raymond Gagnon.
But while records indicate that all communication with residents who would be affected by the new infrastructure were continuously contacted through mailings — 21 different mailings over the eight year period from the announcement of the plans to the completion — all voting was done through the mail as well. Additionally, due to loss of grant money and other considerations, the plan changed significantly in regards to the financial obligation of residents affected after voting occurred. For the first three years, residents were told they would not have to pay anything. Then they were told there would be a $92 annual fee. That fee increased to $250 for a period of 20 years after two more additional increases that were imposed by a council.
While records show that voting was heavily in favor of the sewer project, not everyone was onboard. Many residents in Jackson Village who opposed it are the ones now suffering. These residents claim to have voiced their concerns and opposition regularly over the project period citing they had no desire for the service and, as fees were introduced and increased, their struggle to cover the annual costs was more than they could handle. Worse, because many of their properties are held in common under heirs’ property rights, very few residents here have deeds to their homes. As the BBC explains, that means that if “one of them decides to sell their share of their parents’ or grandparents’ home, a court can order the entire property to be sold at auction.” For residents struggling to keep things together as it is, a $250 annual fee is a backbreaker. At least one person has been jailed for non-payment and Gagnon was quoted as saying that they are prepared to “prosecute any resident who does not comply…to the fullest extent of the law.”
While the County may have done a great job of blanketing the community with mailings, it doesn’t change the fact that many residents were still unaware of the changes and that a majority vote doesn’t change their inability to cover the cost or the imposition of a service and fee they don’t want. A property that had belonged to Lillian Milton, valued at over $45,000, was sold to a real estate developer for $1,236 through this process. As of the publishing of Wheeler’s article, 20 properties were up for auction in this way and other properties have been auctioned with very similar results.
Developers are licking their chops at the opportunity to disenfranchise another black community in the name of profit. At the very least, concern is focused on money and not humanity. Jackson Village resident and Reverend Ben Grate describes, “Developers…millionaires, in big cars, driving slow, staking out property, dreaming on what it would be like to have a motel on the river right here…We’re afraid of them. Because they want to take your land.”
In his article Wheeler asks, “Can they save a traditional way of life that has survived for the one and half centuries since emancipation?”
That’s a great question. A better question might be, “Who’s going to stop the machine?”
Today it’s Jackson Village. Maybe tomorrow it’s Sol Legare and Mosquito Beach. I wonder, though, when minorities will have to stop fighting just to prove that inequality and oppression still exist and the law is not always their friend. I wonder when minorities will have to stop fighting for a fair shake. It’s happening today, right here. This is where we live.
We’re not living in the past. The past has not passed. It haunts like an apparition, invokes fear, and is superimposed on the background of present actions like a burning cross. When the Gullah lose ancestral property, it is criminal to sit back and blame them for not paying taxes. It was purchased on the backs of those who were whipped, beaten and murdered because the color of their skin was considered inferior to white skin. Any and all taxes were paid with blood, humility, and disgusting deprivation.
Queen Quet is the first elected Chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Tribal Nation. I would suggest they be formally recognized as such, given reparations, and their lands be given over in similar fashion as Native American reservations.
We need to stop hiding behind legislation and “good intentions” when they are used for evil. We have to stop being robots and realize what’s happening. It’s not someone else’s responsibility. It’s not someone else’s struggle. If we want to live in a world where we are all equal human beings then we have to build that world. That is not the world we live in and what became clear on November 8 is that there is little hope to see that world in the near future. If that’s the case, we take it and we build it ourselves. I take some comfort in the words of Linda Milton Eaddy, daughter of Lillian Milton who had her property sold.
“We don’t owe anybody anything on it. It belongs to us and we will not let them have it.”