Descendants of enslaved West Africans brought to the Lowcountry to cultivate rice, the Gullah Geechee people have a proud, rich history and a special kinship with their land which extends from Jacksonville, NC to Jacksonville, FL and encompasses all of the sea islands and 30-35 miles inland to the St. Johns River.
After the Civil War, the sea island plantations were abandoned, leaving the formerly enslaved people on a path to self-determination. Skilled farmers and fishermen, they developed their own English-based Creole language, Gullah, by which the people and their culture came to be known. They sold their bountiful harvests on the open market, allowing them to do something few recently-enslaved people in North America could do: buy land. They pooled their money and bought the land on which they lived.
Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine, Chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation was born on Saint Helena Island off the South Carolina coast. She has spoken before the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and a number of legislative bodies in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida; acted as an Expert Commissioner in the U.S. Department of the Interior; and was a participant in the White House Conference on Conservation.
She’s devoted her life to preserving her homeland, its language, and its heritage. To that end, she founded the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition (G/GSIC) in 1996. The grassroots group’s mission on behalf of all Gullah/Geechee is to preserve and celebrate their history, heritage, culture, and language. As well, they work toward Sea Island land reacquisition and maintenance.
Climate change, encroaching development, and the complexities of heirs’ properties are huge issues for the Gullah/Geechee people. Sea Islanders such as Queen Quet are intimately aware of changes in the environment their people have inhabited for over 400 years. “We live on islands, so we see the sea rise every day … in the middle of the day, when there’s no hurricane,” she said in a speech to the National Adaptation Forum.
According to Ki’Amber Thompson of The Ocean Conservancy, the “community’s place on the coast is being threatened by the development of golf courses, resorts, and condos directly on wetlands, oil drilling and seismic blasting, sea-level rise, hurricanes and flooding, and ocean acidification. These various threats have a direct impact on the Gullah/Geechee Nation’s food security and overall livelihoods.”
One major battle the community recently faced was the proposed development of an eco-tourism resort on Bay Point Island, a low-lying, erosional barrier island near Saint Helena’s Island. Queen Quet and the G/GSIC presented a petition with over 30,000 signatures in opposition to the proposed resort to state and local officials. Representative Joe Cunningham urged the Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals to reject the development plans, citing “the adjacent Gullah/Geechee communities on neighboring St. Helena Island who have relied on Bay Point and its surrounding marshes for sustenance and commercial fishing for generations. Such impacts are of significant concern and have not received adequate consideration.”
In addition to Anthropocene Alliance, advocacy allies working with the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition in urging the board to reject the permit included the Coastal Conservation League, S.C. Environmental Law Project, Beaufort County Open Land Trust and Port Royal Sound Maritime Foundation.
In a triumph for the Gullah/Geechee people, the zoning board rejected the proposed development as incompatible with the nearby area and didn’t deserve a special permit. Board vice chairman Kevin Mack said he was concerned to hear developers had not met with community leaders on nearby St. Helena Island after proposing that a cultural connection would be part of the resort experience.
“I’m a product of St. Helena Island; I’m a product of Gullah Geechee nation,” Mack said. “I am very sensitive about what the people in the community have to say about what’s coming into their area…”
Written by Kerri McLean
Chieftess and Head-of-State for the Gullah/Geechee Nation
Flooding, Water Contamination
Community Farm/Gardens, Fighting Industrial Contamination, Halting Bad Development, Nature-Based Solutions
501c3 Tax Deductible