I have the honor of serving on the advisory committee for the Garvin-Garvey House located in Bluffton, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation. When I first saw that building, it was leaning as it sat high on the bluff overlooking the May River. It seemed to speak to me every time I showed up there to educate people at an elderhostel about Gullah/Geechee history and culture including the seafood industry. As folks we enjoy oysters on the bank, I was banking on learning the story that this building sought to tell. Eventually, I learned that this was a freedman’s cottage and I took the time to write to the Bluffton Town Council to encourage them to restore this building and let others know of this story that is lacking not only in their town, but in Beaufort County, SC and throughout the Lowcountry.
Millions of tourists visit plantations that operate at gardens throughout Charleston and Georgetown Counties in South Carolina annually. However, the stories of the people of African descent tend to end there as if our enslaved ancestors disappeared with the arrival of the boil weevil into the Sea Island cotton fields. Even now, one after the next these sites seek to have “demonstration gardens” to insure that they tell the stories of the cash crops that our ancestors mastered, but they tell them without the Black hands picking the products. They lack Black voices speaking of the hardships that they went through when harvesting indigo, Carolina gold rice, and Sea Island cotton.
Due to the insistence and persistence of many of us that are historians of African descent, the ancestral legacy of the very arrival of the seeds of these crops to the shores of North America and stories of the foods that people come here to eat are being shared with the tourists by those that have ownership of and that staff these spaces. More oft than not, these individuals are not Gullah/Geechees. Thus, instead of stories of freedom, the story also ends with the antebellum period or keeps ones mind and spirits chained in TransAtlantic and domestic United States slavery. GOD had it that I finally have come to a place that tells the freedmen’s story and the power of the ownership legacy.
Like Garvin-Garvey Freedmen’s Cottage, Hutchinson House on Edisto Island, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation is evolving into a cultural heritage legacy treasure on our coast. It’s walls with layers of peeling paint are speaking and telling the story of how the Hutchinson Family not only owned a home, but acres of land and continued to support other people of African descent in their entire village that was collectively purchased on Edisto and on which native Gullah/Geechees continue to live.
On my many journeys to Edisto for community meetings, filming at Botany Bay, unveiling the Edisto Island scenic byway, and more, folks honor me as “The Queen.” However, never once did I know that Edisto had “Black kings” until I arrived at the Hutchinson House. In an oral history of the late Elder Sam Gadsden, he stated that John Thorne and James “Jim” Hutchinson were the “Black kings” of Edisto Island. Both of these men promoted self-sufficiency and land ownership. They also owned and operated business enterprises. In fact, Hutchinson ran the cotton gin with other members of the association that he led and they brought in massive harvests which he sold. So, he and cotton were both king where he lived!
In 1870, Hutchinson took the lead on behalf of the native Gullah/Geechees by writing to South Carolina Governor Robert Scott to request assistance with obtaining a 900 acre plantation on Edisto. He wrote, “We need this land…We would not have stood by and supported you throughout this last [political] campaign almost to a man…We would not have done so had we not believed you were a gentleman of principle having the good of the poorer classes in view as well as that of the rich.”
After two years, the Gullah/Geechees had not received any direct assistance with their land acquisition request. So, they pooled their funds and proceeded with establishing an association which would be focused on acquiring the land that they sought. There were 19 shares issues in the association. Joseph Whaley, Caesar Graham, Sandy Simmons, Mathew Johnson, Primus Green, Titus Finley, Brister Brown, August Deas, William Fickling, Edward Galloway, and Frank Watson each held 1 to 2 shares and they appointed James Hutchinson as their agent. Hutchinson reserved 3 shares for himself and his heirs.
His heirs continued to hold on to the property and home that was built on the property until 2016. At that time, the Edisto Island Open Land Trust stepped in to acquire the home that sits on 10 acres and they have since acquired another 10 acres that an heir sold as well. They are now seeking to bring the family’s dream to reality by fully restoring the freedman’s cottage to its original glory.
The land that the Hutchinson House continues to sit on was only one of the parcels of the 234 acre plantation known as “Seaside.” This was part of the first land purchased by the association. They continued to acquire more property and almost doubled their original purchase amount, but never obtained the entire 900 acres that they set out to obtain.
The legacy of self-determination and self-sufficiency in the Gullah/Geechee Nation that both the Garvin-Garvey Freedmen’s Cottage and the Hutchinson House represents is powerful! Hutchinson House inspires many dialogues concerning heirs property, Black visionary leadership, family and community unity and sustainability, pillars of Gullah/Geechee cultural identity, and more. Tune in to Gullah/Geechee TV (GGTV) and see the power of the journey to the space with me: