When I first started fighting to maintain ownership of Gullah/Geechee land on the Sea Islands, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the situation. Each fish fry, dinner sale, or fundraiser at a community center seemed to be “just what we do.” We help the folks around us when they need something. If somebody’s house burned, we collected money, clothing, food, household items, etc. and we went over and prayed with them as we dropped things off. If somebody was falling short on what they needed to pay their taxes, we put some money in. “We” meant families, students and teachers at school, and folks at the churches. “We” meant allawe pun de islandt. Disya wha hunnuh hafa do fa one nudda fa tru.
Each thing appeared like they were individual activities. They seemed like getting into one argument or one fight. However, after four decades, I realize that I started off being trained in endurance for an on-going war that started against my people the day that the US Civil War ended and the side that my ancestors that served in the US Colored Troops won! They fought for what I find myself fighting for now that I was taught about in school-“to form a more perfect Union, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and insure the blessings…” Aaah, herein lies the problem, what some see as a blessing, others see as a curse.
Numerous Gullah/Geechee families have found themselves cursed by being displaced from their land because other family members took them to court. The ones initiating the court cases felt that the land was a curse because they didn’t want to pay the annual taxes for the space that birthed the roots of their very existence. They thought it would be better to sell their birthrights for one check that they didn’t realize would be given to them minus the lawyers’ fees and capital gains taxes and what ever additional cost were tagged on due to the forced partition sale of the property that the judge would now issue since these folks wouldn’t just sit down and talk with their family members and reason together on how to sustain the land.
“State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom. Answer.The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our labor–that is, by the labor of the women, and children, and old men–and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare;…We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.
State in what manner you would rather live, whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by yourselves? Answer.I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over, but I do not know that I can answer for my brethren.
(Mr. Lynch says he thinks they should not be separated, but live together. All the other persons present being questioned, one by one, answer that they agree with “Brother Frazier” who was the spokesperson responding to the questions that were being posed.)
Do you think that there is intelligence enough among the slaves of the South to maintain themselves under the Government of the United States, and the equal protection of its laws, and maintain good and peaceable relations among yourselves and with your neighbors? Answer.I think there is sufficient intelligence among us to do so.”
If our ancestors had this much belief in the intelligence among our people back in 1865 to maintain their freedom, I will not give up on believing that we still have it now! The Gullah/Geechee Nation came into existence because there were those amongst us that wanted to maintain our freedom and continue our culture on our land. Webe self-determined Gullah/Geechee!
I have watched our intelligence and ingenuity in action when it came down to finding ways to help Gullah/Geechee families hold onto the land that many of us still own today. I have had some of the most intellectually stimulating and culturally inspiring talks while holding petitions for folks to sign to save our land over the years and talking to people that called after they heard me on the radio or TV discussing a rally or community meeting to save one of our communities in the Lowcountry.
The unfortunate thing was that I also came to know those who didn’t believe in the intelligence of our people and they brought in others from outside to handle their business. Many were assimilated in the miseducation system to believe that they needed to leave the land if they were to better themselves. That land often got sold off and not even to the highest bidder. It simply got sold to whomever paid the taxes down at the county office. As time has gone on, I have watched families in tears because they thought they would be able to go down and pay their taxes on the day of the auction to only be blocked out by many that had arrived with brief cases and claimed they were also heirs to the parcels in question. These people were usually Anglo / white destructioneers that were purchasing property on speculation to build resorts and golf courses. After many of them came, those that didn’t want to pay regime fees in gated areas followed and individuals started buying heirs out of their share and taking the rest of the family to court so that they could flip the property, make a major profit, and literally leave entire families along side the road trying to figure out what direction they would go in.
As Gullah/Geechee tears began to add to the height of the tides around the Sea Islands in which African ancestral blood had already been spilled, folks finally started to talk instead of hiding what was taking place and saying, “I don’t want nobody in my business.” (To which I would respond, “Allawe gwine be een hunnuh bizness ef hunnuh put out doe! Ebeebodee gwine kno!”) As folks started to speak out, people started to stand up and some died doing so. Many people were murdered for their personal land or because they were the legal counsel and activists speaking out about this cultural genocide and land displacement taking place. I can recall the many elders that had great concern in their eyes as I would leave meetings as the sun was going down and they didn’t see anyone else riding with me or notice where my protection was. They protected me in prayer and told me to make sure to call them when I got home and I always would.
I realized after decades of this that I would need to call in some additional help. I founded the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalitionand I started talking to real estate lawyers and working on fundraisers for land funds that different non-profits had. As soon as those non-profits got a few dollars, here came these pro-bono workshops about heirs property that were held by for-profit Anglo attorneys. I quickly realized that they were seeking details that they could also give to destructioneers that would later write letters to family members up north and offer them a couple thousand dollars for property worth five and six figures. So, the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition started vetting attorneys and held our own workshops with Gullah/Geechees to help them truly realize that we were at war and that you couldn’t show up with a butterknife while folks are shooting at us with machine guns and other automatics! Also, you had to be trained for the battles and not kill each other via friendly fire. We had to stand united!
Gradually, others came to stand with us! They came to support our efforts financially, but never in any major way. A dollar here and a dollar there, but never by the $100,000 that they would just as soon donate to a festival or some type of entertainment venture. So, we had to do as our ancestors did and “make do.” So, families continue to get by with the annual party, dinner sale, or fish fry when our taxes double because the new assessments come in. Yes, the property values go up because other folks still want us off this land! Yet, here we are on it, continuing to STAND!
I pray that others will support our Gullah/Geechee Land & Legacy Fundnow that more people are becoming aware of the horrific array of stories that have led to Black land loss. I am encouraged that our vision for it will be achieved in this hour of equity as people now begin to see that the racial wealth gap has to be closed in order for equity to begin.
I have hope as I see more and more publications of the details about Fannie Lou Hamer who was an example of self-sufficiency. She stopped sharecropping and in 1969 purchased land on which to run a farming cooperative that she called the “Freedom Farms.” A donation was provided to her by a group called “Measure for Measure” from Wisconsin. That donation amounted to $10,000. That $10,000 purchased 40 acres of Mississippi Delta farm land. Unfortunately, that won’t purchase 1 acre on many Sea Islands in the Gullah/Geechee Nation at the present time, but it can help us to empower thousands of Gullah/Geechees with the knowledge that they need to maintain their land ownership and to reclaim their land. It will help us to continue to insure that we can assist with more court cases to protect burial areas and stop destructionment and environmental degradation.
I thought that by our 20th Anniversary, we would reach the $20,000 benchmark and that ancestor Hamer could shout with me, but again, I find us “making due.” Slowly, folks are hearing the drum call and have been contributing via CashApp to $GullahGeecheeNation and others have donated via GoFundMe to
Many of these companies have started taking down social media sites and websites and stating that they will rebrand to the exclusion of the two that we are petitioning against. The native Gullah/Geechees of this generation have taken offense and are taking to their networks to bring major attention to this issue. Tenk GAWD fa hunnuh chillun ya!
One of the greatest gifts on the 20th Anniversary of the Gullah/Geechee Nation was not only to see the petition against destructionment at Bay Point reach 20,000 signatures, but to also have people send me links to petitions showing that they were standing with us to also end the psychological abuse of our community by calling for the removal of the word “plantation” from gated areas, resorts, and subdivisions:
The signatures continue to mount on both of these things as people stand with us to create a more just world. I am sure that not only the 20 ministers, but all of our Gullah/Geechee ancestors are shouting to beat the band to see this day come. It was their labor that built up this land and they took painstaking efforts to save to purchase it at auctions much in the way their own bodies had been sold as black gold. They went from being called “chattel” i.e. “property” to being property owners. Dem be had de muddawit fa disya. Plenee hunnuh chillun got um tuh, wha hunnuh gwine do? I pray that we continue to stand. I know I will continuing carrying on and stand for Gullah/Geechee land!
For more about the historic meeting in Savannah, GA that led to Special Field Order 15 that is often referred to as “40 Acres and a Mule,” read this: