In 2016, Beaufort County, SC held a vote on a penny tax from which the funds would go to multiple pathway projects in different parts of the county. $1.5 million dollars has been presented for a 33 foot wide pathway including a boardwalk to be placed along Martin Luther King Drive on historic St. Helena Island, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation. According to the consultant that is working for Beaufort County Administrator Eric Greenway and his staff member, they cannot improve Dr. Martin L. King Drive with any of the funds and that they are bound to only create a pathway. However, the Gullah/Geechees of the island pointed out numerous flaws in the current roadway that is inundated with water during king tides. So, what would be the logic in placing a pathway that cuts through several people’s front yards and the parking lot of Ebenezer Baptist Church along a road that needs to be improved so that it can be sustained as sea levels continue to rise? The claim is safety for the few local people and some tourists that walk the road from Highway 21/Sea Island Parkway to Penn Center. Yet, the community did not see the logic in cutting down a massive amount of historic trees and taking more of some families properties that stated that they have lost property in the past due to eminent domain in order to put in a pathway instead of improving the entire roadway.
The Gullah/Geechee community members that see this pathway design as a suburbanization of the island which is a first step to gentrification were met with unprofessional and hostile responses that appeared to be threats about the funding going to another place in Beaufort County to another project and that St. Helena Island would then not receive anything. This is not a new thing in Beaufort County. St. Helena Island has been neglected in various ways, but when the community continues to fight for their fair share of the tax dollars and penny tax funds, they get what the community wants on their island and not what others tell them that they need.
Several native Gullah/Geechees emphasized the point that the only way that we are to accept this is if we design in the way that we want it. Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation and Founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition made it clear that there is no sense in building something that is not sustainable. She stated to Councilman York Glover who inherited this project from former Beaufort County Councilman, William McBride that “It is not what you do, but how you do it.” There are resiliency efforts underway for historic St. Helena Island and any projects that are happening at the county level should all be done in a collaborative way that support the health of the island, its environment and the Gullah/Geechee people therein. As much as this project is being sold as one for people to use to exercise on, those pushing that narrative are not exercising common sense nor community sensibility about what is compatible with the Cultural Protection Overlay District and the unique rural aesthetic of St. Helena Island.
Beaufort County School Board Representative William Smith implored the community to realize that they would be better off to leave this than to take it. Many others present that have witnessed the gentrification of nearby Hilton Head gave warnings that this is how it begins. We have heard this call for sidewalks before and we answered it with the sidewalk running through the Corners Community Preservation District so that visitors can safely go through the entire district and anyone that wants to ride bikes have a lane in which to do so. It is rare that you see people using it to exercise and with the continued climate change that is increasing the amount of 100+ degree days, more pavement is not the logical thing to use in a discussion of human health nor safety since pavement contributes to heat island effect which is contributing to numerous heat related illnesses.
Some elders who are now risk averse and that believe that they need to just take this because the county representatives presented it as an “all or nothing” option, are not taking all of the aforementioned factors into consideration. We are looking to the future with modern infrastructure that also maintains the unique character of historic St. Helena Island, SC which is one of the most significant Sea Islands in the entire Gullah/Geechee Nation due to the fact that the culture is still lived throughout the entire island. The bridges that have come and now the sidewalks and pathways that come bring other cultures in that begin to dilute the native culture and traditions. They bring what their vision of living is and that is not the vision of natural and healthy living that St. Helena Island is a hallmark of. So, we are reminded of what we were asked growing up-“If your friends jump off the bridge, are you going to do it to?” We need not jump off this boardwalk into the rising seas in the creek along Martin L. King Drive and drown our good Gullah/Geechee sense in something that is a waste of money when there are other funds that the elected officials can tap into in order to work with the St. Helena Island community and the SC Department of Transportation (SCDOT) engineers to redesign the roadway so that it can be sustained in the future and be safe for cars and pedestrians to pass through without a massive amount of land and tree loss. Sustainability should be what is invested in this historic place in order to improve and maintain the quality of life of the residents instead of literally sinking over a million dollars without raising the road and raising the cultural community that exist on the island.
Comments on this project are being accepted until November 19, 2021: https://beaufortcountypenny.com/meetings/. Beaufort County needs to be told to hold these funds for the St. Helena Island Community to design the pathway that we want and to couple this with infrastructure funds for the overall improvements and sustainability of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on historic St. Helena Island, SC. These improvements should not negatively impact the environment and Gullah/Geechee cultural heritage of the island.