♦ April 15, 2023
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As of late, historic St. Helena Island, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation has once again taken center stage in world history. This time, it is for the same reasons that it has taken academic attention in the early 1900s-the wherewithal and strength of the native Gullah/Geechees of the island. As the outstanding award winning documentary showed, native St. Helena Islanders have “The Will to Survive.” Thus, unlike many surrounding Sea Islands throughout the Gullah/Geechee Nation such as Hilton Head and Daufuskie, traditional Gullah/Geechee culture not only survives but thrives. We binya and ain gwine nowhey!
The inherent ability to fight to hold on to the traditions of St. Helena come from the communal nature that was nurtured in the still existing family compounds that run throughout the island from Chowan Creek Bridge to the bridges crossing over to our outstanding Hunting Island State Park to the oak lined roads heading to Polowana and Coffin Point down to where the land runs out in Land’s End down the historic Dr. Martin Luther King Road leading through the Penn Center Historic Landmark District to the Corners Community which is the Community Preservation District for this rural Sea Island. Traversing the ride through the island in this manner will lead you pass numerous historic churches including Brick, Ebenezer, Adam Street and Faith Memorial Baptist as well as their sister church St. Joseph from which grew “The Place of the Outpouring,” Bethesda Christian Center.
The Gullah/Geechee warrior spirit of St. Helena has poured out into the recently overrun rally at St. Helena Elementary School which was once the location of St. Helena’s schools not just elementary. Over 1000 folks made it there to stand up for the Cultural Protection Overlay District that protects the island from planned unit developments (PUDs), gated areas, resorts and golf courses. These types of land use projects have been consistently associated with the displacement of native Gullah/Geechees and other indigenous people from along the Intercoastal Waterway where the Gullah/Geechee Nation sits. Many that travel throughout the world can also see the link to these same things displacing people on other islands of the world as well. The natives are then left to a fate of tourism being the only industry in which they can be employed in subservient roles akin to the same roles as those of the plantation aristocracy. Our ancestors of St. Helena stood up and fought for their freedom and ours during the US Civil War and were the ones that were the constructors of Reconstruction. In fact, the Reconstruction Era National Monument which is now the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park was established by the United States in Beaufort County, SC because this place is a centerpiece of that story. Brick Baptist Church and Darrah Hall at Penn Center are anchor sites for this national historic park, but the Gullah/Geechee family compounds surrounding these two historic edifices are the places and spaces in which the living story of a place where the “experiment” called “the Reconstruction Era” did not fail. Black folks purchased the lands that they had previously been enslaved on and taught their children how to be self-sufficient. We, their descendants, are still focused on being self-sufficient, independent and self-determined. Therefore, we determined that we wanted to protect our culture by law and have done so with the help of Beaufort County officials since 1999.
Interestingly enough, I never drew the connection between helping write and establish the Cultural Protection Overlay District law and the fact that it took place the same year that I made world history by taking the human rights of my people before the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland until I just typed out the year. I did reflect on the fact that on my UN anniversary this year (April 1st), I was leading the “Coastal Cultures Conference” and sitting amongst national leaders focused on assisting with protecting the rich environment of St. Helena Island and helping the island to be even more resilient. The Gullah/Geechee Nation Sustainability Plan calls for us to ensure that the mission of the Gullah/Geechee Nation is adhered to and that we protect our people by enhancing their quality of life. We can only do this by protecting and improving the land and water quality and lessening the stress of them having to fight to keep protecting themselves and their homeland. Yet, as our ancestors did, we find ourselves on a battlefield once again protecting our rights as was done during the US Civil War, the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement. I am proud to be in the number leading the human rights movement!
I am also proud to have been extended the invitation to come and celebrate St. Helena Island’s legacy at the historic Penn Center for Earth Day. I could find no greater way than to celebrate Gullah/Geechee land than to speak about historic St. Helena Island with other panelists and then fellowship and feast with my folks. Penn Center is inviting the world to attend a “Dinner and a Public Conversation on Land and Community” at 3 pm Saturday, April 22, 2023 at Frissell Community House on the campus. Everyone has to RSVP by April 17th by calling 843-986-4771.
As the Marine Corp flies the Blue Angels over our area that same day, I rest assured that the ancestors will paint indigo streaks in the sky to let us know that they are working with GOD from the ancestral realm to continue to renew our strength. We need only keep our eyes on the prize and hand pun de plow. We need only keep marching on just like the few and proud Marines do. I will be one of the souljahs gwine fawad fa de St. Helena Island Gullah/Geechee Famlee beatin drum while mi da gwine fa tru. Aaah, hunnuh chillun, wha hunnuh gwine do? Will you stand on the sidelines or join in and celebrate the legacy of the Gullah/Geechee epicenter called “St. Helena”?
I look forward to hearing how FEMA is going to assist the Gullah/Geechee folks that have family compounds on the same day that I get to Chair the Cultural Protection Overlay District Committee once again on April 18th at 5:30 pm at the award winning St. Helena Branch Library. This library like the CPO District was designed by people of vision-the native Gullah/Geechee people of St. Helena Island with our allies that had the technical expertise to translate this into what it needed to be.
Scriptures let us know that “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” As long as GOD continues to lead me, I will continue to lead my people and keep us from perishing. Tenk GAWD mi kin see! I pray that next week, I see even more visionaries come to my beloved St. Helena Island and celebrate victory and vision with me.
Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation
Founder, Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition
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