Naturally, the rapidly decreasing number of Gullah-Geechee homes and communities has resulted in a variety of abandoned homes on barrier islands throughout the Coastal South. While growing up in this area, exploring these homes was a great way to fill a boring day. You just have to be careful not to fall through too many floors.
St. Helena Island, SC
Favorite picture of an abandoned home that illustrates the vernacular architecture of Gullah-Geechee, which has survived since the antebellum era.
Sapelo Island, GA
Belle Marsh. Lumber Landing. Shell Hammock. Raccoon Bluff. Hog Hammock. These were the picturesque names of the slave and freedmen communities on Sapelo Island. In the 1950s, these communities were home to an estimated 500 Geechee people. Today only Hog Hammock remains, with just 70 residents who represent Georgia’s last remaining community of coastal West African slave descendants.
Saint Simons Island, GA
Abandoned interior on Saint Simons Island, which was originally home to three Gullah-Geechee communities: Southend, Jewtown, and Harrington.
Daufuskie Island, SC
Daufuskie’s population peaked during the 1950s, when it was home to approximately 1000 people (primarily Gullah) and a booming local oyster industry. However, due to pollution from the Savannah River the oyster industry rapidly declined, as did Daufuskie’s population. Now, there are only 12 remaining Gullah on the island.
While Gullah community on Daufuskie is nearly extinct, the island is still being looked to as a (possible) beacon for preservation. The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation is a non-profit that received a 150 thousand dollar grant to begin the Daufuskie Endangered Places Program. The program invests money into the homes to rehabilitate them in exchange for a lease. That lease allows them to earn the money back through tourism and donations. After the homes earns back the original 150 thousand-dollar investment it is returned to the owner. The lease will not exceed 30 years.
Understandably, after facing so many developer schemes over recent decades, many surviving Gullah owners are hesitant to enter into any agreement that results in handing over their property ownership.
An example of what could be:
Moses Ficklin’s cottage is an example of one of the restored historic Gullah homes on Daufuskie Island.
The enormous live oak pictured is believed to predate Spanish explorers when they first came to Daufuskie Island. The classic Gullah house was purposely constructed under its shady, cool branches circa 1925. Moses Ficklin was a deacon of the First Union African Baptist Church and the Gullah undertaker, assisted by his wife Grace. He always kept a supply of $100 caskets on hand. The old carriage that was used as a hearse can be viewed outside the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church No. 2 at the Billie Burn Museum.
Chocolate Plantation Ruins
Sapelo Island was home to two plantations, High Point and Chocolate. All that is now left of Chocolate Plantation on Sapelo Island is a collection of tabby slave ruins.
According to the marker at the site, the original owners of the land were French Royalists (1789-1795) who named it “Chocolate” after the Guale Native American village on Sapelo called “Chucalate.”
The French sold it to Edward Swarbreck, who constructed the tabby slave cabins and the tabby main house in 1819. Charles Rogers, owner of the plantation in the 1830s, built the tabby barn, which was restored by Howard Coffin in the 1920s. The main house burned in 1853 during the residency of Randolph Spalding. R. J. Reynolds purchased the island in 1934, and his widow sold it to the State of Georgia, which now manages it.
Archaeologist Ray Crook offers a more complete explanation in his essay, “The Living Space of Enslaved Geechee on Sapelo Island,” which was published in the March 2008 newsletter of the African Diaspora Archaeology Network:
“During the late 1790s, the Chocolate tract was farmed by Lewis Harrington with the labor of 68 slaves. In 1802 that property became jointly owned by Edward Swarbreck and Thomas Spalding, who leased out at least a portion of the tract until 1808. Swarbreck, a Danish sea merchant with Caribbean connections who traded in cotton and other commodities, including slaves, then directed his attention to Chocolate. His plantation layout followed a familiar and very formal design…. The Big House, built of tabby, overlooked the Mud River and expansive salt marshes. His residence was flanked by outbuildings and other support structures. Two parallel rows of slave quarters, spaced some 10m apart and separated by a broad open area 50m across, were constructed behind the Big House. Vast agricultural fields extended to the north and south. Evidence of at least nine slave quarters, typically tabby duplexes with central chimneys and finished tabby floors, each side measuring about 4.3m by 6.1m, survives today as ruins and archaeological features at Chocolate. These represent an enslaved population of some 70 to 100 people distributed among at least 18 households…”
Similar to Mobile’s Africatown community, the east coast is home to West African slave descendants known as the Gullah-Geechee. “Gullah” is the accepted name for islanders in South Carolina, while “Geechee” refers to those islanders in Georgia and North Florida. It is believed that Geechee originates from the name of the Ogeechee River south of Savannah, Ga. In Georgia, Freshwater Geechee refers to those that live on the mainland, while Saltwater Geechee refers to islanders.
Originally, these Africans were chosen specifically for their knowledge of farming rice and other coastal crops – primarily in Sierra Leone and surrounding areas. As such, in America, the Gullah-Geechee worked almost exclusively with coastal rice, indigo, and sea island cotton plantations. While the two cultures are similar to each other, their isolated island locations resulted in distinctive differences from other slave communities. Their Sea Island creole language, African-meets-coastal food, and beliefs have become a celebrated part of their culture and traditions.
“Rice is what forms the special link between the Gullah and the people of Sierra Leone. During the 1700s the American colonists in South Carolina and Georgia discovered that rice would grow well in the moist, semitropical country bordering their coastline. But the American colonists had no experience with the cultivation of rice, and they needed African slaves who knew how to plant, harvest, and process this difficult crop. The white plantation owners purchased slaves from various parts of Africa, but they greatly preferred slaves from what they called the “Rice Coast” or “Windward Coast”—the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa, stretching from Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia. The plantation owners were willing to pay higher prices for slaves from this area, and Africans from the Rice Coast were almost certainly the largest group of slaves imported into South Carolina and Georgia during the 18th century.”
At the start of the Civil War, Union troops rushed to blockage Confederate shipping. Fearing they would be invaded, the Sea Islands were abandoned by their plantation owners. However, the slave communities continued to live their lives uninterrupted. In the event that Union troops did arrive on the islands, there were several records of Gullah-Geechee men joining the effort to defend their freedom. At the conclusion of the war, few plantation owners attempted to restart their island enterprises, allowing the Gullah-Geechee an opportunity to buy the land at a low price. Here, the communities were able to avoid many of the racial tensions that would occur over the follow century, including Jim Crow.
However, with few exceptions, freed slaves were still excluded from the legal system after the Civil War, so the properties were not able to be “willed” from generation to generation. Instead, the land is held in common. The families are entitled to live on it under "heir's property rights." However, since the Gullah-Geechee property sits on “prime” coastal real estate, this historic arrangement has presented several common issues:
With the variety of pressures and schemes that outsiders use in attempts to make a profit off these small communities, the difficultly to hold on to the land will only increase. As a visible example, the only remaining 200 acres of undeveloped land on Hilton Head Island belongs to the Gullah people. (Hilton Head Island was once an entirely Gullah community.) Sadly, the loss of land also equates to a loss of coastal history and culture that has existed since colonial times.
Update: The Alabama Historical Commission concluded that the ship found does not match the measurements of the Clotilda. Read below to learn about the history and continued search for the last American slave ship.
A few weeks ago, environmental reporter Ben Raines of Alabama made a discovery that many reporters and historians dream of. For years, Raines had been studying the disappearance of America’s last known slave ship, the Clotilda. Thanks to a recent storm, he thinks he might have found it.
While I was living in Alabama and reading about the state's coastal history, the story of the Clotilda made an impression on me. When historians or locals reference the Clotilda, it’s not mentioned proudly. On the contrary, the ship is typically referred to as an example of the continual defiance of wealthy southern plantation owners – not only regarding slavery, but also federal and international law.
Almost from the nation's beginning, the South’s growing reliance on slavery was in direct conflict with the new “revolutionary” ideals of liberty and human equality. While many of the Founding Fathers were not abolitionists, they were overwhelmingly anti-slavery. John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson began anti-slavery campaigns as early as the mid-1700s, and eventually President Jefferson would succeed in outlawing the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808. In a speech, he explained their hope that the law would stave off the slave industry and eventually result in its elimination – and he also acknowledged his fears if it failed to do so:
“It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly […] If on the contrary it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect.”
Rather than take these concerns seriously, some plantation owners welcomed the challenge. Even decades after Jefferson's outlaw of slave importation, slave smuggling continued in small numbers. Around 1860, well-known plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could successfully smuggle an entire ship of slaves past the federal guards and into Mobile Bay, AL. To do so, Meaher retrofitted an 85-foot cargo ship used for carrying timber and hired Captain William Foster to take it to West Africa, where he exchanged $9000 of gold for African tribal war prisoners. Once the ship returned to Alabama, the surviving 110 slaves were delivered to various plantations and the ship was steered to a secluded spot and burned to destroy the evidence.
For more than 150 years, there has been wide speculation as to the location of the remains of the burned Clotilda. Reporter Ben Raines collected numerous written and oral stories about the ship, including the captain’s records, but it wasn’t until this winter that a “bomb cyclone” caused water levels to drop 2.5 feet and gave him a rare opportunity to hunt for it.
"It was actually breathtaking and I thought, 'This might be it!'" he said.
He described his initial view of the site: "With the tides more than 2 feet lower than normal, I saw this big sort of dinosaur backbone almost, arcing up out of the mud along the shoreline." (NPR)
Though he’s not certain, Raines is working with other experts to find any evidence that would rule out the ship. However, so far they’ve found only similarities, including the burnt and charred framework:
“Like the infamous slave ship, this one also had two masts. ‘Then you look at how the ship was rigged with iron fasteners that are commonly found in lumber trade schooners and that's another connection, marine archeologist Greg Cook said. Additionally, ‘based on what we know of the width or the beam of the ship, it's spot-on with the measurements that we had.’"
The Clotilda has continued to gain historical significance to this day, as descendants of the Clotilda Africans have maintained their small settlement outside of Mobile. They are the only African Americans in history who are able to trace their slave ancestry back to the exact ship and tribe.
Since the Clotilda Africans were smuggled into America, they were never registered or considered “legal” slaves. So, when the Civil War occurred only a year after their arrival, the Clotilda Africans volunteered to be deported back to Africa. Both the local government and Meaher refused. In response, the Clotilda Africans then began saving money in an effort to pay for passage back to Africa. Once they realized that they could not save enough money to afford the trip, they asked Meaher to sell them some land to establish their own community. Meaher sold them land on the delta just north of Mobile and on the west bank of the Mobile River. They called their community Africatown.
In Africatown, they chose their own leaders and adopted community rules that were similar to those of their African tribes. They maintained their language into the 1950s, as well as keeping many cultural traditions. Over the past century, their population has fluctuated, but an estimated 100 of the inhabitants are directly descended from the Clotilda.
The last survivor of the original Clotilda Africans was Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, who lived until 1935. This also made him the last living slave brought directly from Africa. Cudjo died around the age of 94 years old. He is pictured below with his great-granddaughters, twins Mary and Martha, born in 1923.
Cudjo Lewis was born Oluale Kossola in the modern West African country of Benin. He was a member of the Yoruba people, more specifically a sub-group called the Isha. Kossola was born into a modest family and at the age of 14, he began training as a soldier and learned how to track, hunt, camp, shoot arrows, throw spears, and defend his town, which was surrounded by four tall walls. The teenager was also inducted into the oro, a Yoruba male society whose role was to police the community. At age 19, Kossola fell in love with a girl he met at the market, and at his father's urging underwent initiation that enabled young men and women to get married. However, in the midst of Kossola's teenage training his town was attacked by the Ghezo, the King of Dahomey (a neighboring warrior tribe). Dahomey is well-known for their highly skilled, all-female military unit known as the Amazons.
Many of Kossola's tribe were killed and the rest of the townspeople were taken prisoner. Kossola and his companions were held for three weeks in a slave pen before being sold to the captain of the Clotilda. During his 45 days on the ship, Kossola remembers suffering from terrible thirst and the embarrassment of being forced to travel naked.
Once in Mobile, Timothy Meaher could not pronounce Kossola and instead called him Cudjo. Cudjo worked in a steamship and lived in the bottom of Meaher’s house. As such, Cudjo later served as Africatown’s spokesman when dealing with Meaher.
Cudjo outlived his wife and all their children. It wasn’t until Alabama-born author Zora Neale Hurston filmed him in 1930 that the Africatown settlement became known for its individuality. From this, Cudjo is also the only known African deported through the slave trade whose moving image exists.
The work songs in this video: "Wake Up Jacob," "Tampa," "Mule on the Mountain," and "Halimuhfack." The film footage shows children’s games (1928), logging (1928), and a baptism (1929). The film appears to be from her work as a student of anthropology under the tutelage of prominent anthropologist, Dr. Franz Boas. A graduate of Barnard College and a Guggenheim fellow, Hurston traveled to back to the South to capture a variety of short takes of African-American life at that time. The films emphasize folklore and traditions, with a belief that “…cultural performance and beliefs must be expeditiously collected and documented because they would soon be gone forever.”
After the twinkling lights and ornaments have been packed away, most of the nation settles into a deep hibernation – where social obligations are few and rarely spent outdoors. However, coastal residents continue to celebrate the season with a knife in one hand and a glove on the other. In the Southeast, it’s fair to estimate that a mention of a bushel of oysters is met with greater enthusiasm and attendance than any given warm-weather party (no matter how many kegs or slip’n’ slides are advertised).
Oysters have been a part of the local diet even before the arrival of Europeans. Pre-colonial mounds (AKA middens) of oyster shells can still be found scattered across barrier islands and throughout the Lowcountry. In fact, historians believe that the oyster roast as we now know it most certainly has Native American roots. Native Americans also used the razor-sharp shells for a variety of tasks.
Early settlers made use of the leftover shells, burning them to extract lime then mixing it with sand, water, and more oyster shells to create a durable type of concrete called "tabby." Tabby is known for being able to withstand the elements (even fire), and it was used in the building of houses and other structures, some of which are still standing.
Oysters continued to gain significance throughout the colonies and it is even said that Charleston’s old social calendar was purposely aligned with the season for oyster harvesting. However, most Charleston socialites didn’t originally shuck oysters, but poached them for soups and sauces. One of the most ubiquitous of these dishes was creamed oysters or "chafing dish oysters." Ladled over toast or pastries, creamed oysters were almost as important to a ball as the champagne... (Read more below.)
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Over the past year, I've gotten engaged, moved states, quit a job, took some courses, started this blog, adopted a dog, moved a second time, got a new job, became a godparent, planned a tricky wedding on Cumberland Island (not an easy feat)... Then cancelled our wedding due to Hurricane Irma. Also cancelled my bachelorette trip, then re-planned both.... And finally, successfully got down the aisle before the year was up!
During all this, I took a break from writing. However, I didn't break from enjoying the coast whenever possible. I look forward to sharing my past year of explorations with you in 2018! Click the images below to see some pictures from our Cumberland Island wedding.
The Emerald Coast is the unofficial name for the Florida panhandle, stretching 100 miles from the Panama City area to the state line. Some Coastal Alabama towns embrace the name as well. The term refers to the area’s emerald-green waters. According to the Daily News, the name was coined by a junior high school student during the 1980s during a competition to create a new slogan for the area. He won $50.
While walking around the Flora-Bama, I heard one of the musicians begin playing "Ode to Billie Joe." Though I probably haven't heard this song in at least 20 years, I immediately recognized it from when my older sister used to sing it.
The song is a Southern Gothic story about the singer and a boy named Billy Joe McAllister. I never understood what the two were throwing off the bridge or why Billie Joe jumped, but now I understand that that is one of the main discussions surrounding this song.
The song was written and recorded in 1967 by Bobbie Gentry, from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. The single was a number-one hit in the United States, and became a big international seller. The recording of "Ode to Billie Joe" generated eight Grammy nominations, resulting in three wins for Gentry. Rolling Stone later went on to rank the song #47 on its list of the 100 greatest country songs of all time in June 2014.
(See below to read more about Bobbie today)
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!