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.
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!