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!