The Travel website Lonely Planet may list its top cities and countries for travel, but next year it will include the people and communities that make travel so special.
So, of course that list will include the South Carolina Sea Islands’ Gullah-Geechee culture.
The culture, unique to our coastal region, has preserved more of its African roots than any other place in the country, according to Lonely Planet. That’s what will be highlighted in the 2021 Best in Travel list.
“In addition to a strong community that is always open to sharing their history and culture with visitors, travelers can experience the Gullah-Geechee culture through a variety of tours, galleries and museums, flavorful Gullah dishes, and artisanal, native crafts including baskets weaved from sweetgrass,” the travel site’s news release reads.
On Hilton Head Island, Gullah-Geechee culture is reflected in the traditions and foods of historic families who live on heirs’ property. The property has been passed down from ancestors who were enslaved on the island.
“This year’s Best in Travel list spotlights not only places, but also people and communities. In 2021, Lonely Planet is looking ahead to the important changes taking place globally, from sustainability to diversity, and shining a light on the future of travel,” according to the news release.
This year, native islanders Carolyn Grant, Thomas Barnwell and Emory Campbell published their first book together, titled “Gullah Days: Hilton Head Islanders Before the Bridge 1861-1956.” It is, as retired Island Packet columnist David Lauderdale wrote at the time of its publishing, “the story of Hilton Head Islanders as told by Hilton Head Islanders.”
“A lot of people have tried to tell it, but they have not really lived it,” co-author Grant told him in February.
The Lonely Planet feature on Gullah-Geechee culture includes references to the following places and experiences in the Lowcountry:
- Gullah-Geechee Heritage Trail (Hilton Head Island) – Lonely Planet will feature the Hilton Head bus tour business in which fourth- and fifth-generation Gullah guides bring the history of Gullah Geechee people to life. Although the tours are currently canceled because of COVID-19, visitors typically drive through Gullah family compounds and make stops at historic sites, including Mitchelville on the island’s north end.
- Sallie Ann Robinson Gullah Tour (Daufuskie Island) – The travel website will also feature a golf cart tour of Daufuskie Island with Gullah chef Sallie Ann Robinson, a native islander who was one of the schoolchildren taught by famed author Pat Conroy.
- The Penn Center (St. Helena Island) – The Lonely Planet list includes a visit to the National Historic Landmark, which was a school for freed Sea Island slaves and went on to serve as a meeting place and retreat for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s.
- Gullah Geechee Visitor Center (Beaufort) – Described as the “doorway to the Gullah Culture,” this shop serves as a hub for information on the area’s Gullah-Geechee businesses, events, history and culture. Exhibits, books and documentaries showcase the Gullah lifestyle and the traditions and contributions of the Gullah people.
- McLeod Plantation (James Island) – Once part of a 1,700-acre sea island cotton plantation, this Gullah-Geechee heritage site tells the story of the daily life of planters and slaves who lived and worked here before and after the Civil War.
- Gullah Museum (Georgetown) – Founded by a Gullah story-quilt artist and a scholar who has lectured widely on the African Diaspora, the museum provides insight into the role African slaves played in the Lowcountry’s rice and indigo industry.
- Gullah Cuisine – Lonely Planet features restaurants all along the Gullah Geechee Corridor offering farm-to-table cuisine. The restaurants are rooted in the culinary traditions brought to the U.S. by enslaved people from West Africa. Among them: Buckshot’s Carryout in McClellanville, Bertha’s Kitchen in Charleston, Gullah Grub on St. Helena Island and Burnin’ Down South in Bluffton (now closed).
Issues impacting Gullah people on Hilton Head
Aside from Gullah food and the aspects of cultural tourism that bring people to the Gullah-Geechee Corridor, Hilton Head’s Gullah population deals with the consistent threat of land loss and lack of access to basic services like sewer.
Alex Brown, a native islander who was elected to represent Ward 1 on Hilton Head’s Town Council Nov. 3, broke down four major issues facing his community this summer as the island grappled with removing the word “plantation” from gated community signage.
Here are some of those issues:
Losing historic land
Native Islanders, many of whom are descendants of people who were enslaved on the island, live in historic neighborhoods.
An upcoming project threatens at least one of those neighborhoods: the Stoney area.
The U.S. 278 corridor project, in its final planning stages, could route new lanes of concrete through the Stoney area and cause Gullah-Geechee residents to lose generations-old homesteads.
Leaders have spoken against the road project and advocated for a task force, formed in 2018, to have a voice to protect Stoney homes. Only two representatives of the native island community sit on the 15-person committee.
“We believe it is possible to replace the bridge, alleviate congestion and improve safety without taking our land,” a 2019 letter written by Stoney residents to the Town of Hilton Head Island says.
In addition to losing land in the name of progress, Black Beaufort County residents for years have complained that the annual delinquent tax property auction is harmful. Each year, the Beaufort County treasurer assembles a list of properties that have lapsed on property taxes. Those on the list have until 4 p.m. on the Friday before the tax sale to pay back taxes and keep their properties from going to auction.
“These are places and times when some of our historic neighborhoods can slip away from us,” Gullah-Geechee cultural preservation task force chair Lavon Stevens said in 2019. “Sometimes people don’t even know when they’re on the list.”
Land use challenges
While some native islanders are losing their land, others are struggling with the limits placed on their ability to use it.
Since the town’s incorporation, Hilton Head has placed limits on what landowners can do on their properties. But Louise Cohen, founder and director of the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island, has said the rules often prevent native islanders from developing their land into housing or home-based businesses.
“I think if the town works with us and relaxes the rules so we can actually let the land bring us an income, that would be a great thing,” she said in 2018.
In 2019, the town’s Gullah-Geechee land and cultural preservation task force hired a consultant to review Hilton Head’s relationship with its native islanders. One of the biggest suggestions was to create a “historic Gullah neighborhood conservation overlay district” to waive development fees and some impact fees, relax certain development standards such as color usage and expand ways Gullah families can use their land.
The overlay district would make development and commerce easier in historic neighborhoods.
Sewer and public utility connection
While most communities on Hilton Head benefit from a planned sewer connection system, many Gullah-Geechee residents who live outside those communities rely on costly septic tanks for waste disposal.
The Town of Hilton Head embarked on a five-year project in 2015 to provide islanders using septic tanks with a modern sewer system, but connection fees that cost up to $6,000 per home have kept people out. The project was completed last October.
All 366 properties targeted for sewer connection now have access to the sewer system, Pete Nardi, Hilton Head’s public service district director, said last summer.
But only 175 properties have tied in to the system, he said.