‘We’re not going to let it fail:’ 5 ways Hilton Head has to preserve Gullah culture

Historic black church on Hilton Head in peril if airport runway is lengthened

Hilton Head Island's St. James Baptist Church (1886) will be rebuilt at another location, leaving the historic chapel to remain in the area of historic Mitchelville.
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Hilton Head Island's St. James Baptist Church (1886) will be rebuilt at another location, leaving the historic chapel to remain in the area of historic Mitchelville.

An eight-month study of Gullah-Geechee culture on Hilton Head concluded with the consultant’s final report on Monday.

The nearly 90-page report by the Walker Collaborative addresses a shrinking Gullah population looking to strengthen community bonds through heritage tourism, land use, development standards and heirs’ property.

But the community fears that this consultant’s report will end up “back on the shelf” with a host of other reports waiting for action.

“We do not want this to be just another report,” chairman of the Gullah-Geechee preservation task force Lavon Stevens said Monday. “We have been too involved in this process.”

Stevens added that the nearly 50 community members present for the report had probably invested 200 collective years contributing to reports by outside consultants, such as the 1995 R/UDAT report — which concluded that the town failed to meet its obligations to native island taxpayers.

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A map of historic Gullah neighborhoods on Hilton Head Island. Town of Hilton Head Island, released.

The Walker Collaborative report will be finalized, sent to the planning commission for approval, and then onto Hilton Head Town Council for implementation.

“We’re going to go ahead and make this happen this time,” said task force member Theresa White at the very end of the meeting. “We’re not going to let it fail!”

Here are five major takeaways from the report, which included over 30 recommendations:

The Gullah Heritage overlay district is front and center

Consultant Phil Walker said the success of the report “hinges on” the establishment of what he calls the “historic Gullah neighborhood conservation overlay district.”

Instead of further regulating the lands within the district, this overlay would make it easier for Gullah landowners to develop their properties.

Some suggestions for this district include:

  • Waiving development fees and some impact fees
  • Relaxing certain development standards such as setbacks and buffers
  • Expanding ways Gullah families can use their land
  • Increasing the number of units they can build

Taiwan Scott at his business, located on Marshland Road on Hilton Head. Scott has been tied up in appeals court due to building standards such as buffers and setbacks on Hilton Head he says are unfair. Katherine Kokal kkokal@islandpacket.com

Town officials, teachers need to know more about Gullah culture

“Some town officials, both elected officials and staff, lack a sufficient understanding of Gullah culture to be able to effectively interact with Gullah people and to fully appreciate their perspective,” Walker’s report said.

He said better knowledge of the history of Gullah people — the descendents of freed slaves who lived in the first freedman’s village on Hilton Head — can help people make informed decisions about land use or curriculum planning.

A member of the public suggested a Gullah culture course could be made available through the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

Walker also suggested recognizing Hilton Head’s Gullah churches as leaders of communication and culture. The report comes one month after town leaders voted to start negotiations that would move St. James Baptist Church and Old Cherry Hill school because of expansion of the north-end airport.

Gullah tourism must be part of the Chamber of Commerce’s marketing plan

Walker’s team called on chamber officials to include Gullah heritage tourism in the marketing plan for the island.

“In light of the overall tourism marketing for Hilton Head Island, Gullah history and culture lacks visibility,” the report said.

Establishing a path of Gullah sites with information about native islander ways of life, an app designed to bring more visitors to places such as Mitchelville and the Gullah Museum, and focus by the chamber would accomplish this goal, Walker said.

The Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce also should receive more accommodations tax dollars, task force member White said.

In 2019, the black chamber received no money due to “potential overlap” with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

Aesthetic standards need to be relaxed

By changing rules that govern what Gullah property owners can build on their land, members of the public said they’ll be more likely to be able to profit from land they received from their parents and grandparents.

“One of the reasons we have culture is because we have land,” Emory Campbell said. “Unless we can preserve the land of families, we will not have any culture.”

Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Some of the proposed changes include:

  • Allowing different styles in the town’s design guide for Gullah properties: tin roofs, vibrant colors and stylized porches
  • “Fast-tracking” the review process for development applications by Gullah landowners
  • Creating waivers for development application fees and establishing a grant program to help pay for impact fees

Heirs’ property owners need more support

Since many Gullah properties are passed down through families without written wills, Walker suggested lobbying the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation — which is currently based in Charleston — to open a satellite office in Beaufort County.

The office could assist with clearing titles and offer other heirs’ property resources.

“Because their main office is a two-hour drive from Hilton Head Island, it is not very convenient for property owners on the island who need the center’s services,” the report said. “Likewise, it is inconvenient for center staff to host workshops on the island.”

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.