Because of their geographic isolation and strong sense of community, the Gullah and Geechee people were able to develop a distinct language and preserve more of their African cultural tradition than any other black community in the United States, says Emory Campbell.
But Campbell, of Hilton Head Island and chairman of the federal Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, also has seen real estate development, changing job markets and population shifts force many to leave their traditional family lands. Mixed with a lack of awareness and increasing homogenization of society, the culture's mix of African, Caribbean and European influences were threatened, he said.
Now he hopes national efforts over the past four years to develop a plan to preserve the culture, which has survived since colonial times, will continue.
The public is being asked to weigh in on three options to manage more than 340 miles of historic coastal land, including in Beaufort County, that comprise the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor. The culture is known as Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Georgia and Florida.
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Two alternatives would free up more federal money for preservation groups along the corridor to help draw tourists and bring more attention to the Gullah and Geechee people, Campbell says.
"These alternatives would also give us broader reign to preserve the praise houses, cemeteries, churches and family land across the county," Campbell said.
Designated by Congress in 2006 and managed by the National Park Service, the corridor stretches from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., and extends about 30 miles inland. Along the corridor, the Gullah and Geechee cultures arose from slaves brought from West and Central Africa to work the rice, cotton and indigo plantations.
The National Park Service on Thursday proposed three alternatives for how to manage the corridor over the next 10 years:
• Continue the status quo. The management plan would be completed as required by law. The corridor commission would continue to operate but would lack a guiding framework and would lose all funding from the National Heritage Area program.
• Design strategies to document and archive the culture's history, customs and buildings. This would include developing a list of "most endangered Gullah-Geechee sites" and starting programs that share Gullah-Geechee history with residents, visitors and scholars.
• Design programs to educate people of the culture, enhance economic opportunities for Gullah-Geechee people, protect natural resources and preserve skills, arts and craft unique to the culture.
The final solution could also include a mix of those ideas, Campbell said.
The last two alternatives would provide a shot in the arm to local preservation groups, such as the Mitchelville Preservation Project on Hilton Head, said Campbell, also president of the Gullah Heritage Service of Hilton Head. Mitchelville was the first freed slaves' village in the United States.
"These alternatives have quality-of-life implications for people of the Gullah heritage," Campbell said. "It is my hope that one day you can stop off the corridor and go to an art museum and see Gullah art or find a place to enjoy a Gullah meal. We could see families living on their Gullah property in an improved environment. ... Right now, some of these things are sporadic. I see them being more organized and directed under this plan."
Tom Barnwell Jr., chairman of the Mitchelville project, said lack of funding and research are the largest obstacles to preserving the culture.
"We will need researchers to verify certain components. An example is Harriet Tubman is said to have visited Hilton Head," Barnwell said. "... I can't verify that. Some say they can, but I'd like to make sure. We need startup funds."
Congress authorized the commission to receive as much as $1 million a year over 10 years, with funding expiring in 2017. However, the commission has received only about $150,000 each of the past three years, Campbell said. Most of that has been spent on planning, he said.
Though federal dollars are scarce, approval of the management plan would free up more for the commission to carry out its mission, said Michael Allen, a specialist with the National Park Service overseeing the corridor's management plan.
"It's important for cities, towns and counties to step up and support this endeavor, because it benefits them by drawing more dollars and tourism to the area," Allen said.
The Park Service will choose its path in November and start the management plan next year, Allen said.