Politics & Government

Hilton Head wants to make good on past 'injustices' against the Gullah. Here's how

Performers at the Original Gullah Festival in Beaufort.
Performers at the Original Gullah Festival in Beaufort. Island Packet file

In what some say is a crucial step to preserve Gullah culture and address past injustices on Hilton Head Island, town council voted unanimously to hire a liaison between the town and Native Island community.

"We need to have someone in the position to deal specifically with the history and some of the injustices that have occurred on the island," Lavon Stevens, the chairman of the Gullah-Geechee Land and Cultural Preservation task force said after Tuesday's meeting. "There have been many efforts before us, but we're hoping this one will be more successful."

The liaison would, among other things, continue to make roads and sewer connections a priority, help those dealing with heirs property issues, and plan workshops on available resources.

Council member Marc Grant said the town could not continue to shift the issues of the Gullah community elsewhere.

"This is our responsibility," Grant told the council. "If I mess up, I'll tell you I messed up. My shoulders are broad, I can handle it. Sometimes, as a town council, I'm afraid our shoulders aren't broad enough as a whole to address that and say 'look, we messed up.'"

Grant said if the town did not help preserve Gullah culture, it risks losing it. He said he did not want the Gullah people to be "in a museum about people who used to be here."

According to "Gullah Cultural Legacies," a book written by Emory S. Campbell, a native islander who grew up on Hilton Head, Gullah culture has dwindled partly because of changes that "have been forced on it through land use and other mainstream policies ..."

"These policies are often the result of policy makers not understanding the culture and in some cases unwilling to learn," Campbell wrote.

Campbell said Wednesday previous town planners did not always recognize how Gullah people traditionally shared land and roadways, for example.

Louise Cohen, the founder and director of the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island, agreed that many current problems in the Gullah community go back to land.

"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.

Cohen said the liaison is "long overdue."

Campbell agreed.

"I'm elated the town has come around to understanding something we've been trying to get them to understand since its inception," Campbell said. "It's a great day for the Gullah community."

Campbell also said this decision will alert Gullah families that the town is "interested in preserving their way of life."

Alex Brown, chairman of the planning commission, addressed some of council's concerns about the new position overlapping the work of other organizations already at work. The staff position within the town may work with other organizations, he said, but it is crucial they exist separately.

Council member Tom Lennox said the liaison should have clearly defined expectations, the skills to do the job and should have shown motivation to "get the job done" in the past.

Town manager Steve Riley said after Tuesday's meeting the next step will be creating a job description and planning for the position in next fiscal year's budget. There is not yet a salary range for the post.

Other recommendations approved at Tuesday's meeting include the town partnering with the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association to participate in the Gullah Celebration held annually; looking into possible Land Management Ordinance changes to resolve heirs property issues; and to "investigate options to resolve fairness in taxation."

Alex Kincaid: 843-706-8123, @alexkincaid22