David Lauderdale

Bridge of a new kind underway on Hilton Head

When Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson came to Hilton Head Island during the Civil War, he listened.

He heard songs he knew as "Negro Spirituals," and wrote down the words.

Years after the war, then safely back in New England, Higginson shared with the world this beautiful contribution Sea Islanders made to the culture of a foreign land.

"Writing down in the darkness, as I best could -- perhaps with my hand in the safe covert of my pocket -- the words of the song, I have afterwards carried it to my tent, like some captured bird or insect, and then, after examination, put it by," Higginson wrote in his book, "Army Life in a Black Regiment."

He transcribed Gullah lyrics about the road to heaven, the ship of Zion, the trumpet of Gabriel, and the coming day.

"These quaint religious songs were to the men more than a source of relaxation; they were a stimulus to courage and a tie to heaven," he wrote.

Flash forward to our generation and the question is whether anyone bothers listening to the natives. And what opportunities are being missed by not paying attention.

'NO CONNECTION'

Alex Brown Jr. is a fifth-generation Hilton Head Islander.

His father was a foreman with builder Bobby Woods when a bridge was built to the island, and it began to stir from a century of quiet after Higginson and all the others left.

Brown is a 1992 graduate of Hilton Head Island High School, director of retail in Jim Bradshaw's Camp Hilton Head business, a member of the town Planning Commission, and active at Central Oak Grove Baptist Church.

David Ames came to Hilton Head about the time Brown was born. Ames was then a young man, his mind filled with the promise of Charles Fraser's Sea Pines, and the fresh teachings of Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Recently, during the Town of Hilton Head Island's long process of rewriting its land management ordinance, Brown and Ames found themselves talking to one another.

"We were saying things, but nothing was being heard," Ames said. "There was no connection of understanding."

Dialogue between the people who live behind gates and the natives has been a problem since the bridge opened in 1956.

"We're on the same island, but we're not similar islanders," is how veteran pastor John Miller put it to me. An "invisible segregation" has come about, he said, because the two sets of islanders rarely rub elbows.

When I met Ames and Brown at Starbucks last week, they talked about "Building Bridges."

'BUILDING BRIDGES'

Hilton Head's new bridge won't be made of steel and concrete.

It will be made of communication, respect, trust, sensitivity and understanding.

"It is ordinances and attitudes that allow things to happen that create a broader prosperity," Ames said. "It is creating the construct that allows things to happen."

Brown said, "The town must have an attitude of helping folks, regardless of who they are."

Since the spring, a small group has been meeting about twice a month to talk, listen and build bridges.

Brown, Ames and Miller are joined by native-islander activist and businessman Thomas C. Barnwell Jr.; Dot Law, president of the Marshland/Chaplin/Gardner Property Owners Association; and Denise Spencer, president and CEO at Community Foundation of the Lowcountry.

Another group -- Joyce Wright, Louise Cohen, Victoria Smalls and Marlena Smalls -- are producing brief vignettes of Beaufort County black history that are to be sent out by email to increase respect for native islanders.

New leaders in town are being invited to an orientation trip around town to tell the story of the native islanders.

Brown and Ames are speaking to Leadership Hilton Head classes.

Brown wants young school children to be taught about successful native islanders.

He would like to see sewer service on the entire island.

The new land management ordinance contains "initiative areas" outside the gates where development could spread the wealth to natives who still own land.

Ames said the advent of the federal Gullah Geechee Corridor makes this a prime time for all of Beaufort County to act.

"It's a huge opportunity for the region to collaborate to make us known for this expansive and rich history," he said.

But Brown warns that plans are meaningless without "meat on the bones to get it done."

And Ames warns that the art of listening -- and hearing -- is a "long-term, drip by drip process."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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