David Lauderdale

Lauderdale: Fight against Big Oil nothing new for Hilton Head Island Gullah

The Capt. Dave arrives in Washington, D.C., after highly-publicized trip from Hilton Head Island in 1970 to oppose a chemical plant planned for Victoria Bluff near Bluffton.
The Capt. Dave arrives in Washington, D.C., after highly-publicized trip from Hilton Head Island in 1970 to oppose a chemical plant planned for Victoria Bluff near Bluffton. Submitted

Suddenly the fight against Big Oil has a familiar tone, and it's the sweet lilt of Gullah.

Thomas C. Barnwell Jr. spoke out against offshore oil drilling at a recent Hilton Head Island Town Council meeting.

It sounded like the rumbling voice of a tall Hilton Head native as he stood in coat and tie on a shrimp trawler called the Capt. Dave 45 years ago this month.

David Jones, a Gullah entrepreneur then serving on Beaufort County Council, wasn't a shrimper. But he owned the boat and was president of the Hilton Head Fishing Cooperative, created on the banks of Skull Creek to give native islanders a bigger piece of the haul in a robust fishing industry.

On this day, the Capt. Dave was docked in the Potomac River after a week-long voyage from Hilton Head. The guest of honor onboard was Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel. The crew handed him a petition signed by 45,000 people urging him to block a $100 million chemical plant planned by BASF on the Colleton River near Bluffton.

Jones handed Hickel 25 pounds of Lowcountry shrimp.

"Secretary Hickel," he said, "I wish to present to you, from the depths of the cool, clean Atlantic Ocean, food for the body, as well as the brain. We are depending on you to see that the eaters remain as they are, so that we can continue to enjoy the natural resources of nature."

Those same cool depths were on the mind of Barnwell when he and Pamela Ovens of Hilton Head recalled the BASF fight in their remarks to a Town Council that unanimously passed a resolution against offshore drilling.

They mentioned the long-term benefit of standing against powerful polluters.

Virtually all county and state leaders pushed for the BASF plant, but a small band of Hilton Head Islanders and resort industry leaders fended it off. It was often an ugly fight. Historian William D. Bryan called it a controversy that pitted two of the largest movements of the 20th century against each other: the eradication of poverty and environmentalism.

Hilton Head Fishing Cooperative members studied the issue carefully. They were convinced to push against the tidal wave of BASF support after seeing firsthand in Houston what such a plant looks like. They also concluded that the great promise of jobs would amount to janitorial and yard service jobs for the Gullah.

Barnwell acknowledges that the fishing industry is much different as he speaks out against offshore drilling's threat to the cool, clean depths of the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the site of the fishing cooperative is now the town's new rowing and sailing center.

So why, I asked him this week, would Gullah leaders again raise a voice against the high and mighty promising jobs? As he unloaded refrigerators in refurbishing his Cedar Well affordable housing neighborhood on old family land, Barnwell said:

"If we had sat by and not taken an active role by taking the Capt. Dave to Washington, D.C., or working with Orion Hack and the others and communicating with Walter Hickel, this county could have had BASF and its pollution.

"The quality of life we have here today and the clean beaches and the growing businesses that are here, would not be here if we had pollution."

He was careful to note that income for moderate-income people remains inadequate as the county population has grown from 50,000 in 1970 to 175,000.

And in a talk about the BASF fight last year sponsored by the Heritage Library and Coastal Discovery Museum, Barnwell told why old fights still matter.

"I feel that every business that has settled here since BASF left should pay it forward," Barnwell said. "A good way to do that would be to support the Mitchelville Preservation Project, which is bringing to life part of the lost history of the true story, true story of Hilton Head during and after the Civil War."

The fight may never end, but at least it has a familiar voice.

Follow columnist and senior editor David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale and facebook.com/david.lauderdale.16.