The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission published a management plan Tuesday, setting the groundwork for the preservation and public recognition of a unique African-American culture that has been encroached upon by development from North Carolina to Florida.
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor covers 12,000 square miles along the coast from Wilmington, N.C., to St. Augustine, Fla., including all of Charleston County as well as parts of Dorchester and Berkeley counties. According to its website, the Corridor was created to serve three purposes:
1. Recognize the important contributions made to American culture and history by African Americans known as Gullah Geechee, who settled in the coastal counties of South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.
2. Assist state and local governments and public and private entities in South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida in interpreting the story of the Gullah Geechee and preserving Gullah Geechee folklore, arts, crafts, and music.
3. Assist in identifying and preserving sites, historical data, artifacts, and objects associated with Gullah Geechee for the benefit and education of the public.
Michael Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Park Service based on Sullivan's Island, likens the 294-page management plan to a map or a prescription for the Corridor's leadership going forward. "It brings to the forefront the uniqueness, the fragile nature of the challenges that these communities are facing," Allen says. He gives the example of Johns Island, where members of the Gullah Geechee community spoke up at a Corridor planning forum in 2009 to say that the proposed Interstate 526 expansion and a new parkway to Seabrook and Kiawah islands would damage the traditional rural character of the island they have called home for generations. At a forum in Mt. Pleasant in June 2009, a man named George Freeman had this to say:
"It's very unique to find a community where ... the people don't look at homes as an investment, they look at it as their home. This is where they live, and this is where they plan to die. They don't look at it to say, 'I'm going to hope my house appreciates, and one day I'm going to sell it.' They look at it, 'This is going to be my home.'"
In concrete terms, Allen says the management plan means that the Corridor and its leaders have grounds to move up from "the bottom rung" when it comes to federal funding. Since 2006, the Corridor has gotten about $150,000 per year through the National Park Service, and that was largely to fund fact-finding studies to develop the management plan. Now that the Corridor has set some objectives for education and preservation, it can jockey with the 48 other designated National Heritage Areas for line-item budget funds. He notes that any funding the Corridor receives from the National Park Service will have to be matched by towns, cities, and counties along the corridor, whether in cash or in kind.
The management plan, a product of six years' worth of research and 21 public-input meetings in coastal communities, begins with a description of the Gullah Geechee people. They are descended from people who were uprooted from West African nations and forced into slavery on island plantations in the American South. After emancipation, they remained on the barrier islands in relative isolation, often in communities where they were the majority population. They developed, among other things, their own creole that blended West African languages with English. The Commission's report lists other common cultural traits, including a strong entrepreneurial impulse, a resistance to outsiders' social dominance, and a general sense of gender equity.
Starting around the time of World War II, rapid development on Southeastern sea islands began to impede on many Gullah Geechee communities' rural way of life. The National Heritage Areas Act of 2006 established the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor — along with others including the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area in New Mexico, the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area in Utah, and the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area in New Jersey.
The management plan will be available for public review through August 17. It can be viewed electronically at libraries throughout the Corridor and on the National Park Service website. You can make comments about the plan online or by mailing them to Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, c/o Commission Chairman, 1214 Middle Street, Sullivan's Island, S.C. 29482.