South Carolina's Island of Last Resort

Slave descendants on St. Helena stave off developers by bolstering local business

JUST across the bridge from historic Beaufort, S.C., lies an island where time seems to have stood still. St. Helena's sleepy roads lead to farms and modest homes that are shaded by centuries-old oak draped with Spanish moss.

Most of the 5,000 people who live in this rural enclave surrounded by marshes are descendants of the slaves who settled here after the Civil War. They have retained their unique African culture, and many would like to keep it that way.

But the development that transformed nearby Hilton Head and other smaller Sea Islands into upscale resorts is edging closer.

More people are flocking to South Carolina's coastal region, and developers are scouting for new sites on which to build their tennis courts, golf courses, and sea-hugging homes.

Fighting development

Sensing an urgency to preserve their land from the march of modernity, St. Helenans and residents from up and down the coast have begun drafting a plan to create their own future for the island.

They are being led in this effort by the Penn Center, a school established here for blacks during the Civil War and now an organization dedicated to preserving Sea Island history and culture.

Leaders hope those involved in this project will apply what they learn to help the black natives of other Sea Islands.

``We have a great opportunity to do something different and help communities that don't have a chance to do it by themselves,'' says Emory Campbell, executive director of the Penn Center.

The Sea Islands stretch from Charleston, S.C., to Jacksonville, Fla. They are generally wider than other East Coast islands, have a semitropical climate, and for the most part share a common history.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of West African slaves were shipped to the islands where they toiled on rice, indigo, and long-staple cotton plantations.

Before the Civil War ended, Union Army troops had liberated many of the islands, and they became the property of former slaves.

They carved out a self-sufficient life as farmers, shrimpers, and basket-weavers. They maintained their own language, called Gullah, a lilting, rhythmic African-influenced Creole dialect.

For decades they lived in isolation. But bridges eventually linked the islands to the mainland, and the southeastern coast became a popular vacation destination.

Islands such as Hilton Head, Kiawah, and Edisto were turned into upscale resort playgrounds. In the process, many natives either sold their land to developers or were forced out because they couldn't pay the high taxes.

St. Helena has so far escaped the motels, restaurants, posh private homes, and golf courses that have cropped up elsewhere. One reason for this is it's an interior island, not a barrier island, and thus doesn't have a beach front.

``That may have decreased the attractiveness to developers,'' Mr. Campbell, of the Penn Center, says.

Also, many indigenous families own most of the land, which makes it harder for developers to snatch up parcels for large-scale projects.

Recognizing that time may be running out, however, the Penn Center last year launched the Sea Island Preservation Project, a program of its School for Preservation.

In 1994 it graduated its first class of 37 community leaders who completed an intensive training course in law, government, economic development, and land-use planning.

Another group is currently working through the course now. After it finishes, the entire island and residents of other coastal communities will be invited to participate in a planning session for St. Helena.

Plans for the island

Some ideas for preserving the island's land and culture focus on helping locals utilize their skills to become economically self-sufficient so they won't be swayed by the dollars developers dangle.

One goal is to start a food-processing facility for Sea Island-inspired products, thereby encouraging more small farmers to stay and grow produce that can be marketed.

Another idea includes marketing the fishing nets and baskets locals make. There are increasing efforts to put Gullah in the cultural spotlight. A local group called the Hallelujah Singers introduces Gullah songs and traditions to adults and schoolchildren around the region and country.

The hope for St. Helena is that small businesses will flourish and large resort-style development will stay away.

``What we don't want is rapid change,'' says Robert Ralph Middleton, a retired resident who finished the first course. ``We want planned changes that we can control.''

``Those folks have it within their power to maintain their community,'' says Lawrence Rowland, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. But, he adds: ``I see more people moving in, more development. Because of the price of the land, most are going to be white folks, mostly Yankees. They'll never be as isolated as they were.''

QR Code to South Carolina's Island of Last Resort
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today