Is The `Mecca Of Africanism' Not Long For This World?

`My grandfather was one of the richest men on the island, and when he died, he buried all his money in the ground," says Sharon Boyd. She knows this, she says, because he came to her in a dream and showed her where to find the cash. Boyd's belief in the supernatural and old wives' tales is as much a part of her upbringing as the rhythmic, lilting Gullah dialect she speaks. We are driving down dusty roads on St. Helena Island, S.C., and Boyd is weaving a yarn filled with superstition and family lore. Stopping her van, she points to a clump of thick brush, the resting place of "granddaddy's money," she says. "But I ain't going in there. There's snakes in the bush."

"Why not get someone to help you?" I ask.

"Can't. Have to go myself, or the money will go deeper into the ground," she contends.

Boyd's words could be a metaphor for the dilemma facing her and her neighbors, inhabitants of an island whose wealth remains mostly untapped. The development that transformed nearby Hilton Head Island into a haven for tourists, retirees, and golfers is inching closer. Phoenix-based developer Del Webb Corp. has purchased 5,300 acres on the mainland about half an hour's drive away to build 8,000 homes, three golf courses, and a business park. The billion-dollar project, dubbed Sun City Hilton Head, will bring upwards of 15,000 new residents to the area. That will put more pressure on St. Helenians to cash in on the gold mine under their feet: about 94 square miles of farms, forest, and beaches. Already, hungry developers are knocking on their doors.

While there may be much to be gained in this land rush, there's also much to be lost. The largest of South Carolina's Sea Islands, St. Helena was the final destination for thousands of West African slaves brought through the port of Charleston, 70 miles north. Because the Gullah people toiled in isolation on Sea Island rice and indigo plantations with minimal white supervision, they managed to retain many of their African traditions and languages. Some Gullah words echo the Mende dialect of Sierra Leone.

When liberation by Union Army troops came in 1862, St. Helena became the property of the more than 10,000 former slaves. Using their expertise in basket-weaving, shrimping, and farming, among other skills, they carved out a unique and self-sufficient life cut off from the mainland. The first bridge to nearby Beaufort wasn't built until the 1920s. Generations later, the promise of a well-preserved Gullah community beckons me and thousands of other African-Americans here each year. In search of our history and a connection to a distant and unknown motherland, we scattered children of slavery sojourn to St. Helena, sometimes called "the Mecca of Africanism." In a way, she's our collective 40 acres and a mule.

FAUX FESTIVAL. The Gullah identity hasn't always been so highly prized. One of the stops on my tour is the historic Penn School, set up in 1862 by Philadelphia abolitionists seeking to educate former slaves. But a little education, 19th century style, was in some ways a dangerous thing: The school expended much effort trying to force black children to unlearn the Gullah language and turn their backs on their culture.

When shrimper Marvin Ladson grew up, speaking Gullah was a bad habit. Ladson has spent all but two years of his life--when he served in the Korean War--on St. Helena. School days were filled with a steady indoctrination in "good English," the 59-year-old remembers. "I was knocked in the mouth so much for using incorrect English," he says. "They didn't consider Gullah as a language, not back then." Ladson learned to forget Gullah, even at home, since his mother, a public school teacher and sometime sub at Penn, also forbade it. "She taught us `yes' was `yes' and not `yuh.' And `see' was `see' and not `shum."' These days, Ladson delights in the celebration of Gullah.

I visited the area during the annual Gullah Festival, over Memorial Day weekend, in Beaufort, the state's second-oldest city. Across from the antebellum mansions that line Beaufort's Bay Street, the Gullah Festival brimmed with tourists: More than 35,000 come each year for the event. But a walk through the vendors' stalls fills me with disappointment: Virtually the only thing Gullah about this festival is its name. The basket weavers I meet are from Charleston. The New Afrikan Griots, storytellers, are from Philadelphia. No one has authentic Gullah wares. Boyd doesn't hide her disgust. "You don't see nothing like me or people speaking like me," she says. "I think it's an insult."

CHEAP LOTS. But St. Helenians have more to worry about than ersatz crafts. Their challenge is to hold on to the land and control development, and it seems unlikely they'll succeed. Low-income landowners continue to lose their stakes to delinquent taxes. Some 98% of waterfront property has gone to outsiders who snapped up foreclosed land. Other islanders have already sold out at what may turn out to be lowball prices. Young people, who often don't value landownership and the community self-determination it brings, are especially tempted to sell, laments Bernice Legree Wright, Beaufort County tax assessor and a St. Helena native.

These days, Penn Center, a group based in the old school, offers workshops to help islanders hold on to their land. Says Joseph McDomick, director of the Center's Land, Environment, and Education program: "If we're not careful, we will be a landless people by the end of this century." Meanwhile, there's a renewed effort to put Gullah in the cultural spotlight. The local Hallelujah Singers, who tour the nation introducing audiences to Gullah songs and traditions, are working on a public-TV special. Nickelodeon plans a children's show featuring the community. The people of St. Helena are realizing they must act or their rich legacy will be about as valuable as granddaddy's buried loot.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.