- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007



Breakneck-paced development is washing over the sea islands along the Southeast coast, and a new effort is moving forward to preserve the Gullah and Geechee culture created by West African slaves and nurtured by their descendants.

Known as Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Florida and Georgia, the culture generally remained intact because of the scattered sea islands’ isolation along the coast. Now those islands are as likely to have golf courses and plush upscale resorts as much as the tiny fishing and farming hamlets unique to the Gullah.

Last week, the first of four public meetings was scheduled along the northern South Carolina coast to discuss plans for establishing a commission and its efforts to preserve the culture.

This federal effort began when the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which extends from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., was designated by Congress last year. The measure was shepherded by Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, now majority whip.

“Time is of the essence in beginning the work of the commission to preserve and protect the Gullah-Geechee cultural treasures,” Mr. Clyburn said.

The federal act calls for spending $10 million over the next decade to promote and protect Gullah sites and the creation of a Coastal Heritage Center.

Some commissioners will be nominated by state historic preservation officers. Others will be specialists in historic preservation, anthropology and folklore. The nominating period began this week and closes at the end of March.

Three years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Gullah coast as one of the nation’s most endangered historic places. The trust said new roads and bridges have opened the sea islands to development while family cemeteries, archaeological sites and fishing grounds are being destroyed or placed off limits.

Another threat to the Gullah coast is ownership of land by many black families. Land has passed down for generations without a will and is owned by dozens of descendants.

Because the land can’t be split into dozens of pieces, judges often order the sale of the entire parcel with the relatives spliting the proceeds.

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