Facing twin threats of real estate development and climate change, the Gullah/Geechee people stand strong in protecting their homelands—and their way of life
Face tipped toward the sun, Parthenia Myers relishes the pristine beauty of Nanny Goat Beach on Georgia’s Sapelo Island. A farmer of Gullah/Geechee heritage, she feels an “ancestral calling” to this place, where African ancestors once toiled, lived and loved—and where their descendants still cherish the land. (Photo by Gavin McIntyre)
NANNY GOAT BEACH on Georgia’s Sapelo Island appeared calm during a visit last November, not long after Tropical Depression Nicole had left its mark. Having hit Florida on November 10 as a late-season Category 1 hurricane, the storm weakened as it moved up the coast, still potent enough to cause significant flooding on Sapelo. Strolling the beach, resident Parthenia “Teena” Myers suddenly noticed the storm-damaged beach pavilion missing its wooden stairs. “Oh, wow!” she cried. “That storm took the stairs!”
Within seconds, however, something more important captured her attention. “Hey, Mama! It’s been a minute!” she called, walking toward the Atlantic Ocean, arms outstretched. Myers giggled in the chilly sea breeze. “Oh, it’s so beautiful out here,” she said. “This is what you get when the land is not abused. You can feel the healing in the air.”
Healing is becoming more precarious throughout the coastal Southeast as storms intensify, bringing damaging winds and flooding. Last year’s Atlantic hurricane season spawned 14 named storms and eight hurricanes, including the massively destructive Hurricane Ian. On sparsely inhabited lowland islands like Sapelo, tidal salt marshes, sand dunes and maritime forests help protect the mainland from some of the most severe storm impacts. Still, eroding shorelines, saltwater intrusion and temperature extremes caused by a shifting climate are altering the land—as is rampant, unsustainable development. Yet the Gullah/Geechee people persist in their work to sustain their culture and their homeland.
As a Gullah/Geechee woman with extended family in nearby Camden County, Georgia, and Nassau County, Florida, Myers has found a spiritual home on Sapelo, one of more than 100 tidal and barrier islands between coastal North Carolina and Florida. These islands and many nearby mainland towns form the homeland of the Gullah/Geechee people, the descendants of kidnapped Africans who were enslaved and trafficked to the islands to grow rice, indigo and Sea Island cotton, which was highly prized in international trade.
Across generations of forced, unpaid labor, the ethnic identities, languages and traditions of African people—mainly from the continent’s western and central regions—melded into what has become known as Gullah/Geechee culture, which birthed the Gullah language and its Geechee dialect. Traditional music, art, cooking and crafts remain prevalent among the Gullah/Geechee people, who continue striving to sustain their living culture.
Their efforts gained major momentum in 2000, when the Gullah/Geechee people enstooled Queen Quet as chieftess—or “Head pun de Bodee”—of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. In 2006, U.S. federal legislation established the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area that stretches 475 miles through the Gullah/Geechee Nation, which runs from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission manages the heritage area and works to identify, interpret and preserve Gullah/Geechee cultural sites, artifacts and historical data.
Throughout the region, Gullah/Geechee people live largely in harmony with the land. Deer and small game roam the forests; egrets and herons feed in the vast salt marsh that spans the coast; and fish abound. Many Gullah/Geechee still sustain themselves by crabbing, shrimping and catching yellowtail snapper, Atlantic croaker and flounder in area waters.
On Sapelo Island, Parthenia Myers—like her namesake great-grandmother, whom she describes as an “earth woman”—grows her own herbs and vegetables and forages everything from pine needles and juniper berries to medicinal plants like mullein and the edible fungi Laetiporus sulphureus, a bright-orange mushroom called chicken of the woods. “We’re in a sankofa season,” Myers says, using a Twi word of the Akan people. She explains: The Gullah/Geechee people are returning to traditions and “reclaiming the things that have been lost that our ancestors were masters at. We are reclaiming those things for our own lives, and we are better because of that.”
Though the sea offers sustenance, it can also swallow, shift and salt the land. In 2022, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that sea-level rise along the U.S. East Coast will average 10 to 14 inches over the next 30 years. And in March of this year, the research group Climate Central released its annual coastal flood risk projections for 23 cities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Of those cities, Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Jacksonville, Florida—three urban centers with large Gullah/Geechee populations—are now projected to have a 99 percent chance of flooding at least 2 feet above their high-tide lines in any given year during this decade.
Residents already feel the impacts—especially area farmers. In South Carolina, not far from the Savannah River and the salt marsh, Gullah/Geechee farmer Rollen Chalmers cultivates some 30 acres of rice, a crop intolerant of salt. Storm surge from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 swamped his fields with salt water, killing most of the rice and leaving some acres unfarmable to this day. “All these terrible storms ruin the fields,” says Chalmers, who also sees how nearby freshwater creeks are becoming increasingly brackish as the sea encroaches. To continue farming, he’s planning to plant on land farther inland, “just for security, to keep things going.”
On St. Helena Island in South Carolina, farmer Daryl Orage has heard about similar problems with salt but also has faced issues related to extreme temperature shifts. Unseasonably warm temperatures now extend into autumn, forcing many farmers to plant their fall crops later in the year. Conversely, an unexpected arctic blast last December plunged temperatures into the low teens, killing Orage’s Russian kale and bruising his collard greens. “I may have lost half of each crop,” he says.
While climate challenges are all too real, for many Gullah/Geechee people, the spread of high-priced homes, golf courses and vacation resorts into undeveloped cultural enclaves—and the resulting property tax increases that often force people off their land—represent the more imminent threat. “So, you want to come in and wipe out the people and take the culture for yourself? That’s a sickness,” Myers says of such development. “We’re more affected by this other ‘climate’ than the weather.”
The scenario has played out in Gullah/Geechee communities from Florida’s historically Black American Beach north to South Carolina’s Hilton Head and beyond. “When you see a lot of the homes that are up on stilts, you know that those are gentrifiers that have come in,” Myers says. She believes homes built too close to the marsh harm its natural flow. “It just makes sense, if the marsh is to be protected, that you don’t want folks building on the marsh.”
Strong demand to develop coastal property despite the risk of rising waters is a climate paradox that shows no sign of waning. A 2022 report by the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University concludes that coastal counties seem willing to allow development that relies on “engineering measures” such as land elevation and seawalls that may “offset” the impacts of sea-level rise, with “managed retreat” as a secondary option.
Instead of retreat, Reginald Hall plans on recovery for Sapelo Island, where the Gullah/Geechee population dropped from roughly 200 people in the 1950s to fewer than 30 full-time residents today. In 2011, he founded the Raccoon Hogg Community Development Corporation to “remedy the systemic deprivation and oppression of indigenous people” on Sapelo and to restore two Gullah/Geechee enclaves—Raccoon Bluff and Hogg Hummock (which Georgia labels Hog Hammock). He sees a future of housing, hospitality, culture, agriculture and education opportunities that will help his people return.
Hall also led a legal fight against Georgia and McIntosh County for charging exorbitant property taxes while failing to provide adequate services to Sapelo’s Gullah/Geechee residents. As a result, the island’s Gullah/Geechee landowners recently won settlements totaling $2.75 million and additional community aid of more than $32 million. The money is providing property tax relief, emergency medical services, a helipad, infrastructure improvements and “quality of life services,” including ferry access for people with disabilities.
On his own property, Hall restored his grandparents’ 100-year-old home. He walks their land, gathering grapefruit and kumquats, fruit born of seeds sown by his ancestors who also engineered rice fields. “We are indigenous because we live off the land,” Hall says. “When you get the energy of these sacred grounds, you got something.”
On behalf of her people, Queen Quet is leading an ongoing effort to confront climate change and raise awareness about the human role in exacerbating it. As chieftess, her resolve to see her people hold fast to their homeland—and to ensure that their traditional knowledge of environmental stewardship helps keep ancestral lands, waters and wildlife healthy—remains unshaken. “Mother Earth has spoken very clearly about what others are calling an Anthropocene crisis, meaning human beings created it,” she says. “If human beings created it, human beings can clean it up. Human beings can stop it.”
In the late 1990s, Queen Quet was a key supporter of a Cultural Protection Overlay (CPO) created to stop development that would compromise the character and survival of Gullah/Geechee culture on her home island, St. Helena, and small nearby islands. Last January, armed with a petition of thousands of signatures and support from environmental organizations, Queen Quet led a campaign to defeat a developer’s plan to alter the CPO to allow construction of a golf resort on tiny Pine Island, which is connected to St. Helena. After hundreds rallied in support of the CPO, the Beaufort County Council on May 8 did a third and final review of the issue and voted to confirm language that prohibits golf resorts and gated communities on St. Helena. “We need to go back to a more natural way of living and live in balance with Mother Earth,” Queen Quet says. “The more we nurture her, she will nurture us.”
Such caregiving helps everyone living along the coast. In 2021, Queen Quet and the Gullah/Geechee Nation joined with conservation groups, state and federal agencies, scientists and others to launch the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative, an effort to protect 1 million acres of marsh stretching from North Carolina to Florida. These tidal grasslands protect the coast from storm surge, flooding and erosion; filter polluted runoff; and provide essential habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife. Local Gullah/Geechee people also participate in living-shoreline projects such as restoring oyster beds, which filter out water impurities and slow coastal erosion.
Back on Sapelo Island, Parthenia Myers remains committed to staying and building a life in harmony with nature. “It is our divine destiny to survive and to thrive,” she says. “But the Earth is waiting for us all to wake up. She knows how to correct herself. If we are in alignment, it will all be balanced.”
On the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, the National Wildlife Federation works with local leaders to advance nature-based coastal resilience solutions—such as installing oyster reefs and restoring wetlands—that buffer communities from storm surge and sea-level rise and provide valuable wildlife habitat. To learn more, visit nwf.org/our-work/habitats/coasts.
Florida-based journalist Glenda Simmons Jenkins is a representative of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.
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