Sweet Tradition

African Americans have been weaving sweetgrass baskets for 300 years in the Southeast, now coastal development threatens that tradition

  • Mark Wexler
  • Apr 01, 1993
Mary Jackson learned to weave at the age of four, but she didn't appreciate the lessons until her thirties. "I realized that my mother had taught me more than just an art form," says the South Carolina basketmaker. "She was putting me in touch with my past, with my ancestors who brought this tradition with them as slaves from Africa. It's a tradition that I won't let die."

Today, at 46, the soft-spoken Jackson is recoginized by folk art experts as the most accomplished member of a dwindling group of artisans whose work is a symbol of South Carolina's African-American heritage. For generations, women in the community of Mt. Pleasant have taught their daughters and granddaughters to weave the sweetgrass that grows behind the region's coastal dunes into unique coiled baskets. "It is the oldest and most continuous African-American folk art form in this country," observes Harvard University researcher Dale Rosengarten.

Neither the collapse of the slave system nor the decline of the state's rice industry, which once relied on basket-makers for containers, has stilled the weavers' hands. But more recently, coastal development has created a shortage of available sweetgrass, and the basketmakers are struggling to preserve their heritage. "It's ironic," says Jackson. "Increased development has brought more potential customers to our region, but it's also wiped out many of the wetland areas that we historically relied on for natural resources."

Often such development is subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. More than 50 federal programs help support construction in coastal areas - everything from road projects and beach restoration to a taxpayer-backed flood insurance program. The latter enables people to build homes and businesses in flood-prone places that private insurance companies consider too risky to cover. "It's particularly ironic," says Kathie Dixon, a National Wildlife Federation coastal resource specialist, "that the basketmakers are inadvertently paying for the destruction of their own industry."

Mt. Pleasant's contemporary basketmakers are the descendents of slaves first brought to the New World in the late 1600s. Though coiled baskets can be found throughout the African continent, the technique used by the South Carolina women most closely resembles that of the Senegalese and other Atlantic Coast peoples. Plantation owners in the South Carolina region known as the low-country sought out slaves from areas of Africa where people know how to cultivate rice. Experienced weavers were especially prized slaves because their rugged, tightly woven baskets were crucial to transporting the grain.

As the plantation system disintegrated, the practice of making baskets all but disappeared in the Southeast - except in the rual community of Mt. Pleasant near the city of Charleston. There, women have continued to practice the craft and sell their wares to supplement their incomes. "Until recently, this has always been a very guarded tradition, because people in the community were afraid outsiders would come in and tell us how to make and sell the baskets," says Mary Jackson, whose work has been displayed at the Smithsonian and several other museums.

Traditionally, the basketmakers' husbands and sons have gone into marshes during the summer months to "pull" strands of the long-stemmed grass - a harvesting technique that does not harm the plant. "It's hot, hard work," says Jackson, "and it can be dangerous." Indeed, the thick grass is a favorite haunt of rattlesnakes, seeking escape from the heat of the day.

The plant Jackson and other basketmakers use-sweetgrass-grows in five southeastern states, behind coastal dunes and at the edge of woodlands, where it provides habitat for a range of animals. "We don't know a lot about sweetgrass," says Clemson University horticulturist Bob Dufault, "but it probably plays a role in stabilizing dunes and recycling water through parts of the wetland ecosystem."

Coastal wetlands are among the most productive environments on Earth, providing nurseries for wildlife, recharging groundwater supplies and protecting the coastline from storm damage. In 1986, a Congressional study found that these areas contribute to an annual U.S. marine harvest of fish, shellfish and other creatures valued at more than $10 billion. Yet more than half of the nation's coastal marshes have been destroyed during the past two centuries.

At one time, sweetgrass grew in large stands on coastal barrier islands near Charleston, but today many of those areas are paved over. "Wetlands loss in the Southeast has been staggering," says Margaret Davidson, executive director of the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium. Developers, she notes, have a propensity for naming their projects after the resources they displaced. "Look around," Davidson muses, "and you'll see projects with names like Marsh Point Mall or massive condos called Sweet-grass Point."

The roots of such projects date back to the years after World War II, when Americans began a great exodus to the nation's coasts. By the mid-1980s, about half of the country's population lived in coastal counties, where development proceeded at a record pace. And all too often, says Beth Millemann, director of the Coast Alliance in Washington, D.C., "landowners built too close to shore, overlooking the fact that beaches are dynamic landforms, constantly subjected to forces promoting erosion." A decade ago, for example, officials in Ocean City, New Jersey, spent some $5 million to replenish their beaches. Within six months, a third of the new sand was already gone, and last year, at a cost of nearly $40 million to taxpayers, the city began the process over again.

In 1968, to help reduce the need for federal disaster-assistance funds, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The program was designed to provide insurance to people in communities that agreed to reduce flood damages by guiding development away from risky areas. But according to a 1982 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, the NFIP has instead provided a financial "safety net" for shoreline development.

"Unfortunately," says Wayne Beam, director of South Carolina's Coastal Zone Management Council, "the NFIP does not specifically take into account coastal erosion, and it does not respect state baselines." (A baseline is a line at the water's edge, in front of which state experts consider any construction unsafe.) "We want to move people back from the water," he adds, "but federal flood insurance in effect invites them to move closer."

Under the program, the average policy holder pays only $252 a year for flood insurance and can make unlimited claims without a rate increase. Repeat claims involve just 3 percent of the insured properties but account for about 40 percent of the total losses. What's more, according to another GAO study, the program operated at a deficit of some $650 million between 1978 and 1987a dilemma that led Congress to appropriate more than $1 billion in the early 1980s to bail out the NFIP. "The program sends a bad message," says NWF's Kathie Dixon. "The U.S. government creates an illusion of safety by providing financial protection for building in hazardous, environmentally sensitive flood-prone areas, forcing taxpayers to take on what should be an individual's risk."

Two years ago, a bill to reform the NFIP passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 388 to 18. Among its measures, the bill would have limited the availability of federally backed insurance for new construction along the water's edge in eroding coastal areas. But after groups like the National Association of Homebuilders campaigned against it, the bill died in the Senate. "It would have meant you couldn't get insurance and it would have diminished property values," says C.M. "Bud" Schauerte, former NFIP director.

However, argues the Coast Alliance's Beth Millemann, "if the legislation had passed, you could still build whatever you want at the water's edge. But you wouldn't be able to get the nation's taxpayers to insure your structure if it is in an erosion zone."

To the South Carolina basketmakers, the inequities of the NFIP just add further insult to injury. As recently as two decades ago, the group numbered about 1,200. Today, only some 300 families continue the tradition, and they often must travel hundreds of miles to gain access to sweetgrass.

Four years ago, the women organized themselves into the Mt. Pleasant Basket-makers' Association and began seeking outside expertise to help them locate the marsh plant. Their plight also caught the attention of local politicians and the increased visibility has paid off. The owners of Little St. Simons, a private, 10,000-acre island off the Georgia coast with large stands of sweetgrass, have allowed the basketmakers to visit as often as they like to harvest the plant. And Clemson's Bob Dufault has embarked on the first major study of sweetgrass, hoping to learn how to cultivate it. Meanwhile, officials in Charleston are looking for a site where cultivation eventually can take place.

"For 300 years, the basketmakers have maintained a tradition in the face of incredible obstacles," says Barry Bergey, assistant director of Folk Life Programs at the National Endowment for the Arts. "Today they are more determined than ever to continue. It seems that the least the rest of us can do is pave their way into the twenty-first century, rather than pave them over."

Editor Mark Wexler visited the Mt. Pleasant basketmakers last year. If you would like to be kept informed of issues relating to U.S. coasts, write: Kathie Dixon, Coastal Project Organizer, National Wildlife Federation, 1400 Sixteenth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.

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