Despite island growth, Gullah resolve stays strong, resilient

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The William Simmons House, built in 1930, is still owned by members of the Simmons family and serves as the home of the Gullah Museum. DEAN ROWLAND

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles about the rich Gullah history on Hilton Head Island.

In the early to mid-1950s, change was coming to Hilton Head Island and its 300 residents, almost exclusively slave-descendant native islanders.

The small but close Gullah community lived off what the land and water yielded and were a self-sufficient group who lived in quiet, relative isolation from the mainland.

They were steadfast in their attachment to the natural rural environment, their rich culture, multiple dialects of the Creole-English-West African language, and traditions of music, song, dance, storytelling, faith and foods. Their lives then, as now, were a living history.

The island's three lumber mills were buzzing with activity, harvesting pine and oak trees on the south end for future development. Palmetto Electric Cooperative installed electricity, an elementary school opened for black students, and a state-operated car ferry operated from Buckingham Landing to Jenkins Island at Skull Creek.

Some now elderly native islanders (some alive, others recently deceased) attended the Penn School (renamed the Penn Center in the '50s) on St. Helena Island, one of the nation's first schools for freed slaves that opened in 1862 and is still an active historic site and educational center today.

Before the massive acquisition of acreage by the Hack, Fraser, McIntosh and Stebbins partnership for timbering, native islanders owned most of the island's 26,880 acres.

Today, they own less than 1,000 acres.

Then came the James F. Byrnes bridge in 1956 that connected the mainland to Hilton Head, and the doors to the island were spread wide open to the world. The $1.5 million two-lane toll swing bridge would forever change life for the native islanders and for the island itself.

Much like the landscape that was literally changing before their eyes, the islanders' quiet way of life changed.

That same year, visionary Charles Fraser began developing Sea Pines, the first private plantation community on the island. Ten more gated residential communities would be developed in the ensuing years, and about 70 percent of the island's acreage is located within those gates.

Some Gullah heirs sold their entire properties to developers for tidy sums and to the town, and relocated off the island. Others sold portions of their acreage and stayed on the island. Some natives were sticker-shocked by rising taxes and were forced to sell and move from their inherited land.

Lack of documentation of land ownership and family squabbles over what to do with the land jeopardized the stability of families; the rise of tourism threatened their cultural traditions and values; and new conservation laws and restrictions imposed by the town upended traditional daily routines.

Many of their independent small shops, grocery stores and gas stations closed in the late '50s and '60s.

Poverty, healthcare services and the lack of infrastructure (water, sewer, paved roads) limited inclusion into the affluent mainstream of the modern, new Hilton Head Island and would fester for decades.

But make no mistake. The Gullah community on Hilton Head is resilient, proud and assertive in holding onto and promoting their heritage through education, strong and vocal individual leadership, legal action, political savvy, and powerful organizations that send a strong message to the establishment.

No one could reasonably argue that the 2,600 Gullah today living on the island aren't a life force of preserving their history, their culture and their unique contributions to the Lowcountry heartbeat.

Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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