Department or Program

Environmental Studies/Science

Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

James Turner


The Sea Islands off the coast South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, also known as the Lowcountry, have been home to the Gullah-Geechee community for the past three centuries. The Gullah-Geechee people are African Americans who are descended from the enslaved people who worked the rice and cotton plantations in the Low Country region of Georgia and South Carolina, and who continue to live on the mainland and regions ’Sea Islands to this day. These people have a rich culture; more than any other African Americans, the Gullah-Geechee have been able to retain many aspects of West African culture, from language, to music, to land usage traditions. Unfortunately, the survival of the Gullah-Geechee currently is threatened by a variety of factors- social, economic, and environmental. Today, the people are faced with displacement from their traditional lands and the cultural traditions associated with that land due to the impacts of the rise of tourism and private residential communities. On no Lowcountry island are these challenges more apparent than on Hilton Head, an island off the coast of South Carolina that is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the South. The purpose of this thesis is to examine through a historical lens how the interaction of the Gullah people of Hilton Head island with the land has intersected and been impacted by changes to that land, the justice implications of those intersections, and how the story of the Gullah people and the development of Hilton Head for tourism and private residential communities can add to the literature of environmental studies, environmental justice, and the broader history of African Americans in the United States.

Between Reconstruction and the beginning of rapid development in the 1950s, the Gullah people of Hilton Head were both nourished and challenged by the land. As Union troops receded and the island slipped back into rural obscurity, the population plummeted from 40,000 in 1862 to less than 3,000 individuals in in 1868.[1] For the next fifty years, the Gullah people of Hilton Head Island would draw a living from the land, continuing to forge a unique sense of place and relationship with the land. In 1949, a Georgian real estate scout named Fred Hack and his neighbor Joseph Fraser, owner of the Fraser lumber company, journeyed to Hilton Head and became determined to harvest the island’s substantial timber stands. They set up the Hilton Head Company that same year, purchased over two thirds of the island for $60 an acre, and set up lumber mills on the southern end of the island to begin harvesting pine.”[2] Charles Fraser later launched his own company, the Sea Pines Company, in 1957 with 5,000 acres of land and a determination to create a high class resort community on the southern tip of Hilton Head while preserving the area’s natural beauty. Sea Pines, and the private residential communities Fraser built in its wake were incredibly successful; they set a trend on the Island of Hilton Head and throughout all of the Lowcountry. The politics of public and private space in America in the 1950s and 1960s- the increasing obsession among White Americans with privatization, was a likely contributor to the popularity of these private enclaves. Ultimately, the growth of tourism and private residential communities that began at Hilton Head, compounded by the problem of heirs property and fundamental differences in conceptions of what land ownership even means, facilitated the marginalization of the Gullah-Geechee community throughout the Lowcountry.

This marginalization has manifested itself in the erosion of the Gullah-Geechee people’s land based traditions and threatened the community health of the Gullah-Geechee people. This is consistent with the literature; numerous scholars have documented that rural black communities with higher rates of land ownership have a stronger sense of community and a greater number of shared values and traditions.[3] From decreased ability to engage in traditional Gullah activities such as sweetgrass basket making, gardening, and fishing, to shifts away from community justice systems and towards a ‘culture of servitude’, reduced access to land and land ownership due to development can be directly connected to negative impacts on Gullah culture and community health.

Fortunately, far from being passive victims of cultural erosion, the Gullah people have been actively striving to determine their own fate and write their own history during the past sixty years of development in the Lowcountry. Through education, legal action, and political and economic organizing on the local, regional, national, and international levels, the Gullah people have been able to assert agency and advocate for recognition and rights as a people. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of political resiliency that has arisen is the formation of the Gullah-Geechee Nation, a political representation of the Gullah-Geechee people’s demands for agency, sovereignty, and respect. Another example is the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which was created in 2006, when the United States Congress passed the National Heritage Act of 2006 and designated the coastline from Wilmington, North Carolina to Jacksonville, NC as one of the nation’s forty National Heritage Areas.[4]

These successes can be seen as part of a recent trend of indigenous peoples gaining an increasingly powerful political voice at both the national and international level by implementing conscious political strategies around the traditional narratives of the endangered nature of their cultures[5]- essentially, purposefully politicizing themselves, their culture, and particularly their land as a means of survival and advancing their interests by adopting a broad concept of community health. It can also be viewed as a call for the field of environmental justice to embrace issues regarding privately owned land, as well as a broader understanding of what it means to fight for community health. Generally, community health is discussed solely in terms of the physical health of individual members of the community. In the environmental justice literature, community health is usually discussed in terms of the disproportionate share of pollution and toxins with which marginalized communities are burdened. But I argue for a new understanding of community health; when evaluating the impact of environmental and land issues on communities, we must also incorporate cultural, economic, and political resiliency into the concept of community health. It is not only the health of a community’s bodies that matters, but the health of their music, spiritual traditions, artistic and culinary expression, language, and independent economic means.

[1] Town of Hilton Head Island, “Our History,”, 12 Nov 2011.

[2] Danielson and Danielson, Profits and Politics in Paradise, 24.

[3] V. Grim and A. B. Effland, "Sustaining a Rural Black Farming Community in the South: A Portrait of Brooks Farm, Mississippi," Rural Development Perspectives 12 no. 3 (1997), 48; Jess Gilbert, Gwen Sharp, and M. Sindy Felin, “Loss and Persistence of Black-Owned Farms and Farmland,” 2

[4] “Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor,” National Park Service, last accessed April 23, 2011,

[5] Shane Greene, “Indigenous People Incorporated?,” Current Anthropology 45, no. 2 (April 2004), 211.