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A Sea Island Legacy
© 1997 Toni Eubanks
Author Toni Eubanks Tries Her Hand at Pounding Rice in Ghana.
Driving along the dirt roads off the beaten path, I was overtaken by the natural beauty of the Sea Islands. The ancient majesty of great live oaks seemed to hold secrets of years long past. The heavy, moss-covered branches that met over dusty roads, masking the sun and transforming the roads into long, gray tunnels of mysterious shadows; the musty aroma of ocean air and nearby marshes – all stirred my senses keenly.

I had come with a group of elderly New Yorkers who were born and raised on the islands (and still owned property there) to attend the annual Heritage Week festivities: a symposium of scholarly research, storytelling, an old-fashioned craft fair, including sweetgrass baskets and handmade fishing nets, a community sing-out, a fish fry and oyster roast, low country tours, music and dance. Through these former Sea Islanders’ eyes I could see islanders of generations past walking down these dirt roads to prayer services, toting heavy baskets on their heads, or steering oxen carts loaded with goods.

The Sea Islands (including James, Johns, Wadmalaw, Kiawah, Edisto, St. Helena, Hilton Head, and Daufuski) appear on a map as a series of dots along the east coast of South Carolina and Georgia. They are bounded on one side by the ocean, and the other by salt marshes and lagoons created as the tidal streams bring in salt water and carry it back out to sea. These tidal streams drain the shallow, marsh-filled lagoons in an intricate system that separates the islands from the mainland, and from each other.

The secluded lagoons in the salt marshes once facilitated illegal slave traffic long after states prohibited slave importation. It was in one of those lagoons that legend tells of a slave ship that landed secretly with a shipload of African prisoners. In one version the courageous men, women and children drowned themselves rather than submit to slavery; in another version, they walked on the water back to Africa.

Early in the Civil War, federal troops seized control of the islands. White plantation owners abandoned thousands of acres of rice fields, which were eventually sold by the government to men and women newly freed from slavery. St. Helena became part of the Port Royal Experiment, a program to help its ten thousand slaves make their transition to freedom.

Charlotte Forten became the island’s first African American teacher. She came to St. Helena in 1862, but her poor health caused her to leave the island two years later. While I was there I read about her experiences in The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke, edited by Brenda Stevenson. Two women sent by the Freedmen’s Association of Philadelphia to educate the black population, Laura M. Towne and Ellen Murray, taught on the island until their deaths in 1901 and 1908. The Penn School, where these women taught, was the first school in the South for African Americans. The elderly people with whom I was traveling told me they had to walk three or four miles to attend school (after pumping water for the household, gathering wood for the cook stove, cleaning the kerosene lamps, and feeding the cow). In 1905, courses offered included carpentry, blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, basket weaving, harness making, cobbling, mechanics, and agriculture. I wandered around the old school buildings and cottages, musing on all that had gone on there.

Then I visited Brick Church, a sturdy edifice built in 1855 by the hands of men and women in slavery, and spent a quiet hour in the adjoining graveyard reading the headstones. The church is still in use and has a balcony where, during pre-Civil War days, black people were permitted to worship. In her letters, Laura Towne described seeing “oddly dressed Negroes” crowding into the church, the women in head kerchiefs or small braids and the men in carpet suits or calico trousers. My traveling companions explained that in order to be accepted into the church, young people had to study with a spiritual guide and in isolation until they had an important vision or dream. The elders would meet to determine if the vision was significant enough, or if further study and prayer were needed.

The York W. Bailey Museum houses a permanent exhibition on the Penn School and Sea Island cultural heritage. There, I spent hours looking through frayed photograph books at pictures of Sea Islanders living their daily lives during the 1920s and 30s, reading their first-person narratives and reflecting on how life was for them. They were property owners who lived off the land and sea, they knew the habits of local wild animals, and understood the ebb and flow of the tides.

While exploring a wooded area on Daufuski Island, I recalled that it was a Gullah tradition to bury the dead there. Sea Islanders believed the woods were sacred because they contained the spirits of their departed loved ones. Graves were decorated with whatever items the deceased used last – combs, cups, mirrors; the pieces of glass and mirrors were believed to capture the spirit of the deceased. Relatives might collect soil from the grave of a loved one, placing it in a pouch that they carried everywhere because they believed the soil contained the spirit of the loved one buried there.

On St. Helena, I visited one of the few remaining praise houses tucked in the woods where slaves went to worship in their own manner, this one restored and still in use. An elderly deacon allowed me to enter, and I noticed the long, narrow wooden benches that gave worshipers the freedom of movement they need for their style of worship. I was able to witness the traditional call-and-response style of worship. The minister called out and the congregation repeated his call in rhythmic replies. People jerked their bodies in the “shout” and “get happy” movements found in other black churches, the “shout” accompanied by spiritual singing and hand clapping. As in many black congregations, a Sea Island minister is judged on how well he or she uses rhetorical skills to excite the congregation.

Across from St. Helena Island, I met a woman who told me her mother would bleach the printing out of ten-pound grit bags and use them to make underwear, and I visited the island’s oldest remaining house, built at the end of the eighteenth century. It is called the Tombee house for its builder, Thomas B. Chaplin, Sr. As I looked out from the house at the vast, well-cut lawn, my mind played tricks on me and transformed the lawn into the cotton plantation it once was. I could see men and women stooped over in the unyielding sun, the women in head rags, painfully picking cotton with sore, bleeding fingers.

Until the first bridges were built in the 1930s, connecting the islands to the mainland, the Sea Island populations of Gullah – or Geechee – speaking people lived in isolation and were thereby able to preserve the language and culture derived from their West African heritage, along with many superstitions. They painted their door and window frames blue from the residue skimmed from indigo pots to keep out ghosts or “hants.” Some of these faded blue frames can be found on island homes today.

Blue Door Offsets Wire Grass Baskets Made by Lucille Jones of Jacksonville, FL. With Kind Permission of the Florida State Archives Online

Ghost tales were told around a campfire or fireplace at night. One popular tale was about “the hag,” who sat on people’s faces at night while they slept in order to terrorize and confuse the victim. To stop a hag they would keep an open bible on the night table because hags must stop and read the entire bible backwards before the sun rises. Similarly, many people lined their walls with newspapers because each line must be read by mischievous beings before they could cause harm. At funerals, families would pass the baby over the casket of its deceased mother to prevent it from being haunted by the mother’s spirit.

The abundant palmetto trees on the Sea Islands, with their fan-shaped leaves that rattle like dry bones in the wind, are also the subject of legends and ghost stories. And there is the story about a “Magic Hoe,” which was widespread in Hausa and Ashanti folklore before it was brought to America. It concerns a hoe that could work the fields by itself, but the owner had to know how to talk to it.

In the 1930s, the Penn Center on St. Helena Island became a major retreat for civil rights groups. It was the only facility in South Carolina where multiracial groups could meet during the 1950s and early 60s. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., met there often with his staff, and partly planned the historic March on Washington, D.C., on Penn Center’s campus.

Now, with increased accessibility (all the islands except Daufuski can be reached by car) development threatens to cover the Sea Islands with golf courses and tennis courts. Already, Hilton Head is a resort area for the wealthy. In the 1950s almost all of the residents of Hilton Head were black. Thirty years later, black residents were greatly outnumbered by whites. As the demand for beachfront property increased, many African Americans who had owned their land for generations either elected to sell or were forced to sell because of rising taxes. More than a few black residents became landless and these proud, independent people began working in the low-paying, resort-industry service jobs.

But despite encroaching development, the Sea Islands remain a place of great significance to African Americans and I return over and over to experience the mystery and quiet beauty of the land and sea, and to reflect upon the lives of these extraordinary people.

© 1997 Toni Eubanks
Originally Published in Go Girl! The Black Woman’s Book of Travel & Adventure Elaine Lee, Editor
Portland: The Eight Mountain Press

This material is copyrighted and may not be reproduced for other than personal use, without the author's permission.

To learn more about author Toni Eubanks, please visit her homepage: Toni Eubanks - Home

To learn more about the Penn Center's Heritage Days Celebration, held the second weekend in November each year, please visit their website: Penn Center - A Link to the Past and a Bridge to the Future Located on St. Helena Island, South Carolina
Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.