Descendants fight to maintain historic Black communities. Keeping their legacy alive is complicated

Dec 19, 2023, 9:03 PM | Updated: Dec 21, 2023, 12:28 pm

Sallie Ann Robinson, of Daufuskie Island, S.C., speaks during an interview with The Associated Pres...

Sallie Ann Robinson, of Daufuskie Island, S.C., speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Daufuskie Island, S.C. Robinson is a chef and preservationist. The sixth-generation native of Daufuskie Island, a once-thriving Gullah community, remembers relatives hosting meals and imparting life lessons on the next generation. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

DAUFUSKIE ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Sallie Ann Robinson proudly stands in the front yard of her grandmother’s South Carolina home. The sixth-generation native of Daufuskie Island, a once-thriving Gullah community, remembers relatives hosting meals and imparting life lessons on the next generation.

“I was born in this very house, as many generations of family have been as well,” said Robinson, a chef and tour guide. “I was raised here. These woods was our playgrounds.”

Long dirt roads were once occupied by a bustling community that had its own bartering system and a lucrative oyster industry.

“There were at one point over a thousand people living on this island,” Robinson said. Now, she and several cousins are the only ones of Gullah descent who remain.

Historic Black communities like Daufuskie Island are dying, and descendants like Robinson are attempting to salvage what’s left of a quickly fading history.

“The towns are the authentic source or sources of much of our culture, our history, our physical expression of place,” said Everett Fly, a landscape architect who uncovered more than 1,800 Black historic settlements through his research.

Scholars define a historic Black community or town as a settlement founded by formerly enslaved people, usually between the late 19th- and early 20th-century. The enclaves often had their own churches, schools, stores and economic systems.

Fly and other researchers estimate there are fewer than 30 incorporated historic Black towns left in the United States, a fraction of more than 1,200 at the peak between the 1880s and 1915.

“The ones that do remain are extremely rare. They’re extremely important,” Fly said.

The eradication of these neighborhoods can be traced back to their creation when white supremacists terrorized Black people, destroying whole blocks of homes and businesses or driving them out of town, as seen with the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 and the Rosewood, Florida, massacre in 1923.

But in more recent times, the dwindling of Black strongholds is due in part to the culmination of amended ordinances, uneven tax rates, home devaluations, and political challenges that leave communities vulnerable to developers and rampant gentrification.

“Something as simple as, they change or they rezone areas,” said Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, the director of the public history program at Howard University. “People with political power can make determinations that will ring the death bell for these towns.”

“We’ve seen gated areas, golf courses and planned unit developments directly linked to increasing the taxes and displacement of native Gullah-Geechees throughout the coast,” said Marquetta Goodwine, known as Queen Quet, the leader of the Gullah-Geechee nation.

On St. Helena Island in South Carolina, massive banners dot driveways and sidewalks reading “Protect the culture, protect the history, protect the land.”

The governing Beaufort County council blocked a golf course on Gullah-Geechee land after the developer, Elvio Tropeano, requested to remove the 503-acre (204-hectare) plot from a zoning district on the island. The zoning district bans gated communities and resorts in locations considered culturally significant. Tropeano has since filed two legal actions against the county to appeal the decision, and is now considering building homes on the property.

A local group, Community Coalition Action Network, supports the plan to build a golf course on the unoccupied land. Co-founder Tade’ Oyeilumi said she was originally against it; then she went to a listening session.

“When I heard Mr. Tropeano speak about the development and what he wanted to do with the development, the purpose of the development and how that was going to contribute to the community that we live in, I was blown away,” Oyeilumi said.

She fears the housing plan that the developer is now considering will instead have jarring results.

“It’s going to change the infrastructure to our community. It’s going to bring in that gentrification factor that people are saying they don’t want, faster. The golf course, on the other hand, minimizes that,” Oyeilumi said.

Residents of Hogg Hummock, a tiny Gullah-Geechee community on Sapelo Island in Georgia, filed a lawsuit in October to halt a zoning law they say will raise taxes, forcing them to sell their homes. McIntosh County commissioners voted in September to double the size of houses allowed in the community, also known as Hog Hammock — a move locals believe will draw in wealthy outsiders who want to build vacation getaways. Only a few dozen Black residents still live in the enclave of modest homes along dirt roads.

“My ancestors were forced to work on that land, and then they fought for the right to have that land,” said 23-year-old Keara Skates, a descendant who spent her last birthday speaking against the zoning law alongside state legislators in Atlanta, the state capital. “Sapelo Island has historically never seen the level of growth that’s being proposed. Where does that leave the descendants?”

McIntosh County Commission Chairman David Stevens said the community’s landscape is changing because some native owners have sold their property.

“I don’t need anybody to lecture me on the culture of Sapelo Island,” Stevens said, adding: “If you don’t want these outsiders, if you don’t want these new homes being built … don’t sell your land.”

Research by Brookings Institution fellow Andre Perry finds that homes in majority Black neighborhoods are appraised at significantly lower values than homes in neighborhoods where Black people are the minority. Perry says that developers can buy these homes at lower costs and sell them for a much higher price.

“A lot of people will call that a major tool of gentrification,” said Perry. “The people who live in those areas may be priced out ultimately, and then the companies or individuals who purchase those properties get profit as a result.”

Attorney Rukaiyah Adams runs a nonprofit called “Rebuild Albina” based in Portland, Oregon. The organization aims to educate, invest and restore homeownership to Black people in an area that used to be a thriving Black neighborhood.

“We cannot continue to extract and exploit to the breaking point,” said Adams. “We’re trying to create a new model for what that might look like, how we might live together.”

In Florida, one of the first incorporated self-governing Black municipalities in the U.S. was Eatonville, established in 1887. Located just 24 miles (39 kilometers) north of Disney World, the key challenge for present-day residents is the Orange County Public School Board, which owns 100 acres (40 hectares) of property in the middle of town.

The land was once home to Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, established in 1897 as a school for Black children. In 1951, it was sold to Orange County Public Schools.

In March, a private developer interested in building commercial, office and residential units on the land terminated a sales contract with the district after protest from residents.

The school system said in a statement in March that it wouldn’t consider any further bids for the land. The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community has sued the school district to safeguard the land for educational purposes.

“There are four things that have kept Eatonville: its faith, its family, its education and its civic pride,” said NY Nathiri, a third-generation Eatonville resident and founder of the association.

Nathiri smiles as she reminisces about her idyllic childhood and her family’s history in the town — from her grandfather moving there at the beginning of the Great Depression, to her aunts’ close relationship with author Zora Neale Hurston.

Descendants of the community work to boost its economy and preserve the local heritage and culture, put on display at the town’s annual ZORA! Festival.

“As long as you know your story, you know how to tell your story, and you are welcoming to people, they are going to spend money with you,” said Nathiri.

Back on Daufuskie Island, Robinson is working to restore 10 empty homes that used to be filled with her extended family. Her biggest challenge is finding people to help her write grants to help fund the restoration of her community.

“I’m not asking people to go out of pocket. I’ll just say help me understand the other methods of getting funds that are out there for you,” said Robinson.

Down the street from her grandmother’s house, Robinson walks through Mary Field Cemetery where many of her relatives are buried and remembers what’s possible.

“There goes my baby sister, my cousin Marvin. This is my great-grandfather,” Robinson said while pointing at headstones nestled between tall grass. “If something looked impossible, it wasn’t. They didn’t live like that. If it could be done, they made a way.”

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Descendants fight to maintain historic Black communities. Keeping their legacy alive is complicated