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Descendants of enslaved Africans, the Gullah/Geechee are fighting to hold on to their land and culture in the face of development.

"Nothing is more noble in documentary photography than trying to save a culture from extinction. Following the history of the slave trade often leaves one wondering if the price of slavery paid in human sacrifice can ever be erased. Of course it cannot. One would hope that at least the vestiges of this most horrific assault on human dignity could at least be allowed its own evolution, its own peace.

Removed unwillingly from their own land and forced to live in another should at least bring a sense of humanistic responsibility on the descendants of the guilty to make sure at least that the hybrid culture be respected and preserved rather than be victimized yet again.

Good on you Pete for giving this important document your all. If you believe in this work, then it will not be wholly dependent on a fundraiser. If you believe in this work, you will figure out a way to keep going until a body of work emerges that will at least be some form of payback to the travesties of our forefathers.

Surely even the greatest essay you can ever make on the remaining Gullah population can justify the original sin, but at least it can be a testament to the positive side of the many faces of human nature." 

– David Alan Harvey, Publisher  of BURN Magazine, National Geographic Photograher and member of the MAGNUM photo agency.

WHY IT'S IMPORTANT

As the Gullah/Geechee lands are consumed by development, can their culture survive? Or will it be reduced to a tourist attraction or a relic of the past?

I moved to Beaufort, S.C. with my family in 1974 when my father, who was in the Marine Corps, was transferred to Parris Island.

At age 13 I was quite unaware of the challenges of the Gullah/Geechee people. What I did see were the changes that were going on in nearby Bluffton and Hilton Head Island. I witnessed firsthand how the development of high-end residential communities known as plantations where taking over the land. I was just not conscious of the effect this was having on a community.

Later, living on Hilton Head Island, I met many Native Islanders. I have found them to be some of the most resilient people I have ever met. Proud of their heritage and determined to keep it alive.

Since the late 1950's the Gullah/Geechee people of the Sea Islands have been losing their lands due to sharply rising property taxes caused by resort development. They have struggled to prevent their culture, which is rooted in the land, from being assimilated.

Over the last 60 or 70 years other groups with centuries-old roots in America have been dragged into the mainstream, including the Cajuns, Highlanders, Native Americans.

Now the Gullah/Geechee are trying to hold on as best they can.

I need your help to tell this story.

THE STORY

The Sea Islands of South Carolina are home to a culture that is being consumed by golf courses, resorts and million-dollar homes. That culture is known as Gullah (known as Geechee in Georgia and Florida).

The Gullah people are direct decendents of enslaved Africans who were brought to the islands from West Africa. After arriving in America, the Gullah created their own community steeped in religion and African traditions. They also formed their own language also known as Gullah – a mix of Elizabethan English and African languages. "E aint crack a teet." Translation: "Hasn't said a word."

When slavery was abolished in 1863, the Gullah people of the Sea Islands remained on the land after slave owners abandoned the area. They continued their traditions – making sea grass baskets, burying their dead by the shore, farming vegetables and fruits and living life simply. Having lived this way for decades, the Gullah are believed to be one of the most authentic African American communities in the United States. 

But development is now taking over these once isolated lands and consuming the Gullah way of life. 

To witness this destruction, one needn't look further than the Gullah cemeteries, many of which have been taken over by privately owned gated communities and resorts known as plantations. Gullah who do not work for the plantations must ask for permission to even visit the cemeteries. The plantation owners will usually allow the Gullah on the land so long as an escort is available. If and escort is not available, the Gullah are not allowed to visit their relative's tombs.

Hilton Head Native Islander Eddie Grant reflects on the encroaching development as he works the garden behind his mother's home. New town homes are being built right up to her property line.
Hilton Head Native Islander Eddie Grant reflects on the encroaching development as he works the garden behind his mother's home. New town homes are being built right up to her property line.

The Gullah who live on the Sea Islands -- including Hilton Head Island, Daufuskie Island, and St. Helena Island -- have taken dozens of blows, and now their culture is in danger of becoming extinct.

The problem isn't unique to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, however.

The Geechee of Sapelo Island, Ga., are the latest to fall victim to encroaching development. Also descendants of slaves, the Geechee have for years been the only private landowners on Sapelo. The State of Georgia, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Georgia Marine Institute own rest of the land. 

However, investors have begun to slowly and quietly purchase land on the island, causing county taxes to increase sharply and leaving many Geechee distraught as they struggle to preserve their way of life. 

For instance, one 73-year-old resident paid $362 in property taxes in 2011 for her three-room home and acre of land. This year, her taxes increased to $2,312, according to The New York Times.

The Gullah/Geechee Coast extends for hundreds of miles between Cape Fear, N.C., and the St. Johns River in Florida. In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Gullah/Geechee Coast one of the 11 most endangered placed in the United States. "Unless something is done to halt the destruction, [the] Gullah/Geechee culture will be relegated to museums and history books, and our nation's unique cultural mosaic will lose on of its richest and most colorful pieces," states the National Trust Website.

THE PROJECT

If successfully funded, donations will be used to complete the photography over the next year. I am planning 5-7 trips to the Sea Islands over the next 12 months. Funding will be used for transportation, lodging, and everyday expenses while on the road. 

After photography has been completed, I will select a "gallery" edit of 25-30 images to be framed for exhibition. A portion of the donations raised here will cover the cost of framing. 

Once the framed exhibit is complete it will be made available to organizations and galleries that are interested in telling the Gullah/Geechee story. I have already received interest from some of the Gullah/Geechee organizations.

The exhibit will be offered free of charge with the exhibitor paying for shipping and insurance.

NOTES ON REWARDS

All of the prints being given as rewards are signed and numbered editions limited to 125 prints for each size offered. A portion of each edition will be reserved to be donated to Gullah/Geechee organizations.

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

I think the biggest "risk" would be for me not to do what I can through my photography to help bring attention to the plight of the Gullah/Geechee culture. Of America's 50 national heritage areas, the Gullah/Geechee Corridor is the only one that deals specifically with the African-American experience. Anything that can be done to help preserve this part of our nation's fabric, should be done.

Usually the most challenging part of working on projects such as this is gaining access to the community that you want to photograph. I have already cultivated relationships with the Gullah and Geechee community leaders on many of the Sea Islands, and they are supportive of my efforts to tell their story.

To date this project has been self-funded. I am looking for your support to complete this reportage. Donations will go toward transportation, lodging and general living expenses while on the road.

The images you see here are part of the photography I have already completed on this project. The images are from Hilton Head Island, Daufuskie Island and from time I spent with two Gullah shrimpers off the coast of South Carolina.

Along the Gullah/Geechee Coast, I plan to continue documenting how development and ignorance are destroying the Gullah/Geechee culture. Through images and text, I plan to focus on the challenges the Gullah/Geechee people face as they cling to their traditions and land while adjusting to the "progress" that is imposed upon them.

My goal is to publish this story in a book and multimedia format on the internet. I also intend to show the photography as a traveling exhibit. The exhibit will be loaned free of charge except for shipping and insurance fees.

Telling this story will emphasize the importance of preserving this culture and enlighten those who don't even know it exists.

FAQ

  • Simply put, no.

    I moved to Beaufort, South Carolina with my family in 1974 when the Marine Corps transferred my father to Parris Island. While admittedly I was quite unaware of the challenges of the Gullah/Geechee people at that age (13) and my years through high school, I was aware of changes that were going on in nearby Bluffton and Hilton Head. I saw firsthand how the development of golf courses and private gated communities were taking over the land. I was just not conscious that it was having an adverse impact on a community.

    Of course later on it became more than evident.

    Upon completion of the project I plan to have a selection of the images framed for display in galleries, exhibits and/or festivals that are interested in bringing this story to the public. I have already been approached with interest from the Gullah/Geechee festivals. The exhibit will be loaned free of charge except for shipping and insurance fees.

    I also plan to self-publish a book with these images and stories that I acquire from the Gullah/Geechee community members. I will self-publish and the books would be made available at cost to whomever wants one.

    Last updated:
  • The song "Carry Me Home" is preformed by Marlena Smalls and the Hallelujah Singers. I have known Marlena for many years and she was gracious in letting me use the song for the background music to the slideshow.

    You can here more from Marlena and the Hallelujah Singers here: http://tinyurl.com/8nha2xp

    Last updated:
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Funding period

- (40 days)