Gullah Geechee, descendants of enslaved Africans, fight to protect their island home

Saint Helena Island, South Carolina - Ed Atkins holds a basket filled with small, wriggling shrimp, fresh examples of the catch that the African-American fisherman has drawn from the waters off South Carolina's Saint Helena Island for more than 60 years.

Ed Atkins, Gullah Geechee fisherman and owner of Atkins Live Bait, stands near his fishing boats in Saint Helena, South Carolina.
Ed Atkins, Gullah Geechee fisherman and owner of Atkins Live Bait, stands near his fishing boats in Saint Helena, South Carolina.  © JIM WATSON / AFP

But because of climate change – and against the steady creep of housing developments – his way of life on this outlying edge of the Atlantic seaboard is at risk.

"Before, you could go and catch fish anywhere. But now you gotta go to a special place to catch it," the septuagenarian told AFP, standing outside his bait shop's faded blue storefront.

In the past he would haul in around $100 worth of fish on a good day at sea. Now he considers himself lucky if his catch is worth $35.

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The situation is made all the worse by the fact that fishing is an essential part of his culture. Atkins belongs to the Gullah Geechee, descendants of African people enslaved on the coastal plantations of the southeastern United States.

Isolated on islands scattered along the coast, their ancestors relied on the land and sea. They created their own culture, fed by their African heritage, and even developed their own Creole language.

Gullah Geechee community faces imminent threats

Dionne Hoskins-Brown, chair of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, speaks at Station Creek Landing in Saint Helena, South Carolina.
Dionne Hoskins-Brown, chair of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, speaks at Station Creek Landing in Saint Helena, South Carolina.  © JIM WATSON / AFP

Hundreds of thousands of people are today part of the community, which is threatened by climate change, gentrification, and real estate developers circling like hawks.

These each have "different effects, but they are culturally deleterious effects," said Dionne Hoskins-Brown, chair of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.

Gazing over the salt marshes, which she calls her "happy place," the biologist explained how the environment is deteriorating: the heat is more intense, the floods more frequent, the storms more destructive.

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And, of course, the sea level is rising and disrupting marine species' habitat, which means fishermen no longer catch the same type of fish.

This season, the number of blue crabs caught dropped dramatically.

Atkins fears his neighbors will move away because they return home from sea empty-handed, and that one day his beloved Saint Helena Island could become a "ghost town."

A fisherman he knows is considering leaving. For the moment, Atkins refuses to let his mind wander to the possibility, but his eyes betray his concern: "I'd be like a fish out of water if I can't go and catch enough fish to feed my family."

Wealthy residents move in and drive up prices

"Queen Quet" Marquetta Goodwine, chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation, speaks at Station Creek Landing in Saint Helena, South Carolina.
"Queen Quet" Marquetta Goodwine, chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation, speaks at Station Creek Landing in Saint Helena, South Carolina.  © JIM WATSON / AFP

If residents were to uproot themselves, where would they go?

"We're looking at television, seeing mudslides all over the place, we're seeing forest fires all over the place," said Marquetta Goodwine, a Gullah Geechee activist known as "Queen Quet."

Standing in front of a boat ramp, Goodwine, whose hair is studded with seashells, turns her gaze to a nearby post that has collapsed due to erosion: "Talk about effects of climate change!" she exclaimed.

A few minutes away on Harbor Island, homes in a private, gated community crumpled as sea rise gobbled the beach.

"The houses fell into the ocean because they were built on a place that was not sustainable," Goodwine said. "Gullah Geechees don't build directly on the shoreline."

She and her neighbors watch anxiously as hotels and large residences are built ever closer to the waves – by a wealthier population that drives up prices.

Some islands have been entirely taken over by tourism, and "you can't even find more than a dozen Gullah Geechees," said Goodwine.

Gullah Geechees fight against gates and golf courses

Penn Center Museum Program Manager Dr. Marie Gibbs speaks in Saint Helena, South Carolina.
Penn Center Museum Program Manager Dr. Marie Gibbs speaks in Saint Helena, South Carolina.  © JIM WATSON / AFP

Saint Helena Island is determined to resist such a fate: a local council prohibits construction of certain types of facilities, including large hotel complexes and golf courses.

In the street, between trees weighted down with Spanish moss, signs against gated communities and golf courses can be seen.

For many, the struggle against climate change and construction is inseparable. Both threaten the land, which has an almost sacred status.

Past generations "didn't have money to leave us, so what they left was precious land," said resident Marie Gibbs. "Without land you have nothing."

Gibbs, who is in her 70s and is both a farmer and museum manager, has no intention of giving up.

Four years ago, she lost 10 acres of cultivable land due to sea water floods that damaged the soil.

Now it's out of the question to lose one inch more, whether to climate change or real estate developers.

"The fight is always on," she said. "We're going to fight for what we have."

Cover photo: Collage: Jim WATSON / AFP

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