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Displacement of Gullah Islanders, USA


The Gullah Islands off the eastern U.S coast are home to a unique African-American history and culture.

Gullah/Geechee people of today are descendants of enslaved Africans from various ethnic groups of west and central Africa who were forced to work on the plantations of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.

They lived near the coast and on barrier islands that were separated from the mainland by creeks, rivers, and marshes. Because of their geographic protection from outsiders and strong sense of family and community, Gullah/Geechee people maintained a separate creole language and developed distinct culture patterns, which included more of the African cultural tradition than African-American population in other parts of the United States. They are also the only African American population of the United States with a separate, long-standing name identifying them as a separate people.

Isolation in colonial times later became isolation by choice.

People chose their simple lifestyle, their language and their culture. This isolation allowed them to maintain their language, arts, crafts, religious beliefs, folklore, rituals and food preferences that are distinctly connected to their West African roots.

Until 1950, the islands were only accessible by boat.

1950 brought bridges which led to coastal development, changing job markets, and population shifts which forced many Gullah/Geechee people to leave their ancestral family lands (

The great transformation began in 1957 when Charles Frasier launched the construction of Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island. The availability of air conditioning suddenly made the sea islands appealing to affluent people (

As the target of expansive commercial and resort development, the subsistence economy of these islands has transformed into a suburban and resort service economy. Golf courses, retirement communities, shopping centers and leisure developments raise the price of land. The consequences for local residents are increasing taxes beyond the means of a community that traditionally survives on subsistence farming and fishing (The Gullah people, pdf file). Gullah people were no longer able to access all of their land, they had limiting hunting and fishing rights, water pollution negatively impacted their maritime economy, and they lost access to traditional burying grounds (

This community has been marginalized and has resulted in negative impacts on Gullah culture and community health. 'The decade had brought telephone service, electricity, and grocery markets to the island, but only to the southern portion. Most Gullah inhabitants of northern Hilton Head still lived without electricity or even running water' (The Gullah people, pdf file).

Mainland Gullah/Geechee communities are also threatened by increasing coastal development and population growth with the resulting encroachment into rural neighborhoods (

Some of the people who left in the 1960s are now returning to their roots and are among the most active in trying to preserve Gullah/Geechee community and tradition (

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Displacement of Gullah Islanders, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:East coast of South Carolina
Location of conflict:Sea Islands
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Tourism Recreation
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Land acquisition conflicts
Tourism facilities (ski resorts, hotels, marinas)
Specific commodities:Land

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Sale of a 10,159 acre tract of land (over 2/3 of the island) to Fraser Lumber Company on Hilton Head Island for $600,000 in 1949 (The Gullah People Justice pdf). Construction of a toll bridge in 1956 at a cost of $1.5 million. With a $2.50 toll, over 200,000 people came to Hilton Head in the year after the completion. Twice as many journeyed to the island the next year after the toll was halved, and even more traveled when tolls were eliminated in 1959.

The Gullah area is about 3,189,570 ha

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:180,000-200,000
Start of the conflict:1920
Company names or state enterprises:Hilton Head Toll Bridge Authority from United States of America
Fraser Lumber from Canada
Hilton Head Company from United States of America
Sea Pines company from United States of America
Relevant government actors:US Government, Town of Hilton Head Island
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, Hilton Head Fishing Cooperative, National Association for the Advancement, of Colored People (NAACP), Penn Community Services CenterGullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, Penn Community Services Center

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of mobilization:Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Spoke at United Nations Conference


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Other socio-economic impactsRegulation Changes


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Land demarcation
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
New legislation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Development of alternatives:In 1996, the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition was founded by Marquetta L. Goodwine who has since been enstooled as Queen Quet, Chieftess and Head-of-State for the Gullah/Geechee Nation. At that time, she saw the need to bring people around the world together in order to protect a branch of Africa’s tree that took root in North America which had became a place of consistent “destructionment” and displacement of Gullah/Geechee people (
The Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition was the leading organization in the effort to have a Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that was founded through an act of the United States Congress. The organization continues to work with the citizens of the Gullah/Geechee Nation to insure that their human rights are protected and that the culture continues for the generations to come.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The area witnesses continual displacement with increased tourism.

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

National Heritage Act of 2006: designated the coastline from Wilmington, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida as the GullahGeechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, one of the nation's forty National Heritage Areas

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Hazzard, Dominique T ., ' The Gullah People, Justice, and the Land on Hilton Head Island: A Historical P erspective' (2012). Honors Thesis Collection. Paper 60.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition

The Gullah/Geechee Fight for Self-Determination

The Gullah People, Justice, and the Land on Hilton Head Island: A Historical Perspective

United Nations session hears Gullah language plea

Other comments:This is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan
Gullah/Geechee study area stretches along the southeastern coast roughly from the Cape Fear River near the North Carolina/South Carolina line to the St. John's River near Jacksonville, Florida and 30 miles inland following estuarine boundaries. Includes the 79 barrier islands that hug the coast.

Meta information

Contributor:Bernadette Grafton, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update07/05/2015



Swing bridge built in 1956 connecting the Sea Islands to the mainland


4-lane bridge built to replace the 2-lane swing bridge


Marquetta Goodwine, Head of State for Gullah/Geechee Nation

Part of her work includes dealing with matters of food security and food safety for the Gullah/Geechee Nation daily within her nation and representing her people in these discussions at the United Nations.