Is Old African Culture Fading in South?

Althea Sumpter is one of the last of her people still holding onto the land on St. Helena Island.

For more than a century, the land on St. Helena and the other Sea Islands was the property of the Gullah people, nearly 200,000 direct descendants of West African slaves. And they lived there alone.

"This is the land that's been in my family since the 1800s," Sumpter says. "I didn't know blacks who didn't own land, not until I left here — not until I left the island."

Today, the bridges that link the islands to the mainland have changed everything. The visitors started crossing over nearly 50 years ago, and they all have come searching for a piece of the beautiful shoreline. Most descendants of the original black landowners have since died or moved away, and the developers are circling.

"Our world has turned upside down, topsy turvy, every which way but up, since 1956 when America came across the bridge," says Johnnie Mitchell, a local store owner.

To turn the tide, Sumpter has taken it upon herself to search the country for heirs to the land on St. Helena. But when she reaches them, they often tell her to sell.

"They don't know what they're missing," Sumpter says, "and they're selling their heritage."

Fading Language, Ways?

To this day, the Gullah people speak their own language. They also maintain a spoken history and their own traditions.

But the development the Gullah people are trying to avoid keeps moving in, and is now just a few miles away from their wide open spaces: A business district, not far from Sumpter's home, was created there after a number of the black landowners sold out.

The Gullahs who've decided to remain in the region are worried. They look at nearby Hilton Head Island, and fear that it is proof they have no future. On Hilton Head, Emory Campbell can no longer freely visit the ancient gravesites of his people. Expensive condos and townhouses tower over and surround the old cemetery.

"We still have to get permission at the front of the gate there to come in to have a funeral here," says Campbell, author of Gullah Cultural Legacies.

Across town, a popular meeting place was torn down, and yet another hotel is going up. A pile of lumber sits in the spot of the old juke joint.

Business vs. Culture?

Despite the cutural transformation, the business people who thrive on Hilton Head insist no one is trying to bulldoze the old African culture.

"The Gullah heritage, culture, is certainly something we're promoting and that the visitors come in here and enjoy finding out about it," says Bill Miles of the Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce.

Althea Sumpter says she doesn't buy it: From where she sits, the new people's progress comes at the expense of the old people's ways.

"Do I have to die for this?" she asks. "Does my culture have to die?"

The answer is, it just may. The land the Gullah people are holding onto has become so valuable, their taxes are high, and few of them can afford to stay.