Laura Herriott stepped off the Sandy Island landing dock into a fog-cloaked early morning covering the American mainland. Although only a passing car broke the silence it was louder than her island home, which lies a five-minute boat ride across the swollen Waccamaw river.
Secluded and nestled between two South Carolina rivers, Sandy Island houses a dozen homes for descendants of rice-cultivating West African slaves who created their own culture on the eastern seaboard, known as the Gullah.
Herriott, 65, lives in the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a stretch of 400 miles south from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, that includes 200,000 Gullah Geechee, some of whom still speak Gullah, with its creole mix of words from English and west African languages.
Much of the corridor was in the path of Hurricane Florence. Even more dangerous, the extensive post-storm flooding threatens to be worse than Matthew’s impact in 2016. Sandy Island, though, is an anomaly in the region as sand dunes elevate its 9,000 acres above the surrounding landscape.
“We’re untouchable,” Herriott said. God is looking out for the Gullah people on Sandy Island because he put us so high, she explained. “Once you get off the water, you’re great.”
A tin roof that blew off during Hugo was the worst damage she has had to her home – once her parents’ home – from hurricanes.
The mayor of Georgetown – of which Sandy Island is a part – Brendon Barber, is its first Gullah mayor, and he took potential flooding the week after Florence seriously, urging citizens to be prepared.
However, on the mainland in Georgetown, past the landing dock, past the golf courses and resorts named after plantations, past the huge commercial development in previously black neighborhoods – Gullah descendants Jannette Graham, 72, and Phyllis Gibson, 72, agree with Herriott. They do worry about flooding in coming days.
But hurricanes are not the worst of what is happening to those Gullah still holding on to their culture and heritage in the face of large-scale development on their ancestral lands. An influx of hundreds of thousands of sun-seekers, holidaymakers and retirees has transformed the Gullah coast from an isolated wilderness to what seems at times like one long strip mall.
“Levy Alley was where I was born,” Graham started and Gibson interjected, “it’s no longer there” only stopping when Graham cut her off to say, “[It] was a row of all black wooden houses.” They drove up to Graham’s former home, now an empty grass lot. A chunk of history has disappeared, just like the street of shops only for African Americans down the road – replaced with a law firm, salons and a strip mall.
Graham’s father was born on Arcadia Plantation, just as Gibson’s mother was born on Brookgreen Plantation in the early 20th century. The two exchanged stories from their childhood, pointing out the ghosts of buildings past and people gone, while trading neighborhood gossip.
“James Holmes? He had a shoeshine parlour on one side. And what was the name of the man with the barber shop?
“Mr Green? Green’s Barber Shop.”
“And that’s the fish place where the radio station is now.”
“This used to be the black street and every Saturday people came from all over. That changed in the 60s when the area started to integrate and they started to build more stores out in the rural area.”
For two hours, the childhood friends reminisce. “Now, it’s all gone. Now they say ‘Saturday’. It used to be ‘Sat’ta’dee’,” Graham smiled.
Back on Sandy Island, the yellow painted Pyatt convenience store and wispy willow trees near the dock welcome the Gullah residents home to the sandy roads. Besides that, the only two other services for the public are a fire station and the AME Bethel Baptist church built in 1880. Trash collection and mail delivery are on the mainland; a boat trip is needed for both.
“Some things are never going to change – like the history of here – but people do bring changes on. I’d like the church to stay the same,” Herriott said.
Herriott noticed a small leak in the roof from the rain that followed Florence’s arrival to the Carolina coast, shaking her head. As the church custodian, she will have to clean it up.
On the next road, the two-room schoolhouse closed in the 1960s. Now the school bus ferry shuttles the nine children on the island to Georgetown for school. Rattling off half a dozen former neighborhoods where a few hundred people used to live on the island just a couple of decades prior, Herriott drove her SUV past one abandoned home after another, without spotting another soul.
When hurricane winds pass through the island, the only bad things are lots of trees falling down, Herriott observed. “Nobody came from the state or county to help clean up,” she added. “You have to do it yourself, of course.”
The real threat, though, to her culture, her community, she emphasized, “is that nobody is left here, nobody standing here”.
After high school, Graham and Gibson left for much of their adult lives. “The economic situation was nothing we could live with while we were growing up,” Graham said. There were no opportunities for African Americans at the time, she elaborated. That’s why the two women took blue-collar jobs in New York for years. “The only option was to leave.” Now, they’re both back, trying to instill the importance of their culture to their children and grandchildren, who have moved away.
“Our history is getting erased,” Graham said. Her children laugh when she speaks Gullah.
For this reason, the three women take pride in Barber, their first African American and first Gullah mayor of the town of 9,000, as he preserves part of their heritage. Over grits and blackened shrimp at the Big Tuna, Barber told a story in the Gullah dialect – one with a moral – about a bear and a preacher.
He switched topics suddenly, becoming serious about Florence evacuation plans and flooding preparation for the town, his childhood community.
“We organize first responders, administrators, people from the state also,” he explained. “We have to do what’s best for the people in the city.”
And as the women toured the city, going back over their childhoods and the history of the Gullah people in South Carolina, Barber held a press briefing preparing citizens for floodwaters potentially cresting the coming weekend.
Herriott looked over the Waccamaw river from the four-seater boat as she returned to Sandy Island, unfazed by the prospect of rising water levels and choppy conditions. “If I’m coming home [from the mainland], I’m coming home,” she said defiantly.
Because, as Graham and Gibson acknowledged, the biggest threat to the Gullah people along the coast may not be rains, wind and floods. It’s watching their history disappear in front of their eyes.