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Network for Landscape Conservation: A Lesson in Nature and Culture

By Brenda Barrett April 30, 2018

unnamed-1The Coordinating Committee of the Network for Landscape Conservation gathered for a picture on Boneyard Beach, Bull Island in the Cape Romaine National Wildlife Reserve in South Carolina. The field trip kicked off an April retreat in Charleston South Carolina to finalize the outcomes of the recent  National Forum for Landscape Conservation and to identify strategic initiatives to advance the conservation at a landscape scale. Collaborative, cross border conservation is an emergingtrend in North America and beyond, offering a new approach to connect and protect nature, culture, and community. The Network was formed to serve as a new organizational center for practioners and to advance expertise on conservation at a landscape scale. The low country region is a great example of a conserved natural landscape with four Federal Wildlife Refuges, designation as the Carolinian-South Atlantic Biosphere Reserve, and  ACE Basin Project that manages over 100,000 of protected lands and estuaries. However, it is the cultural heritage of the region, it is one of the centers of Gullah Geechee culture, that makes the landscape of truly global  cultural and natural significance.

The 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. The geographic isolation from outsiders and strong sense of family and community allowed the Gullah Geechee people to maintain a separate creole language and developed distinct culture patterns, which included more of the African cultural tradition than African-American populations in other parts of the United States. After the Civil War the island plantations were for the most part abandoned. The people of the region were able to maintain language, arts, crafts, religious beliefs, folklore, rituals and food preferences that are distinctly connected to their West African roots and to the natural resources of the coastal ecosystem

Former Rice Fields Mansfield Plantation Georgetown SC

Former Rice Fields Mansfield Plantation Georgetown SC

Today sprawling coastal development, changing job markets, and population shifts have impacted the natural resources of the low country and those same forces have adversely impacted many Gullah Geechee people. These changes have caused a loss of their traditional economy of farming, fishing, hunting, and small-scale marketing of subsistence products, most famously sweet grass baskets. In many cases real-estate development has led to loss of lands that had been in families for generations.  First came the northern owned hunting clubs and estates, later military bases, and then resort and second home development. This encroachment by outsiders has resulted in out-migration, economic hardship, and loss of Gullah Geechee culture.

At the April meeting the members of the Coordinating Committee were privileged to hear from two women who are working to preserve the culture of the Gullah Geechee people that is so deeply rooted in the low country region. Heather L. Hodges, the recently appointed  Executive Director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission spoke about activities to expand and preserve the body of knowledge on the culture and history of the Gullah Geechee people in the Low Country and Sea Islands. She also gave a briefing on how much the landscape we see today in Charleston region was created by enslaved Africans using knowledge from their homeland to grow rice. To learn more read The Creation of the Rice Coast: A Global Exchange.

Jennie Stephens, Executive Director of the Center for Heirs Property Preservation, explained how her organization helps prevent land loss among the traditional African American land owners, who often owned family land in common. As explained on the Center’s web site”In the Lowcountry, heirs’ property  is mostly rural land owned by African Americans who either purchased or were deeded land following Emancipation. At some point in the land’s ownership, it was passed down without a written Will – or was not legally probated within the 10 years required by SC law to make it valid – so the land became heirs’ property. Heirs’ property ownership is risky because the land can be easily lost.  Any heir can force a sale of the property in the courts – OR can sell his/her percentage of ownership to another (outside of the family) who can force a sale of the entire property in the courts.

To address this loss of cultural fabric, the Center for Heirs Property Preservation aids low wealth heirs’ property owners by helping them obtain clear title and keep their family land through legal education, legal and mediation services, community empowerment and free Wills Clinics. In addition, the Center promotes the sustainable use of such land to provide increased economic benefit to historically under-served families.

Slave Dwelling Mansfield Plantation Georgetown SC

Slave Dwelling
Mansfield Plantation Georgetown SC

For the Network for Landscape Conservation and all its partners, the Low Country of South Carolina is truly a powerful example of the interlinkage of nature and culture.  It is a lesson that effective landscape scale conservation must begin with an understanding of the region’s cultural and natural heritage as well as the living traditions of today’s descendants. And to fully value the significance of the resource, we need to place the story within a global context. In this case it is the transatlantic slave trade, the market in global commodities, and the vast international Atlantic exchange of indigenous knowledge that were the forces behind the creation of this landscape.Fortunately, an effort is underway, led by the  Charleston World Heritage Coalition, to nominate the iconic buildings and landscapes representative of the region’s Lowcountry plantation-driven culture as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perhaps at last the whole story will now be told.















Sapelo Island: Still a Living Landscape

By Brenda Barrett May 31, 2013

Last month (May 18, 2013) the New York Times reported on the sale of a house on Edisto Island to the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Once a slave cabin on the Point of Pines Plantation, it will be reconstructed as part of an exhibit titled Slavery and Freedom in the museum, which is scheduled to opens its doors in 2015.  According to the article, the building is in a remarkable state of preservation.

The Wallows Lodge, Sapelo Island

The Wallows Lodge, Sapelo Island

But for an even more remarkable preservation story, head south on Interstate 95 and take one of the three ferries a day to Sapelo Island. The 16,500-acre Sapelo Island, the fourth largest barrier island of Georgia, is 97% owned and managed by the state’s natural resource agency. However, the other 3% is the community of Hog Hammock whose residents can trace their lineage back for over two centuries. If you are lucky, you can book a room at the Wallows Lodge.

Built and operated by community residents Cornelia Walker Bailey and Julius Bailey, the Wallows offers more than a place to stay on the island. It offers a seat on the porch in the center of living landscape. Cornelia Walker Bailey, who was born and educated on Sapelo Island, is the community historian. Her book God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man (New York : Doubleday 2000) is a already considered a classic cultural memoir of Geechee culture. My husband and I enjoyed the Wallow’s hospitality for two nights in May (2013). We were fortunate to be there for the 147th Anniversary of the First African Baptist Church just down the road and blessed to attend the morning service. Best of all we sat on the porch of the Wallows and enjoyed ourselves.

These special occasions continue to call people back to Sapelo Island. The population of Hog Hammock almost doubled the weekend we visited, but by Monday morning most of the crowd had departed. The five children living on the island were all on the 7 AM ferry headed to school on the other side. Although the locally owned Wallows Lodge, catering for visitors, and island tours offer some economic opportunities, the community’s aging population continues to dwindle. To help preserve and revitalize Hog Hammock, the residents have formed a non-profit corporation known as the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS). Through the efforts of SICARS, the Hog Hammock Historic District of Sapelo Island was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. The organization also sponsors a well-attended cultural festival every October.

The gradual attrition of population is a long-term problem, but the community now faces a more immediate threat. Last fall property tax reassessments by Macintosh County raised the tax bills of Hog Hammock residents by as much as 500%.  Appeals have been filed, but the future is still uncertain. The loss of real estate particularly in valuable costal locations is a recurrent theme for the larger Gullah Geechee community.  Communities in places like Hilton Head and St. Simmons Island have been overrun by the development of upscale resorts and gated communities. Other islands like Cumberland Island are protected lands set aside for nature conservation. Today a living traditional community like Hog Hammock is the most rare and endangered place of all.

The Management Plan for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor  devotes a whole section to the topic under the chapter Land Ownership and Land Cover  (Pages 96-101). However, implementation of the management plan, approved by the Secretary of the Interior on May 6 of this year, is just getting underway. Partners from the National Park Service and both historic preservation and land conservation organizations should be called upon to help conserve this part of our past before it is too late.

To see some wonderful recent photographs by a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design who also enjoyed staying at the Wallows: Visit Annelsie Moore’s Portfolio.



Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission Starts the Journey

By Brenda Barrett March 1, 2013

It has been a long process, but the management plan for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is finally done. There is only one step left, the Secretary of Interior has to ink in his, or maybe now her, name on a letter of approval. So what lies ahead?

Recently, the Living Landscape Observer caught up with two members of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, Veronica Gerald and Ralph Johnson. We talked about the opportunities the commission faces as a standard bearer for a living cultural landscape that stretches over four states. It is a big task to interpret this narrative on such a geographic scale and it is made more complex by the importance of telling the story over time. Gerald was worried that “people only want to interpret us historically.” She noted that the story stretches back across the Atlantic and forward into the present day as the Gullah and Geechee people spread out across the nation. Johnson gave as just one example the history of the Underground Railroad to the south. At one time enslaved people from the region escaped to then Spanish controlled Florida and dispersed from there. The corridor still serves as a cultural hearth for all of the Gullah Geechee people and Gerald and Johnson noted that it is a hearth that is still burning.

Both Commissioners agreed that the national designation, the corridor is one of 49 heritage areas or corridors in the National Park Service, is important because it serves as umbrella arching over the region that is such a significant part of America’s collective heritage. They encouraged the park service to work closely with the commission to interpret the Gullah Geechee experience.

Help is also needed on other pressing issues, for example:

a) Heritage Tourism – How can authentic Gullah Geechee products be marketed to improve the economic position of community members, where so many are now relegated to service positions?

b) Land conservation – How can land traditionally owned by the Gullah Geechee community be protected from development or even from public acquisition?

These are big topics that are probably beyond the know-how of the National Park Service. However, perhaps working together the expertise can be assembled to tackle them. The commission will have an important role as ambassador and translator to help ensure the right outcomes. Of course, all of this if going to require money and it is not going to be done on the meager allowance doled out to National Heritage Areas projects. So add raising money to the list of challenges.

On one thing everyone agrees, the first step is to build awareness and recognition of what the Gullah Geechee Corridor has to offer the nation. So congratulations to the commission for their web site and read the post on the float inaugural parade. Now it is all of our job to promote this good work.


Heritage Commission Joins in Presidential Inaugural Parade

By Brenda Barrett January 30, 2013

Gullah Geechee National Cultural Heritage Commission Float Presidential Inaugural Parade. Credit – Michael Allen

Cheers to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor for their float in the Presidential Inaugural Parade.  The float featured members of the Gullah Geechee commission and their families and cultural artifacts from the area including the region’s famous sweet grass baskets. According to the commission’s web site:

“The participation of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission in President Obama’s inaugural parade showcases: 1) America’s only National Heritage Area that promotes the heritage of an African American population, 2) a culture that has direct linkages to First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama, 3) a culture through which folk life and traditions continue to impact the American cultural fabric, and 4) a culture that influences military families who reside in communities of the 11 military bases throughout the Corridor.”

Read more about the corridor and about the inaugural parade on the corridor’s web site.

Congress established the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor in 2006 to recognize the important contributions made to American culture and history by African Americans known as Gullah Geechee who settled in the coastal counties of South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida. Read more about this important cultural landscape in the Living Landscape Observer. 




Predictions for the Coming Year

By Brenda Barrett December 30, 2012

So what will 2013 bring for the field of living landscapes? The editors of the Living Landscape Observer have a few predictions. We will follow these issues in the coming year and check back in December 2013!

1.     The large landscape movement will continue to expand. With no big change in course at the national level the landscape scale programs at the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management will continue to grow and prosper. The America Great Outdoors initiative will frame the work of the Department of the Interior. The National Park Service will issue guidance on how to “Scale Up” efforts around National Park Units. On the private side, conservation organizations will come together around the new Large Landscape Practitioners Network.

2.     National Heritage Areas will be pulled back from the brink. One of the country’s premier large landscape programs, National Heritage Areas, are in a precarious position. The twelve original areas are facing a loss of funding and most of the newer areas are severely underfunded. We predict the program will be rescued, but remain unsure on whether much needed program legislation will be passed.

3.     The concept of cultural landscapes will be revitalized.  New ideas about cultural landscapes including Indigenous Cultural Landscapes and Historic Urban Landscapes are attracting new and diverse audiences, including the conservation community, regional planners and urban developers.  Look for these approaches to proliferate and shake up traditional concepts of cultural significance.  Just one example of new ways to think about landscape is what’s happening at the Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.

4.     The Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor will be in the spotlight.  This is a given – after all the Commission has been honored by an invitation to march in the 57th Presidential Inaugural Parade on January 21, 2013. With a newly completed Management Action Plan, this should be an important year for the preservation of this national treasure. See our post on the Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor.

Have a Happy New Year!


Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor: Keeping the Promise

By Mary Means September 24, 2012

South Carolina low country landscapeI’ve had a lifelong affinity for South Carolina’s Low Country (there are Means family buried in the Episcopal Church yard in Beaufort) and one of my earliest memories is of the golden marshes and moss-draped live oaks. For the last year, a volunteer assignment has taken me to St. Helena Island numerous times. There, we have guided the recently adopted strategic plan for Penn Center that will assure it continues to serve the Gullah Geechee communities. Begun in 1862 as Penn School, one of the first schools for Africans (they were still enslaved; this area of the state was occupied by the Union Army throughout the Civil War), this National Historic Landmark was struggling as it approached its 150th celebration. Though the transition may at times be difficult, Penn Center’s leaders are successfully moving to a much stronger and more sustainable condition, on course to a much brighter future.

Steeped as I have become in the this fascinating place, and having led the consultant teams for management plans for several National Heritage Areas, I’ve been looking forward to reading the recently released Management Plan for the Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor, for Penn Center is smack dab in the middle of it. Moreover, St Helena Island is one of the strongest concentrations of Gullah Geechee people. Here is one of the few remaining distinct peoples who can trace their beginnings to the west coast of Africa, mostly what is now Sierra Leone and Angola. Penn Center’s mission revolves around preserving and interpreting Gullah Geechee history and culture.

Sprawling coastal development continues to decimate many of their communities; physical evidence of their existence is fading fast all along the coast. Penn Center and St Helena Island are probably the most intact remaining cultural landscape in the Low Country. With the inevitable diaspora, language and cultural practices also disappear. The ability of people to hold on and stay here hinges as much as anything else on the ability to make a living. Bringing appropriate economic development is key; heritage tourism represents a promising albeit complex opportunity. So, time is of the essence if current and future generations are to be able to hold on to their traditional communities.

If ever there was a cultural landscape worthy of being a heritage corridor, it is this one – especially in the Low Country. Local and regional leaders fervently hoped national designation would bring badly needed public exposure, funding to preserve, interpret and market the corridor’s sites and communities, and greater clout when advocating for the preservation of fragile communities. In 2004, the Corridor made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Eleven Most Endangered Sites list.

St. Helena Island, South CarolinaLegislation to create the GGNHC was first introduced in Congress in 2000, and it was finally designated in 2006, with the designation set to end in 2021. The process of creating the corridor management plan has been managed by the National Park Service in cooperation with the 21-member Commission established to oversee the corridor. The plan document is nearly 300 pages long and reflects a great deal of work and public involvement. I’m sure it fully meets NPS standards for planning, which seem to revolve around counting, studying and consulting – always mindful of not committing NPS to anything too specific, being voluminous in documentation and lofty goals, while micrometer thin when it comes to implementation. It has taken six years of the NHC’s fifteen-year shelf life to get to this point. Buried deeply in it is the acknowledgement that funding will have to come from elsewhere. Remember, NPS funding for national heritage areas is roughly $18 million dollars. Today, there are 49 designated heritage areas all scrambling for crumbs of the budget pie. Six years of planning fatigue and high hopes. Now what?

Partnerships. When there is no money, the solution always offered is partnerships. Throughout the GGNHC Management Plan it is a major theme: to work with existing sites and organizations, to bring financial resources and technical assistance, to make marketing efforts more effective. Yet nowhere in the plan is there a realistic assessment of who those key partners must be for this to succeed. There are hundreds of organizations and agencies – NPS even notes “too numerous to list” in the plan itself. Apparently the planning process did not involve actually identifying, much less brokering a couple of these key partnerships.

Brick Church Penn CenterIf the survival of the communities of the GGNHC must depend on partners, shouldn’t the planning process have focused less on NPS internal policies and more on what might motivate some of those key entities to invest in priority initiatives in the Corridor? Shouldn’t it help articulate the benefits that could come to a few key “others” for becoming an active partner in achieving the visibility and interpretive infrastructure the Corridor badly needs?

In addition to the economic climate of our times, there’s another hurdle for the GGNHC. During this same time-frame, Charleston struggled to explore the feasibility of a capital campaign to build an International African American Museum. Research for the campaign revealed the daunting task of raising millions in a state that has not even begun to process the legacy of slavery and its resultant climate of racism. The sad truth is that preservation of cultural landscapes that are predominantly those of the descendents of slaves is painful and does not touch the hearts and wallets of preservation’s traditional philanthropists.

Penn Center is one of those struggling Gullah Geechee sites. Its story is one of blacks and whites working together during the Civil War, through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, into the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Its newly adopted direction builds from these roots. As a National Historic Landmark with a rich association with education, self-sufficiency, community building, civil rights and social justice, Penn Center can play an important role in bringing the Gullah Geechee NHC into being. Penn’s leaders believe there is mutual benefit to be had in becoming a strong partner to the Commission, to the best of its own ability. Discussions will soon begin about how best to achieve it.

The Corridor Management Plan is available here. Learn more about the Penn Center here.

Mary Means is nationally known for her leadership in heritage development and planning. Prior to forming her firm Mary Means + Associates, she was vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and led the team that created the National Main Street Center.

Photos:  Mary Means