The core of my Gullah/Geechee identity is survival
One generation of land loss and displaced cultural traditions is all it takes to put a Gullah/Geechee community’s culture in jeopardy. Glenda Simmons-Jenkins describes the cultural displacement her community experienced after State Road A1A cut through her neighborhood in 1976.
Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Floridians are witnessing across the state. This essay was funded by the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida.
Life in my community began to change around 1976 when the government removed us Black people from our homes. The Florida Department of Transportation took my parents’ and my neighbors’ land by eminent domain. They condemned residential properties closest to State Road 200/A1A, from Interstate 95 all the way into Fernandina Beach, because the government said they needed that land to expand the highway from two lanes to four.
I grew up in a three-bedroom brick house off of A1A when it was a two-lane highway. It was a quiet, sparsely populated area of Nassau County between Yulee and Fernandina Beach called O’Neil. Next door to us lived my aunt, uncle, and cousins. On either side of our homes, the closest neighbors were about a five-minute walk up the road. It took, maybe, 10 or 15 minutes to walk to the nearest store.
As a child I did not have the slightest idea that my family and my neighbors were included in a cultural group with unique language, traditions, and folkways inherited from our enslaved African ancestors. I wouldn’t learn until decades later that I am Gullah/Geechee. But what I did know is that my safe haven, and that of my neighbors, was gone, and my family and cultural orientation to the place I called home would never again be the same.
Catching grasshoppers in a pickle jar, flying a kite with my daddy on the front lawn, sitting on the porch watching fireflies as night fell, and digging in my grandpa’s garden were joyful, analog, no-signal-required amusements. I remember playing and walking along the rows of Grandpa’s garden as he attended to the field. I would hear him singing as he worked the ground. I was in first grade. He was in his ninth decade and nearing the end of his life.
The year the state evicted my family from our home and property, America celebrated its bicentennial.
My introduction to cultivating the land abruptly ended after being snatched off of the piece of property my mother inherited from him and my grandmother. I did not realize until later that when they took our land and our home that would be the last time, for a long time, that my hands would work in the soil.
The year the state evicted my family from our home and property, America celebrated its bicentennial. During this momentous national commemoration of freedom and liberty, the government’s confiscation of my inheritance put my culture at risk and fractured my connection to its traditions. One generation, detached from our land, would strongly influence whether our Gullah/Geechee way of life survived.
Celebrations, sickness, bereavement, and religious worship, allow us to respond in culturally specific ways. These exchanges, which fortify relationships within Gullah communities, occur because of our spiritual connection.
The connection to my Gullah/Geechee neighbors in O’Neil suffered disruption after the state-ordered dislocation. Several families along the roadway relocated miles away or left Nassau County. The four lanes of highway made interacting within the community more difficult and more dangerous. Elders and family members who once walked leisurely across the two-lane road to exchange food, to attend to the sick, and to visit each other’s homes could no longer do so without a vehicle.
After our community structure was fractured, religious worship continued in its central role as a primary cultural reference point. Worship stands out to me as an all-encompassing cultural practice that reinforces the expression and demonstration of Gullah traditions. My mother, father, or siblings would often take me by the hand and we would walk across the two lanes to our church. The music and dance in the spirit, infused with African rhythms, the prayers, and the sermons delivered with the poetic style and fervor born of language rooted in Alkebulan (Africa’s indigenous name) remained a part of life in spite of the cultural losses we endured.
By the time I came on the scene 11 years later, no one went out in the marsh to catch crabs.
My people descend from multiple ethnic groups captured primarily from countries on the west coast of Africa and enslaved on the Sea Islands of the eastern U.S. A new language, Gullah, emerged from the mixture of languages as the enslaved worked together to cultivate rice, indigo, and cotton. A new culture, indigenous to the region known as the “low country,” emerged from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, and 30 to 35 miles inland. With its mixture of beliefs and customs, the culture is characterized by the greatest retention of African-derived traditions in the country. The dialect, Geechee, reflects the African linguistic elements that survived after infrastructure — primarily bridges built in the mid-twentieth century— accelerated the imposition of non-African influences.
My grandmother was Gullah/Geechee. I would not learn cultural traditions from her though because she died two years before I was born. I grew up hearing about her mail-order green house and the perennial bulbs she purchased from a nursery in Plant City. Gladiolus were her favorite to grow, and they were popular with her customers. I did not have the benefit of watching her make soap, sew quilts, or preserve pears from the tree that grew in front of the homestead. My two elder sisters gathered and washed eggs, shelled peas, and snapped beans alongside Grandma and Grandpa, who operated a roadside store.
By the time I came on the scene 11 years later, no one went out in the marsh to catch crabs. The farm animals, and the seven or eight acres of produce my Grandpa planted as he grieved his wife, were sold or given away.
One generation of land loss and displaced cultural traditions is all it takes to put a Gullah/Geechee community’s culture in jeopardy. As much as people attempt to teach and co-opt Gullah/Geechee traditions, you simply cannot teach culture. Culture is learned by living and breathing it. Growing up without my grandmother was a cultural loss for me. I cannot pass on what I did not receive from her. I received a strong cultural connection from both of my parents but there was a lapse in the transfer of traditional knowledge around many customs that I am unable to recover. In the 40 years between my mother’s birth and mine, the elders discontinued farming and canning fruits and vegetables. The 30 years between my birth and my daughter’s put still more distance between traditions my grandmother knew and traditions I didn’t experience.
I want to revive for my daughter all of the agricultural traditions that I grew up hearing about and the remnants of what I witnessed. I have made a few attempts through the years at raising food with very meager results. The pandemic made it clear that food sovereignty is a cultural imperative for my people, so she and I started a small garden last year. Our efforts yielded a few sweet potatoes, a melon, and flowers. In memory of my grandmother we planted gladiolus bulbs in late spring. As they bloomed I thought of her. I picked several, put them in a vase, and shared them with a neighbor, as I knew my grandmother would have done.
The deliberate, systematic attempts at erasing my community began with the construction of A1A. The expansion of A1A, spurred by construction of the interstate highway system, exacerbated disrespect for our culture. Real estate investors continue to target our land along the coast. Franklintown on Amelia Island and Hilton Head, South Carolina, serve as two of the most prominent examples of Gullah-owned property that investors bought cheap and then redeveloped as high-end luxury resorts. This land devaluation and cultural exploitation tracks back to plantation economies and aligns with the land speculation that continued south to northeast Florida. The location of two plantations owned by the same English slave trader foreshadowed the path of Black displacement to come.
That slave trader, Zephaniah Kingsley, owned Kingsley Plantation in Duval County along the St. Johns River and White Oak Plantation in Nassau County on the St. Marys River. Along the roughly 55 miles between those two geographic points, every Gullah/Geechee community has seen or will see development pressure exerted against it. Black people, descended from the enslaved Africans who lived on plantations stationed along key bodies of water, would come to own land on or near the plantations where they once worked and lived.
The threat of the state’s right to displace us continues to hover over my community.
Harrison Plantation descendants built the Franklintown community just across the Nassau Sound from Kingsley Plantation. FDOT removed the community’s church in 1949 to construct A1A on Amelia Island’s south end. Developers continued undervaluing and purchasing more land, erasing the community by the 1970s. Although it has taken nearly 50 years, the descendants of enslaved Africans living around Kingsley’s White Oak Plantation, now a wildlife conservation center, will likely see their rural cultural lifestyle transformed as Interstate 95 again spurs the development of thousands of acres surrounding it.
The threat of the state’s right to displace us continues to hover over my community. The targeted removal of substantial land wealth from Gullah/Geechee ownership, repeatedly, over the course of approximately 100 years, is clearly intended to decimate the culture. No effort to divert these impacts away from our community, nor attempts to lessen the blow to our economic well being as residential property owners, has been made. Instead, the repeated economic assaults have been felt across multiple generations.
My ancestors made sacrifices to acquire land and give us a better opportunity than they had to survive. I intend to do the same for my daughter, who is the first generation of my family in northeast Florida to be raised as a self-identifying Gullah/Geechee.
At the core of my identity as a Gullah/Geechee is survival. In addition to our language, land ownership sustains the culture. We have a shared history that anchors us to this very ground. Our ancestors’ blood and bodies are in this soil. We know how the threads that have sewn us together for decades were woven, beginning when our grandparents arrived here. Despite the changing landscape, we use the cultural threads we received from our ancestors to stitch the next generation into the narrative of our lives here in northeast Florida.
Rep. Glenda Simmons-Jenkins is the 2022 recipient of the Florida Archaeological Council's Stewards of Heritage Award. She is the 2021-2022 Law and Public Policy Scholar for the Center on Race, Leadership & Social Justice, University of St. Thomas School of Law, and she has served as a Florida representative of the Gullah/Geechee Nation Assembly of Representatives since 2004.
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.