Tag: Gullah/Geechee Nation

Gullah/Geechee Collaboration: Collective Summer Reflections

Gullah/Geechee Collaboration: Collective Summer Reflections

Hannah Jo King 


Thinking back over the course of this summer, I feel proud of the work our group was able to accomplish. Proud because the circumstances of the summer were very difficult. Here in Minneapolis, we had a great tragedy take place at the beginning of the summer, the incompressible murder of George Floyd and the local/national Black Lives Matter uprisings that followed. For weeks I was numb. I didn’t have words to express what I was feeling; I didn’t even know if I was feeling at all. It was confusing to be so sad for the loss of another brother to the hands of police violence. And yet to be confronted with all the conversation, anger, protests, and general activity happening around his death. Confusing because of all of the other many times our Black brothers and sisters have been taken (and continue to be taken) by racial violence and our pain was silenced. This time, it was like every street you walked down, every tweet you read, every meeting you entered, you were confronted with George Floyd. And I think for me it was even beyond Floyd. It was a feeling of being confronted with hundreds of years of racial trauma every day, at multiple points throughout the day, for months. I’m not saying this to invoke pity or to paint myself as a victim. First of all, the nation is rising to its feet over racial injustices, and this is a great thing. Second of all, Black folx are always walking with the pains and joys of our ancestors, and that’s just how it is. I’m saying this because writing helps me process. And I’m also saying this because it’s impossible for me to reflect on my summer CREATE experience without also reflecting on living through the death and wake of the murder of George Floyd.

A learning moment for me this summer was in confronting a mental challenger that I often confront—my hero complex. The one who asks me: “Am I doing enough? Am I supporting communities of color enough?” and the echoing voice that replies, “I’m not selfless enough, I’m not righteous enough, or radical enough, or heroic enough.” While I highly doubt these questions are leaving me any time soon, circumstances did align in such a way that this summer I was able to gain some insight. Our summer mentor, Dr. Kate Derickson, was very active in responding to the Twin Cities’ needs around BLM protests. One day she was out delivering food to one of the many emergency supplies drop off sites that cropped up around the city. That same day our community partner Queen Quet had a live YouTube event with the CREATE Initiative, called “Zooming in on Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage and Sustainability.” Kate reached out to us all to say that she might be late for the event, asking for our help to get the event started if that was the case. Queen Quet replied to her by saying, nope, she better not be late, that she had committed to this event and needed to be there. Even though it’s a small anecdote, the takeaway we later discussed and learned from this was that while Kate was responding to a very real short-term need of the city, Queen Quet was responding to a very real long-term need of her community. And one is not more important than the other. As a person in academia, it’s often hard for me to feel like the work I’m doing is enough, and I wonder if it has any impact at all. But I’m trying my best to accept that we all have different gifts to offer and different parts to play in the struggle for justice. This doesn’t mean that academics are off the hook or that I’m now a supporter of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” But I think it does mean that there is space to recognize how and where our work matters: that responding to short-term emergencies and responding to long-term emergencies are two parts of the struggle that are completely intertwined. And even though I know that I’m not a hero and that no one of us alone is going to end racial injustice or climate change or “insert world calamity here,” somehow seeing it here in this context of “community-engaged scholarship amidst crisis” brought that truth home for me.

So going back to where I started, it’s true that I’m proud and amazed at the work we did this summer. The simple fact that we did it was amazing to me. And the hope that I have for how this work may create ripples of benefits for Gullah/Geechee people gives me joy. We were able to create a small community together: Aidan, Ryan, Eskender, Representative Jenkins, Queen Quet, Kate, and me. And that too has value and will have its own ripples.


Ryan Gavin

The plan was to be embedded within an active and alive community organization; to be immersed experientially in community-engaged, interdisciplinary research; to serve and learn by doing—the summer 2020 CREATE experience did not go as planned.

Amidst the backdrop of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the protests that followed the wanton and brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I began my community-engaged experience working from home. I was assigned to the group working with Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins in Nassau County, Florida and Queen Marquetta Goodwine ‘Queen Quet’ in Saint Helena Island, South Carolina to support the needs of the Gullah Geechee Nation. In truth, I was initially apprehensive about this assignment. It’s not that I didn’t recognize the importance of supporting the Gullah Geechee community, it’s that I couldn’t help but feel like my own community needed supporting, and I wanted to work locally.

My misgivings were immediately dispelled. In our group’s first conversation with Representative Jenkins, she expertly linked the immediate struggle for racial equity in my community with the ongoing struggle for environmental justice and against systemic violence in her community. More than anything, though, she demonstrated a huge amount of care for our own individual wellbeing and exuded an uncommon grace. By the end of the meeting, I was excited to begin the work.

Our group prioritized work in three key areas: we completed a National Science Foundation grant to support research into the ways that wastewater retention ponds affect the Gullah Geechee community in Nassau County, Florida; we built the architecture and did background research for a StoryMap describing the history of the Gullah Geechee Community in Saint Helena Island, South Carolina and integrated functionality into it that would serve to support Gullah Geechee community members; and we helped to facilitate a durable legal partnership between the Gullah Geechee community in Nassau County, Florida and faculty at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Along with Eskender Yousuf, I devoted most of my effort to building the legal partnership. This was an immersive education in capacity building and provided a lot of opportunities to practice meaningful meeting management and interdisciplinary communication. We began by writing emails to any and all local law school faculty and student groups who might be interested in the work that we were doing. Then, we held several informational meetings, and after identifying a faculty member at the St. Thomas University, we worked with Representative Jenkins to facilitate a meeting of all interested parties. This work is ongoing and will hopefully lead to a long-term partnership between the Gullah Geechee community and legal researchers from St. Thomas University, alleviating the burden of constantly having to search for legal direction and expertise currently faced by community members. Though still in the planning stages, new coursework, practicums, and internships have all been proposed as potential ways to integrate the injustices facing the Gullah Geechee community into St. Thomas University’s law school curriculum.

I cannot thank Representative Jenkins and Queen Quet enough for working with me and trusting me to work on their behalf. It’s impossible to separate place, privilege and position from the work that we do. There’s no doubt that I come from a world of privilege—I’m a straight, white, cisgendered, male in America—and without question, the same systems that violence the Gullah Geechee community today are descended from policies that have benefited me and my community. In light of these realities, the remarkable amount of compassion, understanding, and generosity-of-spirit that I experienced throughout this whole process was truly edifying. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from our incredible CREATE partners, Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins and Queen Quet, and to grow with my amazingly talented group members: Hannah Jo, Aidan, and Eskender.

Eskender A. Yousuf


During the past 8 months of my CREATE scholars experience I have benefitted from the interdisciplinary learning amongst the group of scholars and scholars in training (graduate students). Coming from more of a humanities and social science background, my work and academic training is focused on systemic issues of PK-16 schooling and its impacts on minoritized populations. More specifically, I am drawn toward better understanding how the societal systemic oppression and exploitation of African descendants in America is reflected in schooling practices; schools are reflective of the larger society in which schooling occurs. Thus, schools are often locations that mimic and reproduce societal inequalities.

Through my time in this program, I learned how environmental issues are another tentacle of systemic injustice. Reading from the literature, and hearing from community representatives, I learned how the Gullah/Geechee Nation, a disenfranchised community of African decedents, was and still is experiencing environmental injustices disproportionally in comparison to surrounding communities. This was my first experience in taking a deeper dive to better understand environmental issues and concerns of a minoritized community.
I often joked with my CREATE research group by poking fun at the idea that I had little to no understanding of what “land loss” or “eminent domain” meant. I bring forth this small, but significant, example in order to demonstrate how far my learning has coming along this summer. I got experience in collectively completing an NSF planning grant, helped mediate a potentially long-standing partnership with Representative Jenkins and Dr. Artika Tyner, and was introduced to storymaps. Before this experience, I have never worked toward obtaining an NSF grant nor utilized storymaps as a research medium.

My participation with this research group and Gullah/Geechee community leaders has provided me with an invaluable opportunity to learn more about environmental justice issues directly from community perspectives. This process highlighted and validated the importance of learning from community perspectives. I was able to learn with and from these community-based perspectives that is oft-neglected in traditional academic research practices.
I am very grateful for the experience this summer. I was able to grow my understanding of environmental equity issues, while also building a “virtual” community with my CREATE peers. This was a HEAVY summer, to say the least. COVID-19 and racial injustices that sparked uprisings across the globe. As a scholar-in-practice, who examines how colonialism, racism, and systemic inequalities impact minoritized populations, this summer exploded all that learning to the surface. Once you are exposed to the historical understanding, it situates the current context much more vividly. Black bodies have continually been sub/dehumanized. Yes, COVID-19 has taken many lives, however racial inequality is far more deadly.

This summer, albeit the most unique I have ever experienced, provided me the flexibility and learning to attempt to fulfil my duty in creating a more just world. This CREATE experience was a component in that process.

Community Engagement in the Environmental Sciences

Community Engagement in the Environmental Sciences

A virtual panel discussion of best practices, approaches and principles for collaboration between environmental sciences and communities that have not historically shaped the research priorities of academic institutions featuring: 

Queen Quet; Chieftess and Head of State of the Gullah/Geechee Nation & UMN CLA Winton Chair in the Liberal Arts

Na’Taki Osborne Jelks; Spelman College & West Atlanta Watershed Alliance 

Dan Rizza; Climate Central

Kurt Kipfmueller; University of Minnesota

Moderated by Kate Derickson

Getting up to speed

Getting up to speed

Reflecting on a year and half of collaboration with Gullah/Geechee Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins

In January 2018, at the start of my senior year of undergrad, I was invited to participate in a “research sprint” where I, and a group of others were to spend three days, eight hours per day combing archives and online databases for information on a topic I knew almost nothing about. I was invited because I had shown interest in completing a senior project with Dr. Kate Derickson after taking a course with her the semester prior. I had no idea what a research sprint was, but when I expressed concern about my lack of knowledge to Dr. Derickson, she said  “don’t worry about it too much – I’d say come as you are – we’ll get you up to speed”. I did not know at the time that this research sprint would be the beginning of my participation in an ongoing collaborative community-engaged research partnership with Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.

Since then, I’ve spent two semesters worth of undergraduate research, and now many hours in my capacity as a staff person for the CREATE Initiative doing a deep dive into the history and present reality of Gullah/Geechee residents of Nassau County Florida under Dr. Derickson’s direction. I have taken two different trips to the area to further our work through interviews and engagement. From this partnership, we’ve developed a story map that highlights the experiences of legacy residents and their families. In particular, we’ve considered the relationship that legacy families have to their land and environment, the work and economy of the county, and the mainstream narrative of the county (which often excludes its Gullah/Geechee residents historically and presently).

Retention pond used to support activities of Sandhill “Recycling center” (landfill) located within a Gullah/Geechee community in Nassau County, FL. Image dated 7/13/19

The process of creating the storymap has  been an iterative process. We did not know what our final work product would look like or what information it would contain at the start. However, we have always had an end goal of creating a product that was beneficial to our partner, Rep. Jenkins, and her community. This prioritization of our community partner is what gave the work its meaning in my eyes. It meant that we needed to stay accountable to her in a partnership built on trust that was non-exploitative. Because of this understanding, we also recognized that every step of the process had meaning, and contributed to the overall partnership, even if it didn’t necessarily generate a tangible “thing”.

I have found so much value in my time working with Rep. Jenkins and the community of Nassau County. That value was mostly created because of the project’s centering of the needs of community-based collaborators. After our most recent trip to Nassau County, Rep. Jenkins also provided a reflection on our work, and how this process has played out. She wrote:

Dear Dr. Derickson:

We convened an outstanding community project reveal and reception, due to the thorough research, excellent work and preparation by you and the CREATE Scholars.

There was an enthusiastic and impassioned response from the attendees, all of whom contributed to the project with first-person testimony of their experience as Gullah/Geechee landowners in Nassau County, Fla. They offered vigorous confirmation and validation of the data collected and displayed, further reiterating their endorsement of the research.

I am grateful to each team member: to Kaleigh for her organization and leadership; to Nfamara for his world view, cultural perspective and creation of the economic model; and to Emma for using her geolocating skills to help the team navigate and document data points. (We also joked that she willingly put her whiteness to work in obtaining public records.) This list of what each contributed is only a small sample of the in depth role they played in making the work thus far a success.

In the end the community will benefit immensely from the depth and breadth of this project in ways that cannot be measured or predicted. The participants have indicated a willingness to strategize regarding next steps related to the protection of Gullah/Geechee burial grounds here in Nassau County.

Your leadership in laying the foundation for this research, and in equipping your team with the skills to execute it to this point, cannot be overstated. Thank you for building a community engaged framework that empowers and elevates those it serves.Respectfully,

Rep. Glenda Simmons Jenkins (FL)

Gullah/Geechee Nation

Assembly of Representatives

I am greatly looking forward to continuing to build this partnership, expand the work that has already been completed, and resource the community of Nassau County, through my work with CREATE, and the CREATE Graduate Scholars Program.

“Land is a Family Member”

“Land is a Family Member”

For me nothing is more academically stimulating than studying and understanding the relationship that descendants of enslaved Africans have with their immediate biophysical environment (e.g. land, water, etc.). Yes! the Atlantic slave trade may physically disconnect us (African-born residents) from our Gullah/Geechee relatives (descendants of enslaved Africans) but we are not spiritually and mentally disconnected. In the words of Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, Gullah/Geechee people are ‘insulated’ not isolated in the low country areas of the United States (from North Carolina down to Florida). What unites the Gullah Nation with Africa is more robust than what divides us as people with rich cultures and traditions.

In July CREATE project coordinator Kaleigh Swift invited me and my summer research partner Emma DeVries for a five-day research trip to Nassau County, Florida. Emma and I are both CREATE Scholars working closely on the same summer research project examining the intersection of environment, property, and land loss in the Gullah/Geechee Nation. When Kaleigh said that we would have a community meeting with members of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, I was filled with joy and later rejoiced with my family for being blessed with the opportunity. My excitement for the trip was not just about the research opportunity, but more so the cultural exchange experience as well as a factfinding mission into Black history. 

From left: Nfamara, Gullah/Geechee Representative Jenkins, Emma, and Kaleigh

Did you know that 20% of Gullah ancestors came from the Senegambia region? According to a report by the National Park Services (2005), many advertisements in the Charles Town newspaper attest to the demand for slaves from rice-growing regions of Africa like The Gambia (my homeland). The South Carolina Gazette for May 30, 1785, advertised 152 slaves from Gambia to be sold on June 7.  The report further stated, “the Negroes from this part of the coast of Africa are well acquainted with the cultivation of rice and are naturally industrious.”

As Kaleigh and I drove through former rice plantations heading to Fernandina Beach from Jacksonville International Airport in Florida, I felt quite depressed  and aggravated as I viewed the landscape and its biophysical environment, knowing very well that Gambian nationals were forcefully enslaved on those plantations. I later took a few images and said to Kaleigh that the ecosystem looks quite similar to rice paddies along the bands of the River Gambia. One could only imagine how our ancestors’ expertise in rice growing was forcefully sought and grossly abused. The National Park Services report (2005) also stated that, the Mandinka or ‘Mande’ people, (Yes! I’m a Mandinka) “used to work as rowers, transporting supplies and crops along the waterways of the Carolina, as they had done for ages along the rivers of Senegal and Gambia.” 

After 400 years now, I am not suggesting that the Gullah nation and culture is entirely African. The Gullah culture is a new product which emerged from the amalgamation of cultural and traditional practices and  beliefs from tribes originating from various countries mainly in West Africa: Gambia, Senegal, Gold Coast, and Sierra Leone and other African countries (e.g. Angola, Congo, and Mozambique) (National Park Services, 2005). These cultural elements range from skilled applications in crafting, weaving, singing, dancing, and storytelling, to performance of cultural and spiritual ceremonies including healing and praying for one’s ancestors.

Nfamara on Fernandina Beach in July 2019

In learning about the Gullah/Geechee Nation and its unique culture, I was fascinated by their ancestors’ foresight in maintaining and preserving their aboriginal heritage. In fact, not only did they maintain their culture and history but decided to transfer wealth in the form of land to their descendants.

After the abolition of slavery as enshrined in the 13th Amendment and ratified by the US Congress on December 6, 1865, many Black families managed to work for their former slave masters in exchange for financial or land compensations. In view of their cultural attachment to land, many Gullah families succeeded in buying hundreds of acres of land for settlement and sustenance. For instance, Black families such as the Morrison family, the Mason family, the Holmes family, and the Mobley family used to own hundreds of acres of farmland in Nassau County (K. Swift et al.,  Story map 2019). Black landownership was not limited to people in Florida, it stretches up to North Carolina. For example, meet Billy Freeman, whose family “once owned thousands of acres of land along the coast of North Carolina” (L. Presser, July 15, 2019). 

Our connection to land as people is strong but even stronger for communities who directly obtain their livelihoods from land use. The Gullah nation can be identified by their spiritual, historical, cultural, and extended family connections to ancestral land and its uses. Land is a ‘family member’ says Mrs. Glenda Simmons-Jenkins, Representative of the Gullah/Geechee community in Nassau County. The notion that ‘Land is family’ originates from the words of Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. Rep. Jenkins further elaborates by saying,  “I will betray a spiritual value in selling my family land”. If people strongly believe so, what forces one to sell or lose a ‘family member’ then? 

Through partition sales, eminent domain, predatory development, and property devaluation, thousands of Gullah natives from Nassau County have been institutionally pressured and systematically forced to migrate due to land loss. This is manifested in the drastic reduction of Black population in the county, which has significantly declined from 50% in 1920s to less than 7% today. What could largely explain such reduction, other than mobility and displacement attributed to socioeconomic and environmental challenges, including climate change impacts on Gullah livelihood means such as fishing, farming etc.? When you forcefully take people’s land, you of course take their home!

Not only do the Gullah people in Nassau County earn less income, they also receive less financial gain by selling their land, compared to their white counterparts, all else constant. A recent study found that a home in Jacksonville Metro Area (Nassau County included) is worth 47.2% less in majority (>50%) Black neighborhoods compared to neighborhoods with less than 1% of Black residents (Perry, Rothwell, & Harshbarger, 2018). Such devaluation of Black properties is not unique to Nassau County but highly prevalent across Black ‘insulated’ neighborhoods across the country (MSNBC, 2018). 

What is the ‘Just’ Value of Black Homes?

Land is a depository of wealth for most households. According to National Bureau of Economic Research, homeownership accounts for over 54% of Black household wealth (MSNBC, 2018). Since 1996, home values have been mostly appreciating in Nassau County (See Figure 1 Below). 

Figure 1. Home Value All Homes in Nassau County

Considering the appreciation of property values associated with economic hardship facing Gullah settlers in maintaining and paying their property taxes: Representative Jenkins wanted to know “how could one convince Gullah homeowners that it would be better to keep their property to pass it down to the next generation or lease their property rather than accepting a lump sum payment today?” She further elaborated, “What does the data say a land owner will gain, say over the course of 10-20 years, compared to what would have been lost had they rented or paid a mortgage?”

In an attempt to answer Rep. Jenkins’ questions, I conducted a review of journal and newspaper articles and further administered a public opinion survey on land/homeownership with a sample of 13 Gullah community members. I used data on property values from Zillow and the county property appraiser and tax collector’s websites to conduct a financial cost-benefit analysis with 5 different scenarios (See Below). I Used a discount rate of 3.3%. I assumed property values will appreciate by 5% annually, vividly informed by historical trends in Nassau County (Homevalue.com). I found little or no evidence suggesting that climate change or extreme weather impacts have significantly affected property values. Notwithstanding, I inflated the current flood insurance payment by 100% from the current county average to account for flood insurance market volatility. The analysis did not control for other exogenous factors that could affect increasing trends in property values such as housing market crashes or other impacts associated with changes in policy/investment/development decisions. 

The figure below reveals the net present values (NPVs) for various scenarios by city. This result suggests that homeowners are financially better off keeping their property (Scenario 1) relative to; leasing property and paying rent (Scenario 2), selling property and starting a new mortgage (Scenario 3), selling, renting and investing 50% of sale’s profit (Scenario 4), as well as selling and renting without any investment (Scenario 5) (see Figure 2 below). On average the discounted net benefit/profit of keeping a home is estimated at US$1.4million in Yulee compared to US$1million in Fernandina Beach, US$959,000 in Callahan, and US$926,000 in Hilliard. Even though property values are significantly higher in Fernandina Beach compared to Yulee. Black homeowners in Fernandina Beach earn less income, pay higher taxes, and higher home insurance premiums relative to their Black homeowners in Yulee. Hence, homeowners in Yulee are expected to earn greater value in wealth over 30years period. In aggregate terms, nearly US$218million worth of black wealth is estimated in Fernandina Beach, accounting for 211 homeowners compared to an aggregate wealth of US$170 million in Yulee, which has only 121 homeowners.

In conclusion, the findings suggest that policy-and-lawmakers should formulate serious legislative measures and initiate pro-Gullah development programs not only to preserve the culture and maintain such an important historical community but economically empower members through income-generation programs, to avert the frustration of selling or losing a ‘family member’. To keep a ‘family member’ Gullah land/homeowners are recommended to; write a will, pay taxes, draw a family tree, use affidavit of heirship to claim ownership, buy ownership rights from heirs who have less interest, and keep records of all property expenses (L. Presser, July 15, 2019). How can Black landownership accumulate greater wealth through land use? This is one of the key questions to be answered following this valuation work?

Nfamara K. Dampha is an interdisciplinary Ph.D. candidate with research interest in climate change adaptation, economics and policy with academic and professional background in international development and disaster risk reduction.

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