As I thought about friends who owned pickup trucks and reflected on books about the economic and political divides in this country, I realized that I was focusing mostly on present-day America. I also knew, however, that divisions had been part of our history for a long time, and that many of us have been little concerned about them. A recent trip to Hilton Head, South Carolina, had me thinking about this.

Hilton Head is a shoe-shaped, resort island twenty miles north of Savannah, Georgia, as the crow flies but not as the driver drives. (Query: Do crows invariably fly straight for twenty miles?) While there I heard much about the rich history of Hilton Head and the surrounding Lowcountry of which it is a part.

I already knew a little about the Lowcountry’s Gullah heritage from visits to Charleston, South Carolina, other coastal islands, from remarkable novels—Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Roots by Alex Haley, and Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall—and a memorable movie directed by Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust, which was re-released a few years ago. All the novels and the movies utilize the striking Gullah story of Igbo (or Ibo) Landing.

I may have known a bit about the Gullahs, but I knew next to nothing about the rest of Hilton Head’s history. While there, I learned that the island in the antebellum era had about twenty plantations growing indigo and Sea Island cotton. The island, however, was an unpleasant place. Because of the prevalence of diseases such as cholera and yellow fever, the plantation owners did not live there. Slaves and overseers (the polite label, I suppose, for slave drivers) were the inhabitants.

The plantations were abandoned during the Civil War as a result of Sherman’s march to the sea, and large-scale farming operations did not return after Lee’s surrender. The few thousand inhabitants that remained on Hilton Head, almost all former slaves with little contact with the mainland, survived on subsistence farming, fishing, and oystering. Through the years, the population declined, and at the end of World War I an estimated 1,500 blacks and a few dozen whites lived on the island.

Change came to Hilton Head Island in the early twentieth century. Rich white men, largely from the north, began buying large tracts of land, which could be had at bargain prices, to be used for hunting preserves. By the 1930s two New York brothers-in-law owned 80% of the island while about 600 blacks still owned small plots on the island.

In addition, a few oyster factories were opened. Workers shucked oysters for canning. The shells were ground up for use as chicken feed and to make roads. Initially, blacks and whites, often Polish immigrants, worked side by side in the factories, but over time the workforce became largely black.

Land ownership again changed after World War II as acreage from the hunting preserves was sold to the newly-formed Hilton Head Company for logging. Hilton Head, however, remained a primitive and isolated place. Electricity first came to the island in 1950 and telephones only a few years later. Two truly transformative changes, however, came in 1956. A bridge to the mainland was opened, and Charles Fraser began developing what would be the Sea Pines community on one end of the island.

(Continued on April 23.)

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