Queen's plea for islands of her fathers

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DRESSED in gold and bedecked in traditional jewellery, the chieftain of the Gullah nation cuts an imposing figure as she strides through the streets of Washington.

Queen Quet is an emissary of a community which, despite being part of the United States, is forever Africa. And she has come to the American capital in a last-ditch attempt to preserve her people’s unique way of life.

For centuries the Gullah have lived on low-lying coastal islands that form a flimsy bulwark against the Atlantic ocean from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida.

These communities - made up of the descendants of African slaves brought to America by European plantation owners during the 18th and 19th centuries - provide a glimpse of a country and way of life that has long since disappeared in the rest of America. Because so much of their African cultural history has been preserved, they are probably the most authentic African-American communities.

Now, however, the Gullah way of life is under threat from encroaching development in their homelands. And Queen Quet, also known as Marqeutta L Goodwine, is lobbying Congress to grant her people, who number up to 750,000, special status and federal protection. She looks enviously at the privileged status enjoyed by Native Americans on their reservations.

"Gullah people have been able to retain what may be the purest continuation of the African culture of their enslaved ancestors. Indeed, the Gullah community may well be viewed as a living link between Africa and America," said Queen Quet.

Reservation status would safeguard questions surrounding land ownership and allow the Gullah to choose their own path.

"Land is a member of the family," said Queen Quet.

"If the federal government wants to help preserve Gullah culture, it should start by protecting land ownership."

The Gullah can pinpoint the start of their most recent troubles. In the 1950s bridges began to be built from the mainland to the outlying sea islands. With easier access, the low country became a prime target for property developers.

Each new development helped destroy traditional Gullah hunting and fishing grounds, while the destruction of the local sweet grass and long-leaf pine trees threatened the survival of traditional Gullah arts and crafts that depend on them. Cemeteries too often became part of new developments.

The rapid development increased the potential value of neighbouring parcels of land still owned by Gullahs. And, since real estate taxes were set according to the potential value of the land, many Gullah, clinging to their traditional ways, were unable to afford them and were forced to sell off their holdings.

The example of Hilton Head island off the Carolina coast offers a glimpse of the future the Gullah fear. In 1940 the island had a population of just over 1,000 people, the vast majority of whom were descended from freedmen who had acquired the land after the civil war.

Today Hilton Head island is home to more than 30,000 people and is visited by more than 1.5 million tourists a year. There are more than 20 golf courses on the island, including four ranked among the best 100 in America. The island is dotted with what developers call "private coastal communities". What used to be a haven of African culture has become a tourist paradise.

Queen Quet said: "We feel there should be protection and we’re calling on the government to give us reservation rights. We need to go to the government because at local and state levels they haven’t made it a priority. They’re looking at the tax revenues they can get from tourists who play golf."

The Gullah, who are also known as the Geechee in some parts of the South, are descended from slaves specifically brought from West Africa (now Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal) because of their familiarity with farming rice and cotton.

Even after the Civil War, when slaves were emancipated, comparatively few Gullah moved to northern cities. The harsh, malarial climate on the islands meant that few whites chose to live there and a distinctive black African culture emerged that remained comparatively undisturbed until after the Second World War.

The local language is derived from a blend of a dozen different African dialects mixed in with Elizabethan English. Large parts of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories draw heavily on Gullah language and folklore.

The Gullah’s handcrafted baskets and other craftwork also retain their African roots, while their diet of shrimp, okra and collard beans is the classic taste of the old, disappearing, black South.

William S Pollitzer, professor emeritus of anatomy and anthropology at the University of North Carolina, believes the importance of the Gullah should not be understated.

"The Gullah population reflects a more African influence in behaviour, beliefs, and self-expression than any other long-established American population," he said.

Commenting on Queen Quet’s efforts to secure federal protection, Khalil Osiris, a consultant to the Gullah’s lobbying campaign, said: "We will keep this campaign alive."

He added that as long as "this government talks about the liberation of people who are oppressed internationally, then we challenge the government to look internally and confront its negligence".