An Island's Vanishing Culture

Louise Wilson's home is a one-story, wooden house set in a clearing of giant pines near one of Daufuskie Island's many unpaved roads. For most of her 72 years, she's lived in the tradition of her ancestors, freed slaves who took control of the tiny barrier island off South Carolina when Gen. William T. Sherman divided some of its plantations. For generations, islanders fished and farmed in a mysterious sanctuary of eucalyptus trees and glistening swamps a world apart from the mainland. Gullah, their West African-English patois, bewildered outsiders.

But time and economic forces are sweeping the last of the old ways from Daufuskie, thought to be a Yemassee Indian word meaning "field of blood." Its cash crops - cotton and oysters - are gone, victims of disease and pollution. As men left for work on the mainland, the post-Civil-War population of mostly 1,200 ex-slaves dwindled. Now, less than a quarter of the island's 181 full-time residents are black. A development boom is likely to complete the exodus. Two posh resorts have opened recently part of a projected 20-year, $500 million transformation that will leave Daufuskie a manicured enclave of golf courses and waterfront homes - not unlike Hilton Head, its neighboring island to the east. Two civil-rights groups, the NAACP and the Christic Institute, charge that the boom is snuffing out a once vital African-American culture.

Developers say they are bringing jobs and dollars to an island so impoverished it was without electricity until the 1950s. To be sure, the real-estate market has meant a windfall for some blacks, allowing them to sell their land for as much as $30,000 an acre. "To most of the people on the island, we're not the bad guys," says Steve Kiser, developer of Melrose, a plantation-motif resort where membership fees start at $50,000. But Wilson and others say the beneficence is not welcome. "We were never poor until they said we were," she says.

Daufuskie's gentrification has spawned tensions among its handful of full-time residents. The island's only governmental body, a loosely knit organization called The Club, is split over the island's future - with most whites supporting cooperation with developers and most blacks opposed. Mushrooming property taxes are a major source of bitterness. Despite the bigger bite, there is still no regular police or fire protection; court convenes weekly on the magistrate's front porch.

Some white landowners with valuable waterfront property are paying less in taxes than blacks with land in the interior. The whites took advantage of a generously applied agricultural exemption in the tax code. Land with a few grazing livestock, or even pine trees for firewood, qualifies for lower rates. Ed Gay, the island's former tax assessor, says the tax breaks were available to everyone, but that the "whites are more educated than the blacks and they understood what we were talking about." South Carolina officials say the assessments are legal. But Henrietta Canty, a Georgia state legislator who owns land on Daufuskie, calls them "covert racism."

More painful to Daufuskie's blacks is the dissolution of the island's distinct culture. Wilson and several other residents are suing Melrose's developers, alleging that part of a golf course was built on top of a centuries-old cemetery. Melrose insists that the boundaries are intact. But a legal victory for the black islanders would do little to save the Daufuskie they once knew. They've seen the future, and it's summed up in the sign that hangs near the golf-course reception center: "Members only."