The Secret Lives of Parks

Before the Gate

Episode Summary

On the remote Sea Islands of South Carolina, golf courses and gated developments are changing the rural character of some of the first African American-owned lands in the country. The Gullah/Geechee, direct descendants of the enslaved people who once worked the area’s plantations, are now fighting a new threat to their land and culture, which are central to the history of the nearby Reconstruction Era National Historical Site.

Episode Notes

On the remote Sea Islands of South Carolina, golf courses and gated developments are changing the rural character of some of the first African American-owned lands in the country.

The Gullah/Geechee are the direct descendants of the enslaved people who once worked on the area's rice, cotton and indigo plantations; now, the island that serves as the epicenter of their culture is at risk from a new development threat. The Gullah/Geechee and their lands played a critical role at a turning point in the Civil War and are a central part of the history of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Site.

In this episode, host Jennifer Errick travels with her colleague, NPCA Field Representative Joshua Jenkins, a South Carolina native, to speak with Queen Quet, chieftess and head of state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation; Ranger Katherine Freeman and Chief of Interpretation Chris Barr of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Site; and Grant McClure, south coast project manager for the Coastal Conservation League.

Correction: Queen Quet was elected to her position as chieftess and head of state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation in 2000, not 2002 as reported in the story. NPCA regrets the error.

Learn more about the coalition to protect Saint Helena Island at

Learn more about the Gullah/Geechee Nation at Follow Queen Quet on Facebook at and on TikTok at

Read a 2023 NPR story on this issue at

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America’s national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.

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Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 31
Before the Gate

Jennifer Errick: On the remote coastal islands of rural South Carolina, a unique culture formed from the tight-knit plantation communities that developed over centuries of slavery. 

Now the direct descendants of these enslaved people, the Gullah/Geechee, are working to save their rural communities as gated developments threaten some of the country's first African American-owned lands and a nearby national park site. 

I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.


From South Carolina to Florida, rivers and creeks crisscross the marshy coastline separating the land into more than a hundred curving islands, like an elaborate mosaic of water and soil. This lush archipelago is known as the Sea Islands. 

Near the town of Beaufort, South Carolina, these islands have a charmingly rural character. Tractors are a common site along the winding country roads. Stands of oak trees droop with Spanish moss seemingly everywhere you look and tufts of marsh grasses line the undeveloped shores. The area has a strong marine culture. The picturesque bays are dotted with boats and locals catch much of the seafood served in area restaurants and roadside cafes, from flounder and trout to oysters and shrimp.

But for centuries, slavery was the backbone of the region's economy. Nearby Charleston, South Carolina, operated one of the largest, most active ports in the North Atlantic slave trade. Starting in the 1500s, enslaved Africans worked the area, rice, cotton, and indigo plantations.

The Sea Islands were so remote — and in the summer, so hot, humid, and buggy — that white plantation owners would retreat to their resort homes for extended periods of time. Enslaved workers lived together in close quarters with far less oversight from these white slaveholders than in other parts of the country. This kinship allowed people to maintain their West African and Central African traditions during slavery, while developing a unique language and set of customs that combined influences from African, Indigenous and European American traditions. 

These people became known as the Gullah/Geechee. The Sea Islands near Beaufort, South Carolina are especially significant to their history and home to the largest concentration of Gullah/Geechee people in the world today.

Queen Quet: We are blessed by God to be who we are. That's what the word "Gullah" means — people blessed by God.

Jennifer Errick: That's Queen Quet, Chieftess and head of state of the Gullah/Geechee nation. She met with my colleague, NPCA Field Representative Joshua Jenkins, and me this past winter at a local library near her home on St. Helena Island.

Queen Quet: Gullah/Geechee culture is inextricably tied to the land. Without the land and without these waterways, our culture doesn't exist. There's many Gullah/Geechees. I've seen them. I've traveled to all 50 states now. I usually find at least one or two out there someplace and wherever I find Gullah/Geechees, the further away from home they are, the more they feel distressed that they lost something, they left something behind, and most times they know the land is gone that their family had had. So my thing is you can live anywhere else, but you won't be able to retain the culture anywhere else. God allowed this culture to literally grow up out of the soil of the Sea Islands.

Jennifer Errick: Queen Quet, also known as Marquetta Goodwine, has been advocating for the Gullah/Geechee people since long before she was elected to her role as queen mother in 2002. In 1996, she founded the Gullah/Geechee Sea Islands Coalition, which remains one of the most important organizations advocating on behalf of her people and their lands. She remembers what it was like growing up on St. Helena Island and being perceived as different, even though most of her community had the same language and traditions that she did.

Queen Quet: My family has never been ashamed of our culture, but I went to school with people who were beaten into being ashamed of our culture and especially our language. I went to school here, St. Helena School, and here we had teachers who were not Gullah/Geechee. They harmed a lot of people where people have low self-esteem to this day, never left to do anything else, and it was all as a result of what those teachers did and what some of their family members did because they said to us, and this is a quote, "You will never get anywhere speaking like that." End quote.

Growing up in that atmosphere and then growing out of that atmosphere, one might say, I could step out of it and wonder, "Well, why are the teachers beating on the other kids? Everybody around here talks like that. Why are they getting beaten for it?" You lose your language if you don't use your language. 

And so understanding that early, I find out now my classmates will run into me now and they will remind me that I used to advocate for them even when we were in school. I don't want anybody behind us to be ashamed of our culture. Like so many people in my generation older than me were taught that. So there's a lot of young people that write me every day, they hit me up on social media daily, happy to hear somebody that sound like their grandma.

Jennifer Errick: The reason my colleague Joshua has been traveling to South Carolina for the past year and half to meet with Queen Quet and other partners in the region is to respond to a new threat, a gated community with a golf course proposed on land immediately adjacent to St. Helena Island. 

The developer, an independent investor from Boston named Elvio Tropeano, purchased a 503-acre tract of land known as Pine Island in 2023 with the intention of creating the private facility. But in 1999, Queen Quet helped to establish special zoning regulations known as a Cultural Protection Overlay that prohibits golf courses and gated communities in the county in an effort to prevent gentrification and the loss of Gullah/Geechee culture. Here's Joshua reflecting on the situation by phone.

Joshua Jenkins: I first caught wind of the issue in December of 2022. A colleague in the Southeast region alerted us to the fact that there was a development threat within the acquisitional boundary of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park.

Jennifer Errick: Joshua explains that the land is significant to the history of this nearby national park site and serves as an important part of its storytelling and interpretation. A founder of the Penn School, one of the first public schools for freedmen and women in the South, lived on Pine Island in the 1800s.

Joshua Jenkins: And because of Beaufort County's unique place in Reconstruction history, the Penn School is one of those shining examples. And so, to have this space where cofounder of the school lived and set up residence while she was in Beaufort County on St. Helena is a very, very important piece of Reconstruction history.

Jennifer Errick: Tropeano, the developer, is currently taking legal action to challenge the validity of the Cultural Protection Overlay or CPO. At the time when Joshua and I met with Queen Quet in February 2024, the case was in pre-mediation, and Queen Quet isn't hopeful about that process.

Queen Quet: Mediation means we have to agree. We're not going to ever agree to you having a golf course in a gated area on any part of St. Helena. That's not going to happen. So why do it? It makes no sense.

Jennifer Errick: Tropeano hasn't responded to NPCA's requests for an interview as of press time. However, in an August 2023 story by Victoria Hansen of National Public Radio, Tropeano said that his development would create public access to an area with historic significance and that he wants the proposed golf course to raise money and generate resources for the Gullah/Geechee people. We'll include a link to the story in the show notes. Queen Quet, however, feels differently.

Queen Quet: They all do the same thing. They try to manipulate behind the scenes first and then figure they can get it done and then they're like, "We can't do it like that. This is what you have to do. Here's the procedure. Here's the planning office. Here's the planning commission. Here's the county council." Then when they do that, they figure, "Well, maybe we can pick off community members so that if we buy off somebody, they'll come and say they're on our side." That didn't work.

Now after, like you say, a whole year, a year of so many meetings, I cannot count now with the planning commission, Beaufort County Council, rallies, everything, Beaufort County upheld and strengthened the CPO.

Joshua Jenkins: Strengthened?

Queen Quet: Strengthened it. Okay. So now what is your problem? What part can't you understand, that this county wants to keep some places rural? This county is dedicated to their own comprehensive plan to protect Gullah/Geechee culture and the natural environment. That's not difficult.

Jennifer Errick: I asked Queen Quet why this area is so significant to the Gullah/Geechee, and she walks me through decades of history as she answers.

Queen Quet: St. Helena Island is significant because of a number of factors that caused it to be the epicenter of Gullah/Geechee culture. Now, the first thing is that we didn't purchase land after the Civil War. Gullah/Geechee landowners became landowners en masse during the U.S. Civil War. In 1862, there were a number of different land auctions. So, in my family, on both sides of my family, they participated in these auctions. 

And so, during 1862, this war is happening. But now we go from being called slaves to being called contraband, from being chattel ourselves to being able to purchase land, the same land that their blood, sweat and tears was already in, that they had been working for free for somebody else to benefit from financially. So now when we reached the point of the Emancipation Proclamation, this is the first place where it's ever read. And then there was a big celebration on St. Helena the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was read.

Jennifer Errick: According to Queen Quet, when freedmen and women became owners of these lands, it allowed families torn apart by slavery to reunite in the same places where they had been living and farming for generations.

Queen Quet: Our ancestors didn't want to leave this place, because now, during this time of upheaval, we feel that everybody's going to find their way home. So sure enough, there are stories of people who had been sold inland in South Carolina. They made it back to this coast, they made it back on the island, they made it back to their families. And fortunately, now they were no longer enslaved. They could work that land and build their homes, grow their food for themselves and their families.

Jennifer Errick: For decades after Emancipation, these farmers were largely self-sufficient. But during the 20th century, the community began to change in noticeable ways.

Queen Quet: It's only now that you have multi-generations where people moved off or they never had children, their land got auctioned off and new people came in. Those people want to bring their lifestyles to us instead of learning our lifestyle here, which is communal. 

Even during enslavement, you had hundreds of thousands of Africans together living with Indigenous — the Cusabo, the Yamassee, the Edisto — living together in a more harmonious environment than I've learned about in the history of other areas of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. So, it starts from that seed of that amalgamation of culture on St. Helena establishing building patterns, spiritual patterns, foodways, traditions of how to live in balance now with this environment that was sustained for all of this time, over centuries now it's been sustained. So, it's only now starting into the latter 1900s, then it became a threat. The outsiders became a threat now that we didn't have before.

Jennifer Errick: In the decades that you've been advocating for the Gullah/Geechee, can you see a difference in the level of threat, specifically development threat? Because it seems like there's this ongoing pressure now from the outside that people want to come in and be a part of this.

Queen Quet: Right. Well, it's interesting. It'd be one thing if people want to come in and be a part of who we are. They want to come in and displace who we are. They want to come in and do the same thing the missionaries attempted to do, instead of appreciating who we are. 

When I read through people's journals, whether those are enslavers and boat captains or I read missionary journals, they all have the same racist tone, and they all feel that somehow their European behavior, their culture is the culture. Like that should be everybody's way to speak, everybody's way to live, everybody's way to go to church, everything. And that is not true.

Now what happens is people who have never appreciated or respected people of African descent anyway, never appreciated or respected Indigenous people or cultures anyway, are the ones who just want to escape the cities and they want this life in paradise. We live in it, on the Sea Islands, on the coast. So now they want to build things, because America's way is about commodifying everything, which is what they did with our ancestors. So, if we can come in and build a hotel, we can build a resort, we can build these houses, condominiums, we can commodify those, we can sell those, and we can live right on the shoreline. Well then that damages the shoreline, that damages the culture. Because that's not our traditional way.

[music break]

Jennifer Errick: You may be wondering how enslaved people in this region were able to purchase their lands from the white plantation class before slavery had even been abolished. Part of the remarkable story of the Gullah/Geechee people is their key role at a turning point in the history of the Civil War. 

This area is so significant as the birthplace of the Reconstruction era, as Joshua mentioned earlier, there is an entire national park site here devoted to this very history.

Katherine Freeman: Welcome to Beaufort, South Carolina.

Jennifer Errick: Katherine Freeman is a ranger and park guide for the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park with four locations in downtown Beaufort, St. Helena Island and nearby Port Royal, South Carolina. Ranger Freeman takes a small group of us on a walking tour of downtown Beaufort on a sunny afternoon in late February. She starts by gathering us in the lobby of the visitor center and gesturing toward a large map of the area. She points toward Charleston Harbor just north of Beaufort, where shots were first fired in 1861 at the start of the Civil War — and she reminds us that things hadn't gone too well for the North during those first few months of fighting.

Katherine Freeman: Now, by the fall of 1861, basically the Union wasn't doing so hot, didn't actually win anything by that time, and they were like, "Well, the Confederates are really stuck in at Charleston. Where can we go to have a refueling depot if we're going to one, maintain a blockade here on the Charleston Harbor and have a refueling depot for our ships?" 

Well, it turns out that the Port Royal Sound is the deepest natural sound south of Charleston. So it made a lot of sense if they could take that sound. And so they actually brought 77 ships down November 7th of 1861, and they did a circle maneuver right in these forts and just kept pummeling them. 

Turns out the Confederates had four hours of that before they said, "Yep, I'm done." And they left.

Jennifer Errick: While the Confederates had the upper hand at that point in the war, they hadn't built up adequate defenses at these ports, and they wanted to prioritize their military power to defend other areas. The city of Beaufort and its nearby Sea Islands soon fell under the control of the Union Army.

Katherine Freeman: That left the Union Army able to land on Hilton Head Island and essentially this area, the Sea Islands, were no longer protected from the Union. However, the white plantation owner class, they were also very afraid of a slave revolt. So, they left that week of November 7th in what's known as the Great Skedaddle.

Jennifer Errick: This mass retreat of white slaveholders from Beaufort meant that entire African American communities were suddenly free — in practice, at least, if not yet on paper.

Katherine Freeman: All the white plantation class left. Well, that left 10,000 African Americans asking, "What next?" So, they actually wrote up to President Lincoln and said, "We need help. We need to know what to do." And at this time too, you have a lot of the generals going up, writing up to their friends in the North saying, "Hey, please send clothes down, money down and also abolitionists because we need some help with this situation." 

And so, this is actually how we get a lot of teachers who came down here. They started the Penn School over on St. Helena Island.

Jennifer Errick: Founded in 1862, the Penn School is now jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Penn School nonprofit organization. One of the founders, as Joshua mentioned earlier, lived on Pine Island, the land that is under threat of development today. And formal education was just the first of several major civil rights developments in the area after the Great Skedaddle.

Katherine Freeman: So, the cotton from 1861 starts to grow and the Union says, "Wow, it'd be great if we could sell that and make some money. Well, we don't know how to pick it though." So they went to the African Americans and said, "Will you pick it?" I can tell you they said yes. But what did they request in return? Money. So now we have labor reform here. We have people working for wages for the first time.

Jennifer Errick: It turns out those wages would soon come in handy. Ranger Freeman leads our tour to a historic house in downtown Beaufort where white town leaders had once voted to join the secessionist movement in support of slavery. But in 1863, the same home would allow freedmen and women to own their first lands.

Katherine Freeman: In 1863, we actually have tax auctions happening where the land of the rich plantation class when they left, is now being sold by the Union. Well, this house is important because it became the tax auction house. People who were previously enslaved would've walked up these steps that started this idea of secession, and they could have purchased land for the first time.

Jennifer Errick: As she describes this historic moment in 1863, Ranger Freeman references a famous civic leader from the area named Robert Smalls. Smalls had been born into slavery, and during the Civil War, after running supplies for the Confederate Army, he commandeered a confederate boat and used it to free his family and the families of other enslaved crew members. He would go on to become one of South Carolina's first African American elected officials in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Katherine Freeman: This is where Robert Smalls came to purchase his enslaver's home, the McKee family house, which is now the Robert Smalls House. The people who still own land on St. Helena Island, they are legacy of the tax auctions here because they're descendants of those that were enslaved, and they've been able to hold onto that land all this time and still farm it. And that's because they were able to have tax auctions here in this house, believe it or not.

Jennifer Errick: Chris Barr, the chief of interpretation at Reconstruction Era National Historical Park, takes this concept of ownership one step further.

Chris Barr: If we think about Reconstruction having these different dimensions, if you're thinking about the process of emancipation, all these different dimensions reflect Americans' world views, political views, if you want to use that phrase. So, Southerners going back to Thomas Jefferson always viewed, well, land is power. You're nobody unless you own something. Northeasterners were like, well, education is power. The new Republican Party, they're looking at, well, wages is power. So, what's happening here is this experiment at all of those things to see what sticks.

Jennifer Errick: This period of building new institutions for freedmen and women in Beaufort after Emancipation is sometimes called The Port Royal Experiment. But not long after the rush of land auctions in the county, this power slowly began to erode.

Chris Barr: Over the years, starting really in the early 1870s, this land ownership started to whittle away. So, in 1873, there was this massive economic recession. As part of that the Freedman's Bank collapsed. And so, you start to see little cracks in this land ownership issue. Maybe somebody doesn't have the money now to pay their property taxes in 1874, '75, so then they lose their land. Maybe some northerner or maybe one of the pre-war white landowners comes back, they're able to buy just little bits and pieces here and there. And Hilton Head, by the way, is a huge part of this.

Jennifer Errick: Nearby Hilton Head is widely viewed as the Sea Island that has undergone the most radical development over the past 70 years. Once a majority Black community with a rural culture, the area now boasts gated resorts, golf courses and high-end shopping centers and is sometimes referred to as “the Hamptons of the South."

According to the latest census data, the population today is more than 75% white and only about 7% African American. So those who value the rural character of St. Helena Island and the survival of the Gullah/Geechee culture especially, view Hilton Head as a cautionary tale, and the island's gentrification was a motivating factor in the push to create the Cultural Protection Overlay on St. Helena. Though the issue is much more widespread, as Ranger Barr explains.

Chris Barr: You start to see this slow erosion, this slow whittling away, but it really didn't accelerate until the 20th century. And the 20th century, there's a couple of things that happen. They start to build bridges coming out onto the islands, which makes it easier for people to get out here. People start moving down. All it takes is one person buying up a chunk of property on say, Hilton Head, and doing something with it, and then the property values of everything else starts skyrocketing. Around the same time, the air conditioner gets invented. During the summer, this is not a super pleasant place to be, and so you start making it where it is a pleasant place to be. And the post World War II boom, the car culture, people are going on vacation, we're going to the beach, doing all this kind of stuff. And so that's really when we start to see a lot of this land ownership start to accelerate.

Jennifer Errick: The day after my walking tour of downtown Beaufort, I get a glimpse of what this erosion of culture and black land ownership looks like on the Sea Islands. That morning, Joshua and I meet with Grant McClure, South Coast project manager for the Coastal Conservation League, one of the nonprofit organizations that has been actively involved in the coalition to protect St. Helena from development threats. 

We grab cups of coffee at a cafe in town, and Grant offers to drive us around the island. Along the way, he shares many of his thoughts on the state of the current threat.

[in car]

So this person should have known when he bought the land?

Grant McClure: Yes, and they would've done their due diligence. They knew all along that this restriction was in place. But I think they just thought that they could get it through anyways. I think they underestimated the community in a lot of ways.

Jennifer Errick: Grant drives us from the northern part of the island, where we get to look at the 503 acres Tropeano is suing to develop, down to the southern tip of St. Helena, home to a military fort built in 1898 during the Spanish American War.

[in car]

Are we still on St. Helena?

Grant McClure: Yes.

Jennifer Errick: Really?

Grant McClure: Yes.

Jennifer Errick: So it is a big island.

Grant McClure: This is the very southern tip of St. Helena that we're on now.

Jennifer Errick: I get to see many of the island’s winding back roads with views of modest country homes, fields of tomato crops and expansive canopies of oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. We frequently come across green lawn signs made by the Protect St. Helena Coalition that read, "No Gates, No Golf." 

Grant shares pieces of the island's history and stories of his advocacy work as he drives.

[in car]

So this isn't a hypothetical threat. This is something that's transformed the islands.

Grant McClure: Yeah, and I think one of the concerns is that it's not... This guy takes it very personally, but it's not just about his project. It's like, if you allow this one exception, then there's going to be a line... There's a lot of land on St. Helena, it's pretty big. You can imagine a couple of farmers sell their land off and there could be several golf courses popping up. And you've got to deal with things like increased property taxes when you've got these higher end developments coming in and just getting... The tax burden is already hard on people now.

Jennifer Errick: One of our main stops is to a place we won't actually be able to see.

[in car]

So I've seen signs for the place we're going. It's called Dataw. Am I saying that right?

Grant McClure: Yes. Dataw.

Jennifer Errick: Dataw.

Grant McClure: It was developed right before they put the CPO in place. 1999 was when they first adopted the CPO, and it was one of the projects that was the impetus for the folks on St. Helena to put this restriction on these communities in place.

Jennifer Errick: Unlike Hilton Head, which is an island made up of private resorts and nearby Bluffton, which has gated housing communities within it, Dataw is entirely gated. Meaning the whole island is only accessible to members and their guests. Dataw is also extremely similar to Pine Island in that it's considered part of St. Helena Island even though it is separated from the main landmass by a small river. A free promotional guide I grabbed at the airport bills Dataw as "the hidden gem of South Carolina and one of the finest master planned communities in the Southeast." 

As Grant drives us down the only access road into Dataw, he explains one of the biggest objections the Gullah/Geechee people have raised with these kinds of restricted communities.

Grant McClure: They are by nature exclusive. We're not going to be able to get in today, but my understanding is that there is actually some burial grounds out on Dataw, and it's humiliating to have to ask to get this pass to go see your dead relative that you just want to pay a visit.

Jennifer Errick: As we arrive on the island, I'm not sure what I had been expecting, but I hadn't imagined we'd be stopped by an entrance gate, the kind with a booth and one of those reflective arms that swings up and down. It looks like something you'd find at a parking garage or a highway toll area.

Grant McClure: I'll just tell the guy that we took a wrong turn and see if he'll let us through and then back out. 

Joshua Jenkins: Honestly, on a personal level, I don't want to sit here and say I have an issue with private property, but I do have a personal aversion to the privatization of such beautiful landscapes, especially as someone who just likes to stop my car and likes to end somewhere and look or just experience something and to not even be able to do something as simple as that. Not to mention to not even be able to visit your loved ones who are buried here or to continue traditional lifeways and subsistence fishing and things like that in these spaces, it just... Well, yeah, there's a conflict there for me.

Jennifer Errick: We wait in a line of cars at the checkpoint across from a residential looking road with a few trees in the distance. There's not much to see here, which I guess is the whole point. Any sense of what Dataw is really like sits well beyond the bend in the road and out of view.

Grant McClure: Hello? Hey, I took a wrong turn.

Jennifer Errick: The man checking ID cards at the gate is friendly when Grant tells him we've made a wrong turn.

Grant McClure: What's that?

Man at gate: I took a wrong turn for a whole year once.

Jennifer Errick: "I made a wrong turn for a whole year once," he jokes, and we all have an awkward laugh. Then we make a U-turn, and we leave as quickly as we arrived. It's a simple polite exchange, but I can't help feeling uncomfortable too. I mean, who made him the gatekeeper here?

[music break]

My colleague Joshua Jenkins grew up in South Carolina in the Columbia area, a couple of hours north of Beaufort. As a child, he had a friend with a summer home on one of the Sea Islands, and he took a few school trips to the Charleston area, all of which gave him an appreciation for the beauty of the coast. But working with the coalition this past year and a half, he tells me, is when he really began to appreciate the deep history at risk here.

Joshua Jenkins: This was an opportunity for me to learn about St. Helena Island, its centrality to Gullah/Geechee people, very much thought of as the heartbeat of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. It was my introduction to the threats that resort-style development and golf courses specifically pose to the maintenance of Gullah/Geechee lifeways. It was my introduction to the idea that this is not the first time that spaces like St. Helena have faced development threats and that there is an understanding that it won't be the last either.

Jennifer Errick: In the four days I spend in South Carolina, Joshua and I get to visit Pine Island together twice. And both times we walk along a small access path with an expansive view of the marsh. 

Grant tells us there was once a historic town here, and there may still be artifacts on the property, though to my eye, it appears completely undeveloped. Joshua tells me about a study the National Park Service conducted in 2005 prior to establishing the Gullah/Geechee National Heritage Corridor, a public-private partnership that Queen Quet was instrumental in helping to create. The corridor recognizes 12,000 square miles of the coast as nationally significant lands, supporting dozens of important cultural sites.

Joshua Jenkins: In this study, it explicitly says the greatest threat to Gullah/Geechee culture, heritage, communities, lifeways is the development of resort style gated private communities and golf courses. 

I think when you have a people whose culture is defined and rooted in place in land, when you say as an example, develop things or change land uses that serve to disconnect the people from their place, it's an existential threat to the people themselves. Gullah/Geechee people are defined by the region that they're from, that they're connected to. Their forms of recreation, their lifeways, professions, the ways they are in living are connected to a place. 

And so, when you begin to break up these islands and partition them off into places where you can only access them if you own a house there or if you're a guest, then you begin to dissolve the root of the culture and the people itself. So, that is the inherent existential threat.

Jennifer Errick: Thinking about this work, Joshua steps back and shares some of the bigger reasons he finds it so important, beyond fighting the imminent threat at hand.

Joshua Jenkins: I see this issue as a really, really good way to further the shift in conservation and environmental work that is pushing us to not think about people and the land as separate — to not think about people and non-human beings as separate, but as beings that work and live and thrive in concert with each other. 

There is a type of old-school environmentalist that thinks people are the worst thing that's ever happened to this planet, but we're here. We're not going anywhere. And in many ways, whether it be stories about the Gullah/Geechee people or if we're talking about Native American traditional ecological knowledge, we have shaped and stewarded numerous landscapes. 

And I think that's the core of the Gullah/Geechee. The land is them, and they are very much the land, and they have stewarded and shaped these islands to meet their needs and have done a fantastic job of it. And I think this is a beautiful case study for us to talk about as environmentalists and conservationists, not the antagonistic relationship, but the concert, the interconnectedness that we have with our natural environments, with our landscapes.

[music break]

Jennifer Errick: As of June 2024, litigation filed by Elvio Tropeano, the private developer, is still active and the proposal for a gated community remains a threat on Pine Island. Back at the library on St. Helena Island, Queen Quet tells Joshua and me about how she first got involved in helping to create the Cultural Protection Overlay or CPO that this developer is now challenging. It started at a community meeting she attended more than 25 years ago.

Queen Quet: In 1998, I remember the elders contacting me. At that time, I was splitting my time between New York and St. Helena, New York and St. Helena, back and forth. And, "No, no, we need you here because meeting coming up and the people downtown, they're trying to change the law. They're trying to put us out." So I said, "What? Put we out of where? What you talking about? I will be there." 

So, we drove down. So, I thought I'm coming to the meeting, I didn't know I'm speaking at the meeting. And we get to Beaufort County, and this is when we are pushing Beaufort County at that point to assist in protecting St. Helena Island in particular. So, this was the start of getting the Cultural Protection Overlay District established. Everybody in front of me spoke like I'm talking now, and this room was full packed, pouring out in the hallway. So, when I got there, I'm like, "Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me." People would look back and they'd see who it was, "Let her in here. Move, move, move. Let her in, let her in!" 

So, I've heard all these people ahead of us and one person got up there, white guy, and basically was threatening the county that if they passed this law, they can sue and this and that. That's when I saw — wow, how can I put this for the radio? — the arrogance and the audacity, that they would dare to tell a county that if you create a overlay district for this island that they're not from, that they're going to sue you? On what basis?

So, I got up there and I got up there and I started speaking in Gullah. Everybody sat up straight and I was like, [speaks in Gullah]. And I said, yeah, there's a whole bunch of people who lived in a gated area called Dataw now. And I had to let them know, "No, my family was from there before the gate, and we don't need any of that here." 

By the time I switched to English, they were like, "Oh." We started getting attention now for what it is this community wants.

Jennifer Errick: Thanks to community efforts like these, St. Helena Island continues to have thriving communities of Gullah/Geechee people, and it remains mostly rural. Queen Quet offers a detail I find fascinating on how connected they remain to their land.

Queen Quet: St. Helena, unlike many other Sea Islands, you can say to one of us a surname, and we can tell you exactly where that family lives. And I have a map now from 1865 that shows that I'm right.

Jennifer Errick: She ends our conversation with a metaphor.

Queen Quet: As I always say to people, you must take care of the root for heal the tree. Roots are never on the top of the ground. The strongest are way down deep where you might not see them. And it takes a lot of tools to dig in. But I think that a lot of people have come to help grab a tool and help say, We are going to keep this Gullah/Geechee tree standing in the epicenter of Gullah/Geechee culture, St. Helena.

Jennifer Errick: As Joshua and I get ready to leave, Queen Quet asks us to join her outside the library in a small courtyard just past the back door.

Queen Quet: Now so that they don't kick me out the library permanently, you want to go outside? I'm going to do something real quick for you.

Jennifer Errick: Oh, I would love that.


I'm stunned by what happens next. And for me, it captures a sense of hope and beauty. Some of the big reasons why we're here.

Queen Quet: So whenever I think about these daily battles and thing like that with all the rest of people coming in for try for change who we be, all I hear in the background, the ancestors saying, [sings:]

Hold on, just a little while longer. Hold on. Just a little while longer. Hold on. Just a little while longer. Everything going to be be all right. Fight on. Just a little while longer. Fight on. Just a little while longer. Fight on. Just a little while longer. Everything going to be all right. Everything going to be all right, Gullah/Geechees, everything going to be all right.

[end theme]

Jennifer Errick: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. 

Episode 31, Before the Gate, was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, and Linda Coutant. 

Original theme music by Chad Fischer. 

Special thanks to the Coastal Conservation League for all of their assistance. I think I probably owe you gas money. Thanks also to Deloris Pringle of the Penn Center and Djuanna Brockington of the Gullah/Geechee National Heritage Corridor.

Learn more about the Coalition to Protect St. Helena at 

Learn more about the Gullah/Geechee nation at 

Learn more about this podcast at

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. 

And we're proud of it too. 

You can join the fight to preserve our national parks. Learn more and join us at

Queen Quet: I thought that would enhance the show just a little.

Joshua Jenkins: I think that's brilliant.

Jennifer Errick: That was unbelievable. You have an incredible voice.

Queen Quet: Yes. And she was in the zone. She was in the zone.

Jennifer Errick: I was feeling that.

Queen Quet: She was feeling it.

Jennifer Errick: I was feeling that.

Queen Quet: She was like, "Yes, yes, yes." Love it. Love it.