Honoring Gullah/Geechee Lives and Burial Grounds in Northeast Florida
In mid-August of 2022, I spoke on the phone with Glenda Simmons-Jenkins — a Geechee woman, climate justice activist, and the Gullah/Geechee Nation’s representative for Florida. Rep. Simmons-Jenkins is from O’Neil, a once rural town in Nassau County, Florida that was transformed by a four-lane highway. She talked to me about Gullah/Geechee folks in northeast Florida, a particular struggle to preserve Crandall Cemetery, a sacred burial ground where Gullah/Geechee ancestors were put to rest, and how the law privileges capital and property — from gulf resorts to pulp mill factories — over (Gullah/Geechee) people, ancestors, labor, and spirituality.
In order to talk about the current struggle to protect Crandall Cemetery from Rayonier Incorporated, it’s important to understand why Gullah/Geechee people’s connection to place and space is so significant and how Gullah/Geechee people came to reside in northeast Florida. As a person born and raised in eastern North Carolina, I (incorrectly) assumed Gullah/Geechee communities were concentrated mostly along the sea islands of the Carolinas and Georgia.
Who are the Gullah/Geechee people?
Among other things, the United States can be characterized as a settler nation-state. Some, and eventually all, colonists wished to settle in the territories they erroneously claim(ed) and, with much ongoing violence toward Native folks, form governments and a nation. Understandings of what it means to be Native and to be a settler who benefits from settler-colonialism are nuanced in many settler nations, especially one like the United States. As is necessary for any organizing rooted in liberation, it’s imperative to consider Indigenous folks’ rightful claims for LandBack. It’s also important to acknowledge that anyone can benefit from settler-colonialism and become a capitalist. It’s equally necessary to consider how certain folks’ participation in U.S. settler-colonialism is tenuous because of how their ancestors were introduced into this colonized land.  Black Americans are descendants of Africans who were kidnapped from their ancestral homeland and enslaved in what is now called the United States. They were forcibly moved to and across this land to be the laboring bodies forced to grow and protect the property of white settlers. A majority of Black Americans’ ancestors were introduced to this dispossessed land as captive people, not as people meant to benefit from settler-colonialism by stealing or buying stolen land.
In the face of this abrupt personal, communal, cosmological, and place-based rupture, kidnapped Africans had to make sense of their lives and surroundings, finding ways to maintain and build meaning and connection. As Kyle T. Mays, Saginaw-Anishinaabe and Black scholar of Afro-Indigenous studies, wrote, “Black Indigeneity concerns how people of African descent create belonging in the settler nation-state that is the United States. By belonging, I mean how they connect to land, form community, and how they exist in relationship to the Indigenous people.” As people indigenous to their ancestral homelands in their own right, they continued their practices of Indigeneity and adapted them to a place unfamiliar to them.
The first Gullah/ Geechee folks were a group of African people who were kidnapped from various rice-growing regions in West Africa and enslaved on the sea islands of Georgia and the Carolinas to cultivate labor-intensive crops like rice, indigo, and cotton. Still today, Gullah/Geechee people traditionally reside in the Carolinas, Georgia, and also northeast Florida as a result of migration. Contrary to popular opinion, and my own education and understanding, Gullah and Geechee don’t carry any geographic distinction. The assertion that people from the Carolinas are one thing and people from Georgia, or even outside the four-state region are another, is, as Rep. Simmons-Jenkins corrected me, “not true and causes divisiveness.” The naming itself — “Gullah/Geechee” — refers to language and dialect: Gullah is the language and Geechee is the various dialects that a person can retain even if they don’t speak Gullah. In any circumstance — birthplace, spoken language abilities, etc. — a person who grew up in Gullah/Geechee culture is Gullah.
Gullah/Geechee folks are one of many groups considered to be Black American. It is sharing in the specific cultural, linguistic, spiritual, culinary, and other traditions that makes someone Gullah/Geechee. The Gullah/Geechee people were able to maintain these traditions partly because the planting classes who enslaved them lived on estates on the mainland. Bolstered by physical separation, the Gullah/Geechee people claimed space to practice their West African Indigeneity.
Gullah/Geechee people and culture are alive and visible today, though they are not always acknowledged as such. Bottle trees, sweetgrass baskets, ring shout/praise break, and food items like okra and peanuts are recognizable parts of Gullah/Geechee culture and their ancestral heritage. Like other creations of communities on the margins, many common food items have been claimed by white mainstream culture when, in fact, they’re of Gullah/Geechee heritage. Various initiatives and organizations — like the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and Gullah Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina — are Gullah/Geechee-led efforts to develop community archives to preserve ancestral wisdom and use it to address various issues, such as ecologically destructive behavior along wetlands.
Gullah/Geechee Heritage in Northeast Florida
Many people who know that Gullah/Geechee folks were enslaved and built communities in the sea islands of the Carolinas and Georgia don’t realize that Gullah/Geechee communities are also rooted throughout northeast Florida. Many Gullah/Geechee people who were born and raised in northeast Florida are the descendants of Gullah/Geechee folks who migrated there from the Carolinas and Georgia in the early 20th century. A dynamic StoryMap, created by Rep. Simmons-Jenkins and others through The CREATE Initiative, does an amazing job of explaining this history; the StoryMap moves from Timucua people’s stewardship of the land, up to and during the Spanish invasion and genocide, to the presence of Gullah/Geechee communities in Nassau County, Florida today.
Following the partial abolition of slavery in the 13th Amendment and the Great Depression, respectively, wealthy white businessmen and the federal government advertised work in pulp, pine, and turpentine industries in Florida. Because slavery’s abolition wasn’t a revolutionary upheaval of racial capitalism and white supremacy, Black folks who needed to take care of themselves and their families did not have endless options for paid or waged labor. As a result of all this, some Gullah/Geechee folks relocated to northeast Florida for work. Wealthy white bosses hired laborers and, in return for work, halfheartedly provided quarters and shelters in areas that Gullah/Geechee folks developed into communities, with churches as the hubs. White bosses allowed tenant laborers and their families to have burial plots and develop cemeteries that would be consecrated for burials. With scarce material resources, Gullah/Geechee migrants built community, opened shops, and developed meaningful connections to local waterways, beaches, and land in Nassau County.
Corporate interests drive cultural erasure
Rayonier Incorporated, the company that has sought to develop and defile the land off Amelia Island where the sacred Crandall Cemetery sits, is one corporation with an extensive place in the aforementioned history. “The wealth that Rayonier has amassed over its history in Nassau County has largely depended on the work of Black underpaid laborers,” note the authors of the StoryMap I referenced earlier. While Rayonier praised its so-called “economic development” activities for relocating primarily white, college-educated, upper-class workers to Nassau County, Black workers were limited to back-breaking, seasonal, grueling, and extremely underpaid work in pine harvesting and their pulp mill in Fernandina. Rayonier, with the support of government, has also reeked ecological havoc through landscape alteration and the release of harmful byproducts from their plants. Such ecologically destructive practices feed a cycle of environmental injustice in many Gullah/Geechee communities.
Nearly 100 years later, Rayonier continues to disregard Gullah/Geechee folks in Nassau County and amass more wealth by developing Wildlight New Urban Community, a 54,000-acre-large planned community that’s as much dystopic as it is extractive, ecotourist-friendly, and catering to wealthy vacationers and newcomers. At the time this story was written (February 2023), the development plans did not include any protections for burial grounds. The development plans make no mention of the land’s historical and cultural significance and instead actively pave over sacred sites, like Crandall Cemetery, that members of the Gullah/Geechee community are fighting to protect. As Rep. Simmons-Jenkins said to me, Rayonier’s corporate expansion in its operation of a real estate subsidiary also threatens Gullah/Geechee people’s ability to maintain land ownership. The nearby wealth, with the development project, increases property taxes and the likelihood of gentrification and erasure.
Land-use and development laws that favor corporations, resorts, country and golf clubs, and ecotourism over people deemed quasi-human at best are one explanation for this ongoing cultural destruction. Before Rayonier’s plans for Wildlight, descendants of Gullah/Geechee ancestors who passed away had access to the sacred cemetery. Now that the local government has approved Rayonier’s plans for Wildlight and other developments, the corporation has refused to allow descendants to visit the cemetery and is seeking approval to build over the sacred place. Rayonier is currently in negotiations with the descendants’ legal team as the descendants work to secure access on all burial sites on land that Rayonier owns.
The plans for Wildlight continue the tradition of coalitions of wealthy white landowners and their corporate anchors committing physical or cultural genocide against folks in the region — from Indigenous populations, like Timucua people, to poor and working-class Black and/or Gullah/Geechee folks there. Nassau County is not unique in its displacement of communities of color on the grounds of “economic development and prosperity planning.” Hilton Head Island is another example where coalitions between powerful families, corporate power, and law transformed the island into a vacation hub for wealthy, mostly white tourists. There are numerous other instances of individuals and groups desecrating Gullah/Geechee communities and sacred grounds.
Remember and maintain to resist, survive, and thrive
In the midst of attempted cultural erasure, Gullah/Geechee folks in northeast Florida have maintained rituals of joy and remembrance. Worship by the Sea is one such practice that first took place in October of 2002. During the ceremony, Gullah/Geechee folks gather on American Beach to offer libations to ancestors and conduct other spiritual ceremonies. In daily life, the maintenance of language, textile practices, spiritual rituals, and food cultures, among other things, are testaments to the joy and love Gullah/Geechee folks have maintained amid circumstances in which some people may think neither love nor joy are possible. They remember and maintain so that they can resist, survive, and thrive.
If governmental authorities allow Rayonier to build over Crandall Cemetery and literally erase a site of memory and the bodies of Gullah/Geechee ancestors, a comprehensive memory of Nassau County will not be possible. Wealthy white families whose wealth was/is built off the labor of Black and/or Gullah/Geechee folks will be allowed to forget whose bodies their wealth was/is brutally reaped from and what reparative work is/will be. The spiritual and historical detriment to Gullah/Geechee folks will be tremendous. They must be remembered — as people, as cultural workers, tenant laborers, and descendants of the land. To stand in solidarity with Gullah/Geechee folks defending their homes and various cemeteries throughout Northeast Florida, you can offer monetary support to their new non-profit, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Community Trust Incorporated. The nonprofit will have a full website and various social media accounts soon, so be on the lookout for those. In the meantime, please visit The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Committee of Northeast Florida.
Personal note from the author: I’d like to extend a warm thank you to Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins for allowing me to tell this story, for sharing invaluable information with me, for reviewing the story, and for struggling, along with her community, to protect community ancestors, memory, and working to stay free. I’d also like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Kristopher Smith at LISC Jacksonville for reaching out and inviting me to do something about Gullah/Geechee folks and their burial grounds and land in northeast Florida. Love and victory to the beautiful people fighting to protect sacred places and people.
Janay Draughn was the MDC Dan Broun 2022 Summer Intern. She is from Greenville, North Carolina, and is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English with a concentration in Africana Literature and Culture. She enjoys learning about the South and loves reading imaginative, Black Feminist, and experimental literature. She fiercely believes that orange juice is much better than apple juice. If you find any errors in this article, please reach out to [email protected].
 See pages 2, 3, 7, and 8 of the Introduction in Alaina E. Robert’s book I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land
 See pages 43 and 44 of Kyle T. Mays’ article “A Provocation of The Modes of Black Indigeneity”
 See pages 42 and 43 of May’s article
 See page 268 of Robin D.G. Kelley’s article “The Rest of Us: Rethinking Native and Settler”