Exploring the Gullah culture on the Cainhoy peninsula
Systemic gentrification’s effects on Charleston are possibly most visible downtown. As a 2011 Post and Courier article revealed, the racial makeup of the peninsula shifted from a two-thirds African-American majority in 1980, to a two-thirds white majority in 2010.
Despite the encroaching residential growth and increasing presence of new businesses, the Cainhoy-Huger area’s rural and remote make-up has remained largely untouched, thus far.
“For the most part, development has taken place, but I think a lot of the culture is still intact,” said lifelong Cainhoy area resident Fred Lincoln.
The close-knit and quiet Jack Primus community that Lincoln calls home functions thanks to the self-sufficiency of the residents. Lincoln’s neck of the woods is heavily comprised of interlocking backroads and the bundled houses of longtime residents.
“We still have a community that’s not a transit type community,” Lincoln described. “Folks, for generations and generations, they don’t leave, they don’t travel or find some other place to live, unless they go off to school. And, as soon as they retire or something, everybody comes back home.”
When describing the area’s cultural identity, Lincoln mentions the Keith School Museum, a community center that memorializes the small school house where so many residents gained an education, the slave cemetery on Cainhoy Plantation, the diet, and the common processions after a member of the community passes away.
“We still eat after a funeral. The day of the death of a person, until that person is buried, hundreds of people come visit the home for those five to seven days,” Lincoln described. “We will come and have cooking in the yard. People will bring food to the house until the day of the funeral.”
“[The culture] keeps our community knitted together, because they have similar traits, the same heritage and identity,” he said.
Herb Frazier, author of “Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories of Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, Daniel Island and St. Thomas Island” and “We Are Charleston,” sees several parallels between the Cainhoy region’s way of life and the historic Gullah culture that developed in the Lowcountry.
“I would think Jack Primus—the way that community is clustered together in family units—that is very distinct,” he said. “It is reminiscent of some of the communities I’ve seen in West Africa.”
Frazier added that the gardens outside of homes illustrates another Gullah trait, how people live off of the land.
“Families had large gardens or small farms and everyone was required to pitch in and do their respective chores in the farm and around the house,” he said.
According to Frazier’s outsider perspective, factors that come along with land ownership have turned these into cultural aspects.
“The necessity, the economic viability of living in a small community, coupled with the sense of security makes that attractive for people,” he said.
Development in the Cainhoy-Huger area has drawn fear over the alterations it may cause to way-of-life and culture. In December, Huger residents publicly met with DonMar Sand Mines representatives at the historic Keith School Museum to show their discontent with a proposed sand mine expansion.
“We’re talking about an impact upon the lives of people going generationally,” Edward Beaufort Cutner told the DonMar consultants in the meeting. “We own this. We own this, not just because we’ve got the deed to it, but we own this because our great grandparents were slaves.”
As is reported at a rate that seems weekly, the Clements Ferry area that links Daniel Island to Cainhoy and Huger is experiencing large amounts of development. City of Charleston Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability Director Jacob Lindsey informed The Daniel Island News in September that the Cainhoy peninsula is expected to have surges in both residential and commercial growth in the coming decades.
Lincoln shows a slight ambivalence to the development, but clearly leans towards skepticism. “The positive is, now I’m not far away from a hardware store, I’m not far away from a supermarket,” he said. “That helps in a sense. I don’t know, but I think the negatives probably outweigh the positives.”
Because the residents of the Cainhoy area have held onto their land for many generations, Lincoln believes that one day, his group will be “surrounded by development.”
“I wake up in the morning now and I still have turkeys in my yard, geese, and wild animals still in the yard,” he said in contemplation. “We don’t know how long that will last, but it’s here.”