This is the second year we celebrate Juneteenth as a national holiday in the United States. This is, essentially, a second national independence day commemorating the day, June 19th, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation (enacted January 1, 1863 but not recognized by confederate states). One of the great values of this holiday and other remembrance days like it is that they provide an opportunity to reflect and learn from these important elements of our collective history.
While the historical events from Galveston are now known to many, this Juneteenth, I have been reflecting on how many other locations around the country have their own stories to tell of learning of the Emancipation Proclamation. Here, I’d like to introduce one history from a small fishing community of the South Carolina Sea Islands. Now, this is not my story to tell but it has been my story to learn. So, I will just introduce the narrative here and refer you on to more knowledgeable sources. I also hope this may inspire you to look into other such histories where you live and around the country which have helped weave together the patchwork quilt of our nation.
With the deep natural port of Port Royal Harbor, the South Carolina low country was the first southern area occupied by Union troops in the Civil War following a naval victory on November 7th, 1861. As a result of this early occupation, Beaufort, the small town near the port, still maintains much of its antebellum architecture, and the Emancipation Proclamation was announced and celebrated the day it was enacted (a whole two and a half years before news reached Galveston). Many freed men directly enlisted in the Union army, many were granted land parcels from the lucrative nearby Sea Islands cotton plantations, and many turned next to chartering schools and hospitals.
The Penn School (now known as the Penn Center and part of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park) was established on St. Helena’s Island in 1862. It was the first school in a confederate state dedicated specifically to the education of freed slaves. There is a giant live oak on the Penn Center grounds under which the thirteenth amendment (abolishing slavery) was read – perhaps to a crowd not too unlike the Juneteeth crowd in Galveston. Almost a century later, the Penn Center hosted many civil rights retreats; Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr even composed his “I Have a Dream” speech there. It’s pretty humbling to be able to still stand near this ancient behemoth of a tree (live oaks can live to more than a thousand years old) and know how much history has been experienced in one spot.
St. Helena’s Island and the Sea Islands of South Carolina’s low country are at the center of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, which evolved as a unique melded culture, with its own creole language, based on multiple ethnic African groups isolated through enslavement on the Atlantic coastal sea islands. Shrimp, oysters, sea trout, and other seafood have been a mainstay component of the Gullah/Geechee culture. There is a Gullah/Geechee Seafood Festival and the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association has been established to advocate for Gullah/Geechee and African American fishery workers in the southeastern US and maintain traditional fishing techniques.
The Gullah/Geechee fisheries of the South Carolina Sea Islands now face diverse threats, including development and sea-level rise. While we celebrate the Juneteenth and the independence from enslavement, we can use this as an opportunity to reflect on the national legacy of slavery and acknowledge the work still needed to address continuing inequities and environmental injustices such as those that the Gullah/Geechee fishermen face now.