One Feeds The Other: The Cycle of Environmental and Social Injustice Impacts on Gullah/Geechee Heritage Sites
In the 1940s, a Black man in Yulee located in rural Nassau County, Florida, was dragged behind a truck and his body thrown into Skull Creek, a pond the locals named to memorialize the place where white people dumped the bodies of murdered Black men. Decades after the lynching, in the 1980s, a young Black man drowned near Skull Creek while swimming in a waterhole 90-feet deep. Allegedly road workers dug the hole inside the Still Quarters, a community of Gullah/Geechee people descended from turpentine laborers, and used the dirt to construct Interstate 95. Driving by Skull Creek today, you would not know it was there; its existence has all but been erased. Only the memories and testimonies of the remaining Gullah/Geechee elders, who bear witness to its tragic place in their personal histories, mark its reality. The stormwater drainage, retention, and detention ponds conspicuously situated in Gullah/Geechee communities serve as evidence of the continued displacement narrative. Land near the submerged mass burial site, as well as the sites of marked and unmarked Gullah/Geechee burials from the turpentine era, is slated for development. As the region’s largest pulp products corporation and its subsidiaries harvest thousands of acres of pine trees, and continue clear cutting to build out an expansive commercial and residential planning area, the erasure of these sacred sites reflects a cycle of environmental injustice.
Devaluation. Dislocation. Desecration.
A legacy of environmental injustice tied to the erasure of Gullah/Geechee heritage sites has developed over time in northeast Florida. The rural Gullah/Geechee community of Yulee in Nassau County has experienced social and environmental injustice for decades. Development in the form of buildings or infrastructure, near or on top of Gullah/Geechee burial sites, begins with the displacement of Gullah/Geechee people. Historically, displacement commenced without warning and for no justifiable reason. Later, the government’s use of eminent domain served as the legal justification for displacing Black and Gullah/Geechee communities. Construction of America’s interstate highway system served as a primary catalyst in the dislocation of Black people from their land and, consequently, separating them from unmarked and marked burial sites. The sites that survive are often labeled “abandoned,” due to lack of maintenance and attention. But they were not abandoned; they were erased. In one case the Florida Department of Transportation destroyed burials at East Port Cemetery in Jacksonville.
In northeast Florida, Representatives of the Gullah/Geechee Nation fight for the protection of and access to culturally significant marked and unmarked burial sites in the path of development on private property. They are guided by the advocacy advice of Chandra Taylor, as written in her chapter in the WEBE Gullah/Geechee: Cultural Capital and Collaboration Anthology, to look to the Environmental Justice Executive Order, 12898 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both pieces of legislation are vital, Taylor asserts, to the protection of the environment for coastal communities of color. What happens, however, when the activities of corporations and local governments, with no direct relationship to federal agency programs, policies, and activities, violate minority and low-income populations?
In October 2020, the harvesting of pine trees on private property shadowing a white cinderblock church put a Gullah/Geechee community in Yulee on high alert. Laborers of a turpentine and sawmill camp once located in the community called Piney lay at rest in burials there. Some of the church’s members and residents of the remnant community descend from those buried at the site which became inactive in the 1950s. The current elders, who were children in the late 1930s and 1940s, lost track of the location of the burials near Harper Chapel Baptist Church. Preservation of the cemetery was negatively impacted by its location on private property, limited access to the burials, and the fact that no deed exists for the property. Over time pine trees and palmettos overtook the burials and the wooden markers disintegrated. After the downing of the trees, a community member alerted their Gullah/Geechee Nation Representative of the pending danger to the burial ground. The Representative gave written notice to Nassau County’s planning department, citing Florida Statute 872 that prohibits the willing and knowing disturbance of human remains.
To date, the Gullah/Geechee descendants of those buried have not received a written report or any acknowledgment of tests confirming no additional burials existed within the private owner’s footprint.
The environmental injustice experienced in Yulee from the horrors of Skull Creek up to the forgotten Harper Chapel burials rests at the feet of those affected by social injustice broadly. One condition feeds the other. Poverty limits access to education, housing, and critical resources essential to survival. The communities, most likely to experience poverty, very often come from historically racially disadvantaged groups.
Access to land, in life and in death, mirrors the level of injustice prevalent in society. The United States apartheid system required that Black people and white people live separately; therefore, they were not buried together. Based on the social caste system of that era, the burial lands to which Black people had access 50–150 years ago most likely carried less value than other property comparatively. As land speculators prioritized developing undervalued property over higher-priced land, burial grounds that served as the sacred resting places of Black people became the most cost-effective option.
Archaeology and Environmental Justice
African-American cemeteries are at the intersection of environmental and social justice efforts. African-American cemeteries experience increased exposure to environmental threats and have a disproportionate risk of being lost compared to predominantly white cemeteries. Adding to the threats of climate crisis, residential gentrification is also contributing to the erasure of African-American cemeteries. In summer 2021, the Gullah/Geechee Nation started working with the Florida Public Archeology Network (FPAN) on the Nassau County Cemetery Recording Project to identify sites to be recorded or updated to Florida’s official inventory of cultural resources. For years FPAN staff worked from a map of historic cemeteries, created with data from the University of Florida’s GeoPlan Center, for programs such as the Cemetery Dash and the Heritage Monitoring Scout (HMS Florida). They started to notice a pattern. On several occasions, the state inventory and the GeoPlan data did not match. In Nassau County, FPAN identified 36 cemeteries not appropriately mapped, 13 requiring a site visit to verify location information, and 13 not listed at all on the state’s inventory.
Recently, African-American burials have received some attention with the filing of the African-American Burial Grounds Preservation Act that will provide centralization of information and a funding stream for collaborative projects similar to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act passed in 1998. Whether the new act overcomes the political hurdles experienced since the bill was first filed in 2019, groups such as The Black Cemetery Network and individuals such as the Cemetery Sista are beginning the important work of making connections and taking action. Recently the state of Florida convened the Abandoned African-American Cemeteries Task Force, a special task force.
The legacy of environmental and social injustice impacts to Gullah/Geechee burial sites can be mitigated. The specific case in Nassau County requires the intervention and application of local government regulation and the corporate will to exercise stewardship over burial grounds as culturally sensitive, environmentally vulnerable sites. More broadly, federal legislation must provide redress for the discriminatory practices of the past and the environmentally unjust policies of the present that perpetuate Black land devaluation in life that leads to desecration in death.
Glenda Simmons Jenkins represents Florida on the Gullah/Geechee Nation Assembly of Representatives. She is a 2021–2022 Law and Public Policy Scholar for the Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice at the University of St. Thomas and she is the recipient of the Florida Archaeological Council’s 2022 Stewards of Heritage Award.
Sarah Miller is the Regional Director for the Northeast and East Central Centers of the Florida Public Archaeology Network hosted by Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. She works on a variety of projects focused on engaging communities with archaeological and historic resources through topics including site stewardship, historic cemetery management, and heritage at risk
Emily Jane Murray is the Public Archaeology Coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network Northeast Region. She works on a variety of projects focused engaging communities with Florida’s buried past, using 3D digital heritage to document artifacts and sites, and understanding and mitigating impacts from the climate crisis on cultural resources.