Daufuskie Island’s Robert Kennedy Trail Teaches Gullah History

Daufuskie Island has a very rich Gullah history. “Gullah” refers to descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast. After emancipation and the Civil War, the Gullah of Daufuskie Island were able to live an isolated life creating a unique culture with deep African retentions. They have distinct arts, crafts, food, music and language. According to the GullahGeecheeCorridor.org  “The Gullah language is the only distinctly, African creole language in the United States and it has influenced traditional Southern vocabulary and speech patterns.”

After the Civil War plantation owners abandoned Daufuskie Island. Former slaves that returned to the island bought parcels of land and built cottages. They worked in farming, logging and oyster canning. By the mid-1900s, these industries dried up and work had to be sought off the island. Many of their homes fell into disrepair. Through a grant from Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Daufuskie Island Endangered Places Program”, many of these homes and other structures have been restored. A tour on the island is like walking back in time.

To experience the Gullah history of Daufuskie Island, follow the Robert Kennedy Trail. The trail maps out 20 historic landmarks that depict the Daufuskie Gullah way of life that has been present for so many generations.  Download the map or pick up a copy at the Billie Burn Museum, then set out and see history come to life.

  1. The first stop is the Billie Burns Museum. Housed in the former Mt. Carmel Baptist Church No. 2, the museum contains artifacts illustrating periods of island history. This is the second church built on the site by the Cooper River residents. The first was destroyed by hurricane. The current structure was built in the 1940s. The church was abandoned when island population declined. It was restored in 2001 and repurposed as the island’s museum.

The Jane Hamilton School Gullah Learning Center is just next door. Cooper River children attended school at the first Mt. Carmel Baptist Church No. 1 until the hurricane destroyed it in 1940. The one-room Jane Hamilton School was built and used for ten years. When the students outgrew the school, they were transported to the southern end of the island to attend the two-room Mary Fields School. The building was restored in 2008 and now holds the Gullah Learning Center and community library.

2. Tabby ruins can be seen at the second stop of the tour. Oyster shells were ground, mixed with sand and water and used to construct the foundations of Haig Point Plantation. This very durable building material predated concrete and can be found throughout the Lowcountry.

3. The Cooper River Cemetery is a very important stop when learning about Daufuskie history. Gullah tradition places cemeteries near moving water so souls could travel home to Africa. Situated beside the Cooper River, the cemetery has grave markers dating back to 1917, but the hallowed grounds have been in use for burials since plantation days.

4. Haig Point is a developed community today. Access is for owners and guests only. The Haig Point lighthouse can be seen from Calibogue Sound at the northern tip of the island. This lighthouse was built in 1873 and remained operational until 1924.

5. Melrose was once a large self-sustaining plantation. After Union occupation of the island, the Gullah people either worked for the landowners or bought land of their own. They lived in former slave cabins or built cottages on their own land. Several examples of these cottages a have been restored and still stand strong today.

6. From the late 1800s to the 1950s, the primary economy of the island was oyster harvesting and shucking. The Oyster Union Society Hall was established in this 1893 building. The union society was a benevolent and burial society that held meetings and social events. Members joined by way of an initiation ceremony.  Pollution from the Savannah River ruined the oyster beds and the oyster industry on Daufuskie came to a close. The society dissolved after the oyster beds were closed. The building still stands as a reminder of a bygone way of life.

7. The next stop on the tour is the Hinson White House. This 1926 house represents Daufuskie Island Gullah architecture. Large screened porches provide cooling shade in the hot summer months. The house was restored by the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation in 2015. While the residence is private, it is listed on Airbnb for short-term rentals.

8. The Mary Field Cemetery is the largest Gullah cemetery on the island. The earliest wooden tombstones have disintegrated from age. The earliest date visible in the cemetery is 1926. The cemetery is still in use today.

9. Sarah Grant bought her home in 1910 for $15 and had it moved to its present location for an additional $25. She was a midwife, Sunday school president and PTA president. She was married to the island undertaker. When he died in 1962, she stepped in and took his place, making her the one who saw islanders come into the world and go out! This is a private residence, but is available for short-term rentals on Airbnb.

10. A Beaufort County public dock is located at the end of Haig Point Road. This is the former location of the Maggioni & Company Oyster Cannery. This facility opened in 1883, employing many of the islanders. The cannery closed in 1903, but the locals continued to harvest and shuck oysters, transporting them to nearby canneries. This continued until the 1959 pollution of the Savannah River closed the oyster beds.

11. White School House was built in 1913 for the white children of the island. It closed in 1962. The structure has since been used as fire department headquarters, island library and thrift store. It is now home of the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation’s archives.

12. Many islanders found themselves under live oaks after Sunday church service. Not wanting to discuss everyday problems on church grounds, men would move off church grounds and gather under the shade of a nearby live oak. Rumor has it, there was also a sister tree for the ladies.

13. First Union African Baptist Church was built in 1881 near the 1881 church that was previously destroyed by fire. This church has stood the test of time, serving the island since it was built. The church was restored in the 1990s. A replica of a traditional praise house is located behind the church.

14. Mary Field School was the biggest school on the island. This two-room facility was built in the early 1930s to educate the black children of the island. Leftover wood from construction was used to build student desks. Pat Conroy briefly taught school here. He was the first white and the first male to teach in the school.  He used his experiences on the island as the backdrop for his book The Water is Wide, which was made into the motion picture Conrack. Miss Francis Jones was the first teacher when the school opened in 1933. Her house is next on the tour. The school was integrated in 1962 and continued to educate island children until 1997. Currently it houses the School House Coffee Shop and Daufuskie Blues Indigo Textile Studio.

15. The most iconic house on Daufuskie is the Francis Jones Home. This Gullah home was built in the late 1860s. Additions were made over the years. Francis Jones was a much-loved teacher of the African American children of the island from 1930 – 1969. At times she was the only teacher, working with as many as 96 children in two daily sessions. The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation restored the house in 2014. It is available for short term rentals through Daufuskie Island Accommodations.

16. The Moses Fickling Cottage sits beneath an ancient live oak tree, which is covered in resurrection fern and dripping with Spanish moss. It is reported that this tree is so old it greeted the Spanish when they first came to the island in the 1500s. This classic Gullah cottage was built around 1925 for Mr. Fickling and his wife Grace. He was the island undertaker and a deacon at the First Union African Baptist Church. The old carriage that he used as a hearse has been restored and is on display outside the Billie Burn Museum. This beautifully preserved home is a private residence.

17. The Mary Dunn Cemetery is not too far away on Prospect Road. This is the only historic cemetery for white residents of Daufuskie Island. It dates to the 1700s. The cemetery borders the Mongin Creek and was donated by Mary Dunn. It is privately owned and still in use today.

18. Bloody Point is at the southern tip of the island. It got the name during 1715 when three different bloody skirmishes with the Yemassee Indians caused the water to run red. Bloody Point is the southernmost inhabited point of South Carolina.

19. The Bloody Point Cemetery is located near the beach. This Gullah cemetery was placed along the Mongin Creek and used for slave burials during the plantation era.

20. The Bloody Point Lighthouse and Silver Dew Winery are the last stops on the tour. This is not a typical lighthouse. In fact, it is similar to the lighthouse keeper’s cottage on Tybee Island. A large second-story dormer houses the light that guided ships into the Savannah River channel from 1883-1922. This well-preserved historic structure contains a collection of artifacts and documents telling the story of Daufuskie. There is also an interpretive garden on the grounds that includes cotton, rice and indigo.

Just out back of the lighthouse sits the Silver Dew Winery. This building was built as a “wick house” to store oil, wicks and other items needed to run the lighthouse. In the mid-1900s it was converted into a winery. Wine was made from grapes, scuppernongs, pears, elderberries, and other fruit grown on the island. Pat Conroy mentions the Silver Dew Winery in his 1972 book The Water is Wide.

If visiting Daufuskie Island is in your future, there’s only one way to get there – by boat.  It’s just thirty minutes from Hilton Head Island, and an hour from Savannah. The Daufuskie Island Ferry https://www.daufuskieislandferry.com/directions/ has departures throughout the day. Reservations are a must. Once on the island, a golf cart or bike rental is a must for getting around. The island is five miles long and two miles wide. The ferry office can assist you. Reservations are strongly recommended.

Along with the historic tour you can enjoy galleries, craft shops, restaurants, and a coffee shop. Plan to spend a day, a week or even longer! Accommodations can be found at https://southcarolinalowcountry.com/daufuskie-island-accommodations/.

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