Searching Out the Hidden Stories of South Carolina’s Gullah Country

After the tour, Bill put me in touch with Mary Rivers Legree, who maintains the praise house as president of the Coffin Point Community Association. Ms. Legree’s family has lived on the same land on Coffin Point since the era of slavery. She was raised there until the age of 9, then moved north.

Amid the horrors of the Jim Crow South, 78-year-old Ms. Legree recalled an isolated childhood with access to fresh seafood, tomatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, okra, and such exotic-sounding fare as pomegranates, persimmons, figs and turtle eggs, all grown on St. Helena Island.

Even when Ms. Legree moved to New York City and later Michigan, she kept her connection to the Lowcountry, once asking her father to send a cooler of whiting by Express Mail so she could hold a fish fry for her Detroit neighbors. More important, she kept paying the property taxes on the land that had been in her family since 1866.

“I didn’t know what it meant, but I sent the money,” she told me as we sat on the wooden pews in the praise house, the door open to the sunny June morning.

She understood the value of the land when, in 2005, she retired and moved back to St. Helena.

After settling into her father’s cottage on Coffin Point, Ms. Legree often passed the old praise house. Services had ceased with the deaths of elders, and the building was in poor condition. The doors had been left open, and no markers or plaques indicated the historical significance of the structure. Ms. Legree recalled saying to herself, “This place needs somebody.”

Despite renewed public interest in the area’s history, Ms. Legree still worries that the strong sense of culture that has made St. Helena a cohesive community will be lost unless local residents fight harder to preserve it.

“Most of the Gullah people around here are between 60 and 80 years old,” she said. “The young people here don’t understand the historical significance of being landowners. They don’t even know how they got their land.”

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