Sunday, July 14, 2024

West bank development, climate change threaten newly discovered Gullah Geechee artifacts

Researchers Joni “Oksu” Backstrom and Mark Wilde-Ramsing have found remnants of irrigation systems used by the Gullah Geechee and their ancestors in the waterways around Eagles Island. (Courtesy UNCW)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Remnants of irrigation systems used by the Gullah Geechee and their ancestors have been recently found to exist in the waterways around Eagles Island, but development and climate change may alter that.

READ MORE: Residential component on CF River’s west bank dominates conversation at planning board meeting

UNCW environmental science professor Joni “Oksu” Backstrom and retired underwater archaeologist Mark Wilde-Ramsing have discovered 45 water control systems spanning 2,000 acres of the northern end of Eagles Island. 

The wooden structures, mostly underwater and hard to see at high tide, are thought to be archaeological evidence of rice cultivation methods used by the Gullah Geechee beginning in the late 1700s. The discovery can help shed light on the engineering and technological accomplishments of the West African people that were enslaved on local land.

“They were very much targeted as a culture and as prized slaves, unfortunately, brought over specifically for rice cultivation,” Backstrom told Port City Daily on Wednesday. 

He said a lot of people have documented the history of slaves from West Africa, the plantations they were forced to work on in the South, and the Gullah Geechee culture but his and Wilde-Ramsings’ research is the first of its kind to map the irrigation structures once used locally. 

“It’s really important to kind of document these engineering artifacts that they have and really bring to light the importance of their culture,” Backstrom said. “[Rice] was a huge cash crop in the southeast, rice really built some of our coastal cities very much on the backs of the enslaved Africans. I think it’s important to recognize that fact, but also we don’t want to lose the structures.” 

The researchers will soon be published in a science journal and aside from highlighting their contribution to the archaeological compendium, Backstrom said its purpose is twofold. Not only does the publication spotlight Gullah Geechee innovation, but it also can help preserve the underwater structures.

Eagles Island is one of the most environmentally vulnerable locations along the Cape Fear River and thus it and the structures face two major threats: development in the short-term and climate change in the long-term.

There already has been a development put forth for the island.  Bobby Ginn proposed Wilmington Hotel and Spa, a 100-foot complex featuring 290 bedrooms on 14 acres of Eagles Island. This project would be allowed by-right as the land parcel is already zoned for the business. However, the development was withdrawn a few years ago, and a conservation group was looking into obtaining the property but couldn’t raise the $16 million needed to preserve it, so it fell through.

Area conservationists with Eagles Island Task Force have a desire to turn it into a park still. However, Ginn has indicated he would bring the proposal back to the planning board, which is currently reviewing land use amendments to guide development on the west bank.

“It makes no sense because it’s very low lying, and it’s marsh — not the best place to develop at all by any means,” Backstrom said. “So, hopefully, our work is able to preserve some of these areas within Eagles Island from future developments.” 

Backstrom and Wilde-Ramsing have registered the structures with the underwater branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology. The branch staff plans for between 300 and 400 water-related construction projects each year to determine if these activities will affect significant archaeological sites. 

For projects that have the potential for disturbing sites, environmental review procedures help archaeological contractors investigate and clear areas slated for construction prior to project commencement. 

Though the island is owned by multiple private entities, the presence of cultural artifacts can affect permit issuance from the United States Army Corps of Engineers or the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management (CAMA). 

Already prone to flooding, Eagles Island could also see an increase in water levels, along with an increase in frequency and intensity of storms, as a result of climate change. 

“We’ve had four or five hurricanes that have directly impacted this location; we also have a lot of nor’easters,” Backstrom said. “Any kind of high wind, high precipitation has the potential to perhaps move the structures, or they may become buried because of increased water flow, or they might get broken up because of these high energy systems.” 

The researchers are also seeking partnerships to help preserve the structures. The plan is to share their findings with Eagles Island preservation groups, as well as with the Town of Navassa, a community within the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

The corridor, a National Heritage area, is overseen by a commission and the U.S. National Park Service. Commission member and director of the UNCW Upperman Center Sean Palmer is often called on to educate researchers or the general public when Gullah Geechee artifacts emerge.

At first, Backstrom and Wilde-Ramsing weren’t aware of their discovery’s great significance. Backstrom said he was recruited by his colleague, also a neighbor, to map the irrigation system Wilde-Ramsing had come across on his kayaking forays. The two embarked on the two-year project, which was unfunded.

To work through the turbid water and shallow drafts, Backstrom used a side scan sonar system mounted to a pole, put it on a small Jon Boat, and sent it up the narrow canals. The system would send back an acoustic image, using sound to image the waterway, and riverbed. What they found — bulkhead and dike-like structures presumably built with local Cypress or longleaf pine — were used to restrain water from the planting fields until it was time to flood them.

Palmer told Port City Daily he was not surprised by the discovery of physical remnants of Gullah Geechee culture but amazed they still existed.

“We’re thinking about these irrigation systems that were created — and the people that would have lived here, that would have died on that land would have expected adulthood of about seven years, is something that we’re going to have to really wrestle with, I think in the city and in the area,” Palmer said. 

The heritage corridor runs from Florida through Georgia and South Carolina where it ends in southeastern North Carolina. Palmer pointed out Wilmington has a chance to be responsible stewards of the Gullah Geechee’s land, taking note of other state’s missteps. He used Hilton Head Island in South Carolina as an example of what not to do. 

There, the total acreage of Gullah Geechee-owned land has decreased by an estimated 70% since 1995, while its population has increased by 70%. Across the Lowcountry, Black families have lost around 14 million acres of land since the Civil War. 

The Eagles Island discovery raises questions on ethical tourism and hospitality in Southern cities that tend to spotlight Civil War and Confederate history alongside the promotion of marriage ceremonies on plantations. As well, more people are seeking out their own histories and the Gullah Geechee and their predecessors are interwoven into Wilmington’s heritage. 

As Wilmington is at the top of the corridor, Palmer said Gullah Geechee ancestors have lost more of the culture’s language, but have kept up the food tradition, which include not just rice but sweet potatoes and peanuts. The recent discovery of the irrigation system offers a glimpse into the engineering acuity of the West Africans to support those cash crops.

Citing chef and food writer Amethyst Ganaway (Food & Wine), Palmer said many Southern cities have thrived on Black food pathways and soul food traditions, while few of the restaurants in those same cities are owned by Black residents. 

“There has to be a shared opportunity for families, friends, colleagues, communities to build rich, wealthy enclaves from their own histories and heritage,” Palmer said. “That would be the wildest dream of the ancestors.”

Along with working with groups like the corridor commission, Wilde-Ramsing and Backstrom hope to garner support — and  preservation opportunities — through an upcoming article in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology. Its publication could attract grant opportunities, allowing Backstrom to continue and expand his research.

While he said he doesn’t expect many more Gullah Geechee artifacts to be discovered north of Wilmington, Backstrom hopes he can use this project’s techniques in other parts of the corridor and beyond. 

“It would be fantastic to be able to go to West Africa and really try and make that connection between rice cultivation in West Africa, especially the role of the women there when it came to rice and the engineering that they had,” Backstrom said.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at

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