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Kristin Willison

Sustaining a Gullah Community

           Most aspects of preservation focus on architecture and built evidence of culture.  What about saving culture itself and the land where it takes place?  Sometimes outside forces and changes can destroy a close-knit community by slowly removing the physical environment that allows the culture to thrive.  Landscape, proximity, and the means to continue a collective cottage industry are some of the threads that bind together a small community that is part of a culture greater than itself.

One such culture that has maintained itself in the United States is that of the Gullah, or Geechee, people.  The Gullah people are a creolized African-American ethnic group who live along the Atlantic Coast between North Carolina and northern Florida.  Different African languages blended with English have created a unique dialect spoken by this group of people.  Another individual characteristic of the Gullah culture is the craft of making baskets out of sweetgrass, a local plant.  This style of basket making was brought from Africa and used for the production of rice leading up to, and following, the Civil War.  In order for the basket tradition to be kept alive, the landscape in which the sweetgrass thrives must be maintained. 

            I will be focusing on the Phillips Community, a Gullah establishment located outside of Charleston, South Carolina.  Their culture and rural way of life are currently being threatened by encroaching new construction in the form of subdivisions and an impending road widening of their main thoroughfare.  These disruptions will dissolve the environmental elements that bond this struggling community together. 

            In the years following the Civil War, land was divided into ten-acre lots for the former slaves.   Many of these plots have remained in the same family since the Civil War, passed down in a local tradition, known as heirs’ property.  I will be exploring how heirs’ property works and why this manner of land ownership is encountering problems in today’s world.  Using examples of similar communities, I will explain how others in the Gullah community are working to maintain a system that has been effective for nearly 150 years. 

            My goal of this thesis is to provide a window into the world of the Phillips Community at this particular point in time.  I will review the problems this community has come to face and their options.  The community needs a solution that will sustain their way of life, but not freeze it in the past.  How can the members of the Phillips Community maintain who they are without stagnating and eventually fading away?


           Kristin Willison received a BA in music from Lake Forest College in 2002.  She completed her internship at the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago documenting stained glass Tiffany windows.


Thesis Advisor: Rolf Achilles, Adjunct Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Historic Preservation

Thesis Reader: William Latoza, Instructor, Historic Preservation



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