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A Nation Within a Nation

Kate Derickson is working with the Gullah/Geechee Nation to understand how environmental changes affect their livelihoods
December 9, 2015

Portrait: Kate Derickson

Portrait: Kate Derickson
Photo by Jack Swift, CLAgency student

This past summer, Assistant Professor Kate Derickson spent her time in South Carolina with Queen Quet, chieftess and head of state for the Gullah/Geechee nation, holding focus groups with local Gullah/Geechee people and fisherman. Derickson and Queen Quet were looking to find how the Gullah/Geechee Nation has been affected by environmental changes and policies made because of these changes.

The Gullah/Geechee people are descendants of freed and escaped slaves who can trace their ancestry to the West Coast of Africa. Once brought over to the Sea Islands, located along the coast from North Carolina to Florida, the African descendants were left relatively alone to work on rice plantations. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gullah/Geechee remained living in relative isolation, still speaking their native language, Gullah.

Nowadays, many of these descendants have inherited land and have a subsistent livelihood. As their land is rezoned, taxes increase—making the lives of the Gullah/Geechee people difficult. Due to environmental changes caused by developments such as bridges and other construction, the Department of Natural Resources and other federal agencies have begun regulating fishing in these regions. These regulations do not take into consideration the Gullah/Geechee people and their way of life, and thus cause problems within their society.

Kate Derickson first became intrigued of the Gullah/Geechee Nation when she was on Edisto Island camping with her family, “I was so amazed to see this landscape and this culture within the landscape that I didn’t really know anything about,” Derickson says. “I became curious and interested in what was happening with them, so I began researching.”

“I assumed that there would be tons of scholarship on them, but there isn’t nearly as much as you would think. So, I reached out and saw that they were having a conference in South Carolina.” It was here that she first met Queen Quet the Gullah/Geechee head of state.

Derickson became particularly interested in how scholarship can be a resource to help this marginalized group to thrive. She is also interested in how state policy becomes bound up in racialization processes, and how that intersects with natural resource management. Derickson was awarded the McKnight Land-Grant Professorship for 2015-2017 to continue her research with Queen Quet.

Derickson began publishing her findings in academic journals, and she is currently in the beginning stages of forming two books. One is an academic book on race and natural resource management in the American Southeast; the other is an atlas of the Gullah/Geechee Nation that involved a collaboration with cartographers from The New School in New York City.

Derickson’s research continues to chart new territory. “I'm constantly surprised by how few people have heard of the Gullah/Geechee Nation,” Derickson says. “But what surprises me the most is when academic researchers publish work on the region about race and African American life on the Sea Islands and make no mention of Gullah/Geechee history or culture.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.