Hilton Head Island—Haunted by Its Own History

Historical traces of racism and exclusion remain on the island. It’s just that new residents can’t—or won’t—read them.

The beach that borders Port Royal Plantation is both capricious and conservative. Port Royal sits on the heel of Hilton Head Island, a barrier island that’s one ring in a chain of over a hundred barrier islands protecting the coastlines of South Carolina and Georgia. The barrier beach is never still. But its dynamism—its shifting dunes, rises, and shoreline, all its inconclusive motion—is an effect of resistance, of shielding the mainland from the shocks of the sea. What’s more astonishing than the sheer, restless defiance of the barrier beach is that all its grinding down and heaping up are traceable in human time.

Local history isn’t deeply inscribed into the landscape of Hilton Head. The island, today, bears little trace of the Native Americans who were, as late as the 18th century, its most numerous inhabitants: the Yamasee tribe, which was devastated in the struggle with white colonists, for example, or the captured Native Americans who likely worked alongside African slaves on the Sea Islands’ first plantations. There are no monuments to the men of the 21st Regiment US Colored Troops, organized on the island, who liberated the enslaved population of Charleston in February 1865. The land doesn’t remember “Gullah Statesman” Robert Smalls or Renty Greaves or their removal from political office via trumped-up charges at the end of Reconstruction. It doesn’t recall the hurricane of 1893, one of the worst natural disasters in American history, or Booker T. Washington’s attempt to “uplift” Gullah farmers through an agricultural colony. Little testifies to the fact that the Gullah people were spared from the worst of the Great Depression through their own self-sufficiency, or that in 1949, less than a century after being legally classified as property, Black islanders owned 3,200 acres on Hilton Head. The landscape doesn’t describe how these islanders managed to buy and hold their property during a century of Jim Crow. It certainly doesn’t describe how that land was stolen.

A short walk up from the beach—past a sandy “No trespassing” sign and just beyond the ruins of Fort Walker, built by slaves in anticipation of the Union’s Southern advance in 1861—is Port Royal Plantation. Residential plantations like Port Royal are primarily marketed to Northern retirees, organized around golf and pickleball, and serviced by people of color. They dominate the island’s landscape—a patchwork of walls, gates, greens, tolled roads, and uniform mailboxes, of “straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds / of thought,” to quote the poet A. R. Ammons. Hilton Head is a topography of ownership. Its lines make legible a desire for permanence. Its walls are iconic, and yet they arrived late in the life of the island. Charles Fraser, who initiated Hilton Head’s development in the mid-20th century, had his workers add gates to Sea Pines Plantation in 1967. It would be difficult to exaggerate the island’s subsequent transformation. In Fraser’s Harbour Town, one Gullah cemetery is now surrounded by upscale condos and a parking lot. All are welcome to visit the site, of course, after requesting a guest badge from the front gate.

When national attention briefly settled on Hilton Head in the summer of 2020, when calls were renewed to change the names of the island’s plantations, in the conversations that followed, I observed that few of the island’s plantation residents could appreciate why this act of asking permission is so humiliating. Few, indeed, know very much about the place where they now live. The problem isn’t native to Hilton Head. Why don’t we know?

Gullah Days, by Thomas Curtis Barnwell Jr., Carolyn Grant, and Emory Shaw Campbell, is a heroic attempt to reconstruct the lives of Black Hilton Head islanders from slavery to 1956, the year the bridge to the mainland was built. This transformation, Barnwell, Grant, and Campbell explain, was a kind of whiplash.

In the decades after the bridge was built, Black sea islanders were subject to increasingly high property taxes, the dilution of their political influence, and the irredeemable gating of their homescape. They were also legally stripped of their land through forced property-partition sales. The practice was widespread; its history has been told before.

Hilton Head’s plantations privately provide their affluent residents with public services. They are internally governed by strict land covenants. As predominately Black land outside plantations (known as “outparcels”) began to attract developers indifferent to both aesthetics and ecological integrity, plantation residents pushed for stronger public controls. Black areas were already in violation of the proposed restrictions. A white population that utterly transformed the island began to claim control of Black land in the name of preservation. Black islanders, as early as 1974, called such white-led preservation by another name: “zoning slavery.”

To increase public control, the island was incorporated into a town in 1983. Incorporation was unsuccessfully challenged in state and federal courts by the NAACP. Meanwhile, Black property taxes soared.

Outparcel titles are often complicated. Many federal land sales and surveys were destroyed after the Civil War. And because Black sea islanders were barred from legal services in the Jim Crow South, Black land on Hilton Head was passed down in an informal system of inheritance called “heirs’ property.” Andrew W. Kahrl, professor of history at the University of Virginia, describes the liquidation of heirs’ property in The Land Was Ours (2016). After several generations, property heirs could be numerous and geographically widespread.

For a predatory developer, the trick was to seek out one of these heirs and buy their share in the land. Anyone with a share could force a partition sale. The developer would sue to clear title, force an auction, and then easily outbid heirs living on the property. They would acquire prime real estate for pennies on the dollar. Heirs were forced off. The Sea Pines Plantation Company implemented similar tactics in its notorious Land Title Clearance Program, denounced by the head of the local chapter of the NAACP as “a scheme to get black property in the disguise of help.”1 In an interview, Kahrl told me that the worst abuses of heirs’ property laws have now been checked. But the checks came way too late, he said. The damage is done. It’s formalized by gates and property lines.

It’s misleading, then, to suggest that the island’s landscape doesn’t retain its own memory. Some outparcels are still not serviced with sewage disposal or running water. Mobile homes are ubiquitous, because owners of outparcel land can’t clear title and apply for credit without the threat of dispossession.

Historical traces are there—the island’s new residents can’t read them. Or perhaps they won’t.

What future is there for Hilton Head and its plantations? We were all born late onto the scene of the crime and Hilton Head is a good example of how some can move through life without realizing it.

It’s not as if opportunities for education, like Hilton Head’s Gullah Museum, aren’t available, 17-year-old island activist Isabella Miller reminded me during a conversation in October 2020. Black islanders have worked to sustain the history of their place. Six of Hilton Head’s 17 historical plaques describe the history of the formerly enslaved; all six were sponsored by the Black community.

But the story the plaques tell is not what many of the island’s white residents see or seem to prefer. That version can be found elsewhere, in one of the earliest editions of the Island Packet—Hilton Head’s newspaper—from April 1, 1971. Men of genius—a blurb titled “A Brief History of the Island” explained—found a wild place, settled it, and wrested great fortunes from its resources. This happened twice: first, when Europeans “discovered” the island, and second, when Fraser, crossing over in a ferry named Pocahontas, “rediscovered” it in the mid-20th century.

Fraser inherited a legacy of European colonization. Retirees fit into a lineage of white settlers at a leisure subtended by brown and Black labor. And although it was Fraser who first called his gated community a “plantation,” other developers followed suit.

This is an imaginary lineage. Aside from the racial division of work, swampy 19th-century forced-labor camps have little in common with Fraser’s Sea Pines Plantation. The harsh climate and threat of mosquito-borne illnesses brought over on African slave ships kept most of the first plantation masters and their families far away from the island.

Because of this and Hilton Head’s isolation, slaves were more autonomous there than most. Some even owned property. Before the Civil War, and certainly after, we can imagine an island almost entirely inhabited by Black people. The notion of “gentile living” offered, at best, a tenuous link between the first and second plantation eras. But the radically new makes its own history, as historians Benedict Anderson, Pierre Nora, Edward Said, François Hartog, and others have theorized. The 1969 Heritage Classic was the first golf tournament played in Fraser’s unfinished development. He invited bagpipe players and Arnold Palmer. A tenuous link, indeed.

But the link was sufficient, because Fraser’s clients wanted privacy. The island, the gated 55+ community, the country club within that community: all three nested layers of privacy on Hilton Head were fantasized barriers against the messiness of being in public. That “mess” can easily be glossed in racial terms. As Richard J. Moss argues in his book Golf and the American Country Club (2007), at the heart of the original country-club movement was a double distancing: distance from the ills of modern life and from those who, for Protestant white America, embodied those ills (immigrants, people of color, Jewish people). Scholars Elaine Tyler May, John M. Coggeshall, Setha M. Low, and others have discussed the vague fear made visible by gated communities.2 Many call this fear racism by another self-expunging name.

The cost of white appropriation, of course, was Black alienation: both the dispossession of Black land and the loss of cultural heritage. In a sense, white privacy on Hilton Head has always been predicated on Black publicity—the publicity of their labor, and then their land.

This kind of two-faced appropriation has other costs. Even before George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Florida (when commentators focused on the “bunker mentality” of gated developments, where residents are “cocooned by private infrastructure”), even before 2012, theorists have teased out what’s contradictory in the gated-community mindset. Such communities diminish the use of public space, increase polarization, and potentially increase crime as well. Erecting a barrier when bad things are about is a childlike impulse. Seawalls demonstrate how the downstream effects of this impulse can be catastrophic. Psychologically, walls don’t assuage fear but provoke it. Empirically, walls exacerbate the crime they were built to prevent.

It’s the futility of a physical wall that makes us look crazy behind it, contained by what we try to keep out. The long and historic summer of 2020 often suggested this futility. Germs do not respect property lines. Neither do reporters or appeals to justice.


Borders Don’t Stop Violence—They Create It

By Monica Muñoz Martinez et al.

Knowledge of the history of Hilton Head threatens what people go there for, such as pleasure. Much of the island’s history isn’t pleasant.

According to Gullah Days, when Union soldiers landed on the island, they looted the slaves’ private livestock. Some Black men were violently seized and forced to enlist. In overcrowded and pestilent Union barracks, Black women “were held as the legitimate prey of lust” until Mitchelville put distance between Black families and the soldiers. At the center of the history of America’s first self-governing community of former slaves, then, is sexual violence against Black women.

Knowing the history of Hilton Head fractures much of its happy commercial facade. Few, as Ted Ownby notes, are eager to learn these things while they’re on vacation.3

Knowledge threatens pleasure, as well as the privacy that many retirees worked hard to acquire. It’s possible to acknowledge a lifetime of work, while also pointing to the configuration that makes gated privacy possible: like a cheap labor force that can never comfortably retire.

Initially, while developers boasted of bringing jobs to the region, Black islanders transitioned from independent farming to service work without a change in their economic status and with a significant decrease in their quality of life. As plantations continued to swallow Black land, a larger labor force was needed. Historian Michael N. Danielson describes this development in Profits and Politics in Paradise (1995). According to Danielson, in 1972, although construction was the island’s largest industry at the time, its workers commuted an average of 150 miles every day. Today’s majority-Hispanic workers are bussed in on private lines from a comparable distance. In a right-to-work state with little sympathy for unions, workers will continue to undercut one another, Eric Esquivel, editor of the bilingual Lowcountry magazine La Isla, told me in a phone conversation back in August 2020. And despite Tom Barnwell’s decades of advocacy, Hilton Head’s affordable housing remains nonexistent.

The more you know about Hilton Head, the more its history seems like a matter of the present and future than a matter of the past. A proposed highway expansion that would send the Gullah Stoney community (already divided by an existing road) below an overpass; the tax dollars that rebuild naturally volatile beaches to protect million-dollar homes; the recent profile of “Leading Men of the Lowcountry” in the Hilton Head Monthly—it all begins to feel a bit uncanny. History starts to seem less like the stuff of a referendum and more like the shape of our spines. In the perfectly American words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The haunting of Hilton Head by its own history will only intensify. The barrier island is growing more physically and economically vulnerable. Sea-level rises and shifts in weather patterns may bring more violent storms, more frequently. Mainland towns in the region are growing. Service workers will stop commuting onto the island, the price of labor will increase, and risk-averse retirees on a fixed income will start paying $40 for their steaks. They may ask why. They may ask, “What is happening here? Where is our security?” And we may ask, “Development—what does that word even mean?” The distinction between public and private starts to look a lot messier at the end of those questions. Those who landed on the Sea Islands looking for a quiet end or a new beginning may find themselves, as we all inevitably are, back in the middle of things—in public.

I note, above, that the desire for shelter from publicity can be glossed in racial terms. It is also possible, however, to gloss this mess more generously, in existential terms. People have lost stable axes. Things feel uncertain. Hilton Head’s new residents want to retire to a world in which they feel safe and can recognize themselves. One can see this, and yet draw attention again to its dark irony: home for some is predicated on the loss of home of others. While the need to appropriate a world we’ve been thrown into may be mutual, just to reiterate, white appropriation on the island has always come at the cost of Black alienation.

The outstanding question is this: Nearly one year after the eyes of the national press moved on, what future is there for Hilton Head and its plantations? We were all born late onto the scene of the crime, to paraphrase Michael Rothberg,4 and Hilton Head is a good example of how some can move through life without realizing it. If common ground on the island is still possible, it would need to begin there: in an acknowledgment, on the part of vacationers and retirees, that we benefit from systems of violence that we did not create or consent to and from which others continue to suffer. Plantation residents would need to take ownership of that complicity. And the island itself would need a different landscape altogether: something adaptable, capacious, and difficult that speaks to our entanglement, and asks us to do the difficult memory work that all of us, and not only the Gullah community, inherited.


This article was commissioned by Annie Galvin. icon

  1. Andrew W. Kahrl, The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), p. 254.
  2. Elaine Tyler May, Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy (Basic, 2017); John M. Coggeshall, “Symbols of Division: Plantations along South Carolina’s Coast,” Home Cultures, vol. 5, no. 1 (2008); Setha M. Low, “The Edge and the Center: Gated Communities and the Discourse of Urban Fear,” American Anthropologist, vol. 103, no. 1 (2001).
  3. Ted Ownby, “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen, but Does Anyone Want to Hear about Them When They’re on Vacation?,” in Southern Journeys: Tourism, History, and Culture in the Modern South, edited by Richard D. Starnes (University of Alabama Press, 2003).
  4. Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (Stanford University Press, 2019).
Featured image: Braddock’s Point Cemetery, a Gullah-Geechee cemetery on Hilton Head Island. Photograph by Matthew Rings / Wikimedia Commons