African Descendants Have Stake in Saving U.S. Southeast Salt Marshes

Chieftess of Gullah/Geechee Nation supports new initiative to protect a million acres

African Descendants Have Stake in Saving U.S. Southeast Salt Marshes
Queen Quet
Queen Quet gazes into the marsh surrounding her hometown of St. Helena Island in South Carolina.
Kumar L. Goodwine-Kennedy Geechee Sea Island Coalition

Salt marshes in the southeastern U.S. are home to descendants of enslaved Africans who have worked together for generations to protect their lands, waters, history, and culture.

Known as the Gullah/Geechee, these estimated 1 million people inhabit the Sea Islands and coastal areas stretching from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, and 35 miles inland. Since the times of slavery, the Gullah/Geechee people, who hail from numerous African ethnic groups and built some of the richest plantations in the South, were informally considered “a nation within a nation” with their own language, crafts, and traditions.

In 2000, members of the Gullah/Geechee community formally established their nation and chose computer scientist and South Carolina native Marquetta L. Goodwine as chieftess and head of state. Known as Queen Quet, she has gained worldwide recognition for her community and worked to protect its lands and waters. Now she’s joining a major new project aimed at conserving salt marsh—the grasslands that flood and drain with the tides and provide vital habitat for wildlife ranging from fish to birds.

The project, known as the South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative, was created in May and brings together federal, state, and local governments, military officials, and community leaders such as Queen Quet, who recognize the habitat’s ability to help protect shorelines against flooding and storm surge. The initiative aims to conserve about a million acres of marsh stretching from North Carolina to north Florida, an area that is home to installations for every branch of the military. 

In the coming months, initiative leaders will begin hashing out a plan designed to help communities and the military better prepare for the future through coordinated transportation and development plans, targeted restoration projects, and conservation of lands adjacent to marshes, allowing the tidal wetlands to move as sea levels rise.

This interview with Queen Quet has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why is salt marsh important to the Gullah/Geechee people?

A: The waterways are sacred to us and provide our food. Every native Gullah/Geechee grew up breathing in the smell of pluff mud as we proceeded out to get the family meals of fish, shrimp, oysters, clams, and blue crabs. In the soil we grow staples of the Gullah/Geechee diet, including rice and vegetables. The salt marsh is not something that we simply go through or to; it’s part of our family, too. Our lives depend on it.

Q: What are your biggest concerns for the habitat?

A: We’ve seen this area change over the decades as the ocean acidifies, bridges are built, newcomers arrive, and overbuilding infringes on our islands and salt marsh. The pilings used to invade the salt marsh with private docks feel like stakes being hammered into the heart of those of us from this coastline, because de land da we famlee and de wata da we bloodline (the land is our family and the water is our bloodline).

Q: What changes are you seeing in the salt marsh?

A: The continued negative impacts to our coastline due to climate change have caused visible harm to the salt marsh to the extent that we had to begin replanting the spartina grass (the main vegetation found in salt marsh) when we replant oyster shells to create new oyster beds. Combating sea level rise and protecting the maritime forest from eroding are some of the ecological and environmental sustainability actions that the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition and the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association have been a part of for decades. Initially, the rapid erosion we saw appeared to be connected to flash floods and hurricanes, but over time, we had to learn terms that do not exist in the Gullah language—such as "sea level rise."

Q: What would happen to your nation if you lost significant portions of salt marsh habitat?

A: The loss of the salt marsh would be the death of the fisheries that I grew up traversing with my family via the bateau (flat-bottom wooden boats) that we make traditionally by hand. It would be the erasure of the memories of seeing these sacred and spiritually rejuvenating spaces. Without being able to nourish our souls and our bodies via the waterways and estuaries that are our salt marsh areas, Gullah/Geechee people wouldn't thrive and our culture wouldn't survive. So the life of the salt marsh is inextricably tied to our cultural continuation.

Q: How do the Gullah/Geechee people want to see salt marsh conserved?

A: The Gullah/Geechee Nation created a sustainability plan in 2010 that includes a special ocean action section. We’re expanding the plan to include a specific section on the salt marsh, as we enter into new initiatives to prevent litter and debris from entering the area and as we work to educate people more about the life that exists between what to many simply look like blades of grass covered by water a few times a day. We’re proud to work with global partners via the United Nations to protect our environment and continue our cultural heritage.

Q: Can you say more about this work with the United Nations?

A: We’re working on the United Nations sustainable development goals and due to that effort, we’ve been supporting the United States' and South Carolina's 30 by 30 plans to conserve 30% of the waterways and 30% of the land by the year 2030. We would want special emphasis to be placed on the salt marsh and the ocean in the implementation aspects of these plans. That would allow the salt marsh to not only be conserved but would allow it to naturally be replenished.

Q: What do you hope for the new South Atlantic Salt Marsh Initiative?

A: The initiative is a perfect fit for the Gullah/Geechee Nation! It suits us like a custom-made garment or a personally crafted vessel that will finally allow us to get other folks to navigate our coast with us in a way that is in harmony with our cultural traditions. I’m looking forward to bringing Gullah/Geechee traditional knowledge into the planning process, but even more than that, I’m looking forward to putting on my hip boots and stepping out into the marsh with my Gullah/Geechee famlee.  

As one of our Gullah/Geechee proverbs goes, "De wata bring we and de wata gwine tek we bak" ("The water brings to us and the water will take us back"). I pray that this initiative allows us to take the salt marsh back to being healthy while also educating the next generation of Gullah/Geechee coastal stewards to continue the effort in the future. We intend to have many more generations of our people along this shore just beyond the marsh who will continue to walk to the shoreline to nourish their bodies, minds, and souls. Tenk GAWD fa de Gullah/Geechee coast!