By Barney Blakeney
Heather Hodges, an administrator of a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in Washington, D.C., and a photographer who documents African, Afro-Latino and Hispanic cultures, was named executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. She took the helm of the cultural preservation organization based on Johns Island in November.
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission were created by an act of Congress through the National Heritage Areas Act of 2006. The corridor extends roughly from Wilmington, N.C. to St. Augustine, FL. and extends inland about 30 miles from the coast. It encompasses Gullah Geechee communities made up of direct descendants of West and Central Africans who survived the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean and were enslaved to provide labor on coastal plantations in the corridor.
Gullah Geechee people are direct descendants of people brought primarily from Africa’s rice-producing regions, who were forced to work for almost two centuries on coastal plantations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida. The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor was established to recognize and preserve the cultural treasures of Gullah Geechee people.
Sixth Dist. Cong. James E. Clyburn, a driving force behind the establishment of the corridor and commission said, “One of my proudest achievements in the Congress was authoring the legislation that established the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and the commission to help federal, state and local authorities manage the corridor and its assets. Today the commission is working hard to promote the nearly 400-year history of the Gullah Geechee culture. That is the core purpose of my initiative. The sites, sounds, and tastes of the Gullah Geechee culture have slowly been vanishing. I believe the work of the commission is imperative to saving this rich culture.”
Hodges brings an array of skills to help. An honors graduate from the Tulane University School of Law, Hodges began her legal career in private practice in Washington as an associate at the international law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP (now Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer) and then as counsel with Crowell and Moring LLP. She was the recipient of a 2010-2011 Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship from Georgetown Law School where she did field work exploring challenges to providing access to justice in Belize and organized programs on international human rights law.
Ms. Hodges also is a documentary photographer who specializes in African, Afro-Latino and Hispanic culture with an emphasis on contemporary and traditional music and dance culture. She has traveled extensively, including to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, to study traditional Afro-Cuban dance; to La Sabana, Venezuela, for the Fiesta de San Juan; to Dakar, Senegal to explore its contemporary music scene; and to Belize for Garifuna Settlement Day. She also has documented the roots of Delta blues and the Gathering at Geechee Kunda Festival in Georgia. Her photographs have been exhibited in Washington and London, England.
After serving as Pro Bono Counsel for almost a decade at Neighborhood Legal Services of the District of Columbia, she is an experienced, non-profit executive and attorney with significant experience in program design, resource development, fundraising, community engagement, communications, board relations, organizational development, capacity building, advocacy and strategic planning.
Dr. Dionne Hoskins-Brown of Savannah, Ga., who chaired the search committee and also represents Georgia on the commission said, “Ms. Hodges’ excellent combination of qualifications and her love of African culture throughout the diaspora will take the corridor in its next logical direction. Her unique experience of working with people and her particular interest in the richness of Gullah Geechee communities makes me excited for the future of advocacy for the corridor.”
Hodges said her initial vision of the corridor’s direction is three-pronged on education, economic development and preservation. “My vision for the corridor is that it remains an enduring, robust and multi-faceted platform for the recognition of the cultural contributions of the Gullah Geechee people. I look forward to supporting the commission as it continues the important work of both implementing the management plan and finding new partners and supporters to help accomplish its important mission,” she said.