By Barney Blakeney
Much of Virginia and Dana Beach’s new book, “A Wholly Admirable Thing; Defending Nature and Community on the South Carolina Coast; Stories Of The Coastal Conservation League”, reads like a history book that incorporates the story of efforts to preserve and conserve nature in our state’s coastal communities. It is foremost among many things, a tale of the Coastal Conservation League founded by Dana Beach in 1989. The book is the first joint effort from the couple – Virginia Beach a writer on subjects of preservation and natural history and Dana Beach who has written books and a report on the same subjects.
As one of the founding board members of the Coastal Conservation League, Beach has led the organization to become one of the most successful and influential environmental advocacy groups in the country. But the league’s work transcends protecting woodlands, wetlands and bird habitats; it has been an instrumental force in the preservation and conservation of Black owned land and culture.
I’ve known Dana Beach and his work for decades. It’s been abundantly clear his goals coincide with efforts to preserve the culture of Gullah Geechee people who inhabit the state’s coastal communities. So I asked him how the new book impacts Black communities. He said the league immediately realized preserving nature on the South Carolina Sea Islands and in other communities was intimately relative to residents of traditional settlements such as Sandy Island, St. Helena Island, Wando and Wadmalaw Island – that a comprehensive focus would be a view not just of birds, but also of people.
In chapter three, the book explores the evolution of Penn Center. “Eventually Penn Center became an important site in South Carolina for safeguarding the heritage of the African American Gullah community,” it notes. Throughout the history of Gullah culture, place has been important, the authors write. Before and after the Civil War, land ownership in particular became critical to freedom and independence for the Gullah.
“They were so serious about freedom,” the book quotes former Penn Center Executive Director Emory Campbell. “They knew what was important … Today the Gullah community is in the midst of transition. Gullahs are losing their land at an alarming rate. Our people are tied to their land; so if we don’t have the land, we can’t protect the culture.”
The book also quotes Gulllah Geechee Heritage Corridor Commissioner Willie Heyward in a Post & Courier interview saying while many people view land as a commodity to be bought and sold, for the Gullah Geechee property sustains families.
Chapter seven of the book notes the role of Charleston’s port in the preservation of the Lowcountry environment and the people who live in it. When the city was founded in 1670, European settlers realized the value of the deep harbor. Since then and into modern times, that deep harbor has accommodated the flow of goods including rice, cotton and human slaves which made South Carolina businessmen among the richest in the country. The book’s outline of the port’s history is as intriguing as it is informative.
In the late 1990s, port expansion threatened the Wando community which 20 years earlier saw the State Port Authority make a home on the Wando River. That threat would disrupt the lives of hundreds of residents who had lived on the land for generations during and after the Civil War. Port expansion was a “done deal”; that is until the Coastal Conservation League stepped in with resources to assist those who would be displaced.
Wando-Huger CDC Chairman Fred Lincoln said 40 percent of residents would have been impacted, but Coastal Conservation League stepped in providing financial and other resources to an otherwise powerless community waging an epic legal battle that ultimately resulted in unprecedented success against the maritime giant. The league continued its engagement with residents of the area to preserve ancestral graveyards, prevent the construction of highways thorough communities and to protect heirs property, Lincoln said. “I don’t think we would have been successful without them. Our community is better for it,” he surmises.
With various chapters on communities and collaborations, the book is a collective of some of the most fulfilling work he’s done over the past 30 years, Beach said. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done because I believed in it. But the reality is we must have a diverse landscape and if we’re to be successful in conservation we must be interested in the human side.
“I feel it is a political and moral requirement to do the work that is continuing,” he said. “I hope people who read the book, people who may not be in the environmental arena, but care about culture and rural economies realize there are things they can do. I hope it helps them understand what needs to be done and what we can do if we exercise the political will.”