Author Herb Frazier can still picture the scene in his mind. It took place about 15 years ago, when he was conducting research for his book, “Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories — Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, Daniel Island, St. Thomas Island, South Carolina.”
Frazier was visiting the home of Cainhoy peninsula native Harold Lincoln Sr., who was then nearing his 93rd birthday. Lincoln had spent his whole life in the tight-knit Jack Primus community, located off Clements Ferry Road, and Frazier was eager to hear his stories of days gone by.
Lincoln’s grandfather had been a slave on the former Venning Plantation, which was located on what is now known as the Cainhoy Plantation property. The interviewer sat on one side of the fireplace in the living room — and his subject on the other. But it wasn’t so much their positioning that left an impression on Frazier, it was what Lincoln was doing as they spoke.
“It blew me away,” Frazier said. “One of the things that he was doing, he was roasting sweet potatoes in his fireplace! It is seared in my memory ... He had a poker and he was positioning, moving around and working those sweet potatoes around these glowing hot embers ... How much more Gullah can you be?”
Frazier’s book was published in 2011. Just a year later Harold Lincoln passed away, at age 98, after a long and fruitful life on the lands he loved. Many of his children and grandchildren still live in the Jack Primus community.
But Frazier’s time with Lincoln, and the other elders he interviewed, reaffirmed to him that the Gullah-Geechee culture is alive and well in this once isolated part of the Lowcountry, its African and Caribbean traditions preserved and passed down from generation to generation. Frazier had traveled to the west coast of Africa prior to starting his work on the book — and the experience gave him a foundation on which to build his story.
“That was important to write about from the Cainhoy, Huger, Wando, Daniel Island perspective,” Frazier said. “Because to see — to know, to be aware of — where the culture came from, and then to see it then find a place here and to see how it has changed ...
One of the big things that has changed the culture and will continually change the culture is outward migration and development.”
Frazier noted other similarities between the communities on the Cainhoy peninsula, such as Jack Primus, Yellow House, and St. Thomas, and those he observed along the African coast.
“You see these clusters of communities,” he said. “And I bet you all the people in those clusters of two, three, four, maybe five homes, I bet they are all related. And that definitely is an Africanism because as you travel the roads in The Gambia and in Sierra Leone, those are the kinds of community patterns you're going to see.”
“Folks, for generations and generations, they don’t leave, they don’t travel or find some other place to live, unless they go off to school,” stated Harold Lincoln’s son and longtime Cainhoy community advocate Fred Lincoln, in a 2019 article for The Daniel Island News. “And, as soon as they retire or something, everybody comes back home.”
Frazier also remembers a story shared with him for the book by Richard Roper of Cordesville, who has since passed away. Roper spoke of the growing of rice – another African tradition brought to the Sea Islands by slaves.
“He told me that his grandfather grew rice on an inland plot. Inland wetlands, irrigated by a pond that was nearby ... He had, I think, 17 acres and they grew rice to supplement their food source during the Depression and that helped them survive.”
Even the title of Frazier’s book, “Behind God’s Back,” has ties to the Gullah culture.
“It is a direct result of the Gullah language, because that phrase, ‘Behind God's Back,’ is a Gullah term,” he noted. “You also hear that phrase in Barbados.”
The phrase describes a place that is isolated or off the beaten path, continued Frazier. And that isolation is one of the reasons the Gullah culture still exists today.
“Rivers, creeks and marshes have separated coastal Gullah communities from the mainland, creating isolated pockets where people retained their African ways,” wrote Frazier in his book.
Predominantly Black communities, like those on the Cainhoy peninsula, have preserved that culture, continued Frazier, who summed up the different descriptions of the Gullah way of life in his book.
“It’s handmade sweetgrass baskets and cast nets, praise houses, rousing spirituals and syncopated clapping, rice and greens and beans and yams, family land passed down from one generation to the next,” he wrote. “Gullah is a distinct and fertile language too
that easily rolls off the tongue, a blend of mostly English and African words spoken in rich Caribbean tones.”
The Gullah term “Bin Yah” means “been here.” It is a reminder that long before today’s developments sprouted up and new families began to move in on the Cainhoy peninsula and other parts of the Lowcountry, there were unique communities whose traditions began centuries ago.
And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself among the “Bin Yahs,” you may notice a few sweet potatoes roasting on a fire and families gathered on their porches reminiscing – in the rhythmic melodies of a language carried across the ocean.