This week on The Gullah Project we are featuring James Bradley Sr., one of the last African-American shrimp boat owners in South Carolina. He was a commercial fisherman over 60 years and is now retired from fishing, leaving his son James Bradley Jr., to command their boat.
Filmed and edited by Dr. Buz Kloot. Interview by Denise McGill
One of many wonderful experiences on St. Helena Island was the morning I spent oyster picking with Ed “Lee Man” Atkins.
Atkins’ family owns Atkins Bait Shop, one of the oldest businesses in Beaufort County. It’s on the roadside just as you cross the bridge onto St. Helena Island. It doesn’t look like much, but folks in fancy pickup trucks come from miles around because Atkins has exactly what they need to catch The Big One.
During season, Atkins also works his family’s oyster beds around St. Helena Island. Oyster season usually runs from September to April. It’s easy to remember because oysters are only in season during months with the letter “r” in them.
On this particular morning I met Atkins and his cousin Curtis Atkins before daybreak at the bait shop. After a short ride in a johnboat, we settled on a nearby shoreline. Atkins scanned the clusters of shells at our feet and quickly determined which had the largest oysters inside. To me, every rock-like handful looked the same.
I’ll never be an expert oyster picker, but at least I can buy them from the man who is.
St. Helena Island is a magical place on the South Carolina coastline. African Americans have farmed and fished here for centuries: first as plantation slaves, then as freedmen owning small subsistence operations. It’s now one of the last farming communities on the East Coast that hasn’t been swallowed up by development. But the Gullah/Geechee traditions here are in danger.
Can the residents pass their heritage on to another generation? Or will the pristine nature of the land and water be lost forever?
Filmmakers spent years on the island documenting landowners and fishermen. Along the way they explore issues like global agribusiness, conservation costs and apathy from the community. James Bradley owns one of the last local shrimp boat operations. His dock is on a beautiful waterfront, but he resists the temptation to sell. Sará and Bill Green care for 10 acres that has been in her family since Reconstruction. They eek out a living and start a program to teach farming and entrepreneurship to youth.
In the end, the residents show tenuous optimism about the future of the island. The answers involve blending traditional knowledge with modern techniques. Witty characters and stunning scenery transport viewers to one of America’s last hidden treasures.