The Gullah Geechee people, who live in the Southeast U.S. along the Atlantic coastline from North Carolina to Florida, face displacement from their homeland. The Gullah Geechee have inhabited the area since their enslaved ancestors were forcibly brought to the U.S. from West Africa 400 years ago. They share a unique culture, ethnic identity, and dialect, for which the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor was declared a National Heritage Area in 2006.
Today, they are among the most climate-threatened people in the world due to sea level rise and increasing climate-related events. Climate change, combined with development and gentrification, threatens to erode the community’s land.
In their Pulitzer Center-supported project, Climate’s Triple Threat: Rising Seas, Stronger Hurricanes, Heavier Rain, grantees Melba Newsome and photojournalist Mallory Cash set out to document how this historically Black community is striving to protect its heritage and history in the face of displacement.
For Newsome, this project is the latest in a long career of environmental journalism, and the issue is near to her heart. For Cash, this is her first photojournalism project and a way to learn more about the area in which she lives.
Their stories—“Rising Seas Threaten the Gullah Geechee Culture. Here’s How They’re Fighting Back” and “Vanishing Land: Climate Change Displaces Black Families Along Gullah-Geechee Corridor”—were published in National Geographic and The Post and Courier, respectively. The Post and Courier is based in Charleston, South Carolina.
Through descriptive, vivid storytelling and intimate photos, Newsome and Cash’s collaboration gives an inside look into the lives of the residents of James Island, South Carolina and Brunswick County, North Carolina. The neighborhoods the locals remember from their childhoods, and can trace back generations of family history, look different today. Newsome saw this project as a way to explain the issue of climate displacement, especially to the disadvantaged people who are most affected by it.
Newsome quotes Michael Allen, a retired National Park Service ranger who fought for the Gullah Geechee corridor’s recognition: “In the midst of this change, the question is how can these historic African American communities keep their integrity, their heritage, and their lineage intact?”
Pulitzer Center Editorial Intern Grace Jensen spoke with Newsome and Cash about their coverage of the Gullah Geechee corridor, how they got to know their sources, and their experiences reporting on environmental justice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grace Jensen: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what drew you to this journalism project?
Melba Newsome: My first [Pulitzer Center project] was more about the impact of the coronavirus, which led to me being more interested in reporting and writing about environmental issues because of how broadly they impact things like health, and just about everything. And [for this project] I wanted to show how the people along the coast are being impacted by that, they're the people who contribute the least but are most impacted by climate change. And I brought Mallory in as the photographer because she lives in what's called the Gullah Geechee area along the corridor. And I had become friends with her husband first. And I'd seen her work … and she's familiar with that part of the country and of the coast.
Mallory Cash: I was really, really happy when she brought me on. I live in Wilmington, North Carolina. And I think it's the end [of the Gullah Geechee corridor]; it goes to Jacksonville [Florida].
MN: Jacksonville to right above Wilmington.
MC: Right. So we're close to the end of it. And I knew that, but I didn't necessarily know too much about what that meant. I also went to school in South Carolina for three years, and so I was around hearing a lot about the Gullah Geechee corridor, the culture, and seeing what was going on in Charleston a little bit. So it was nice for all of that to come together in this way. I could talk to Melba about it, read the drafts of her article and then get to actually go down there myself. So I was really happy to be part of it.
GJ: So what has your journey in journalism looked like so far for both of you?
MN: I've been in journalism now for more than two decades. And all over a lot of different kinds of reporting, but in, I would say, the last five, eight years, mostly, it's been focused on science, health, environment, and some education. And the last couple of years [have been] heavily environmentally focused.
MC: Yeah, for me, I've been a professional photographer for about six years. And Melba has been my intro to photojournalism, as far as anything with environmental justice or anything related to that. It's funny because I live in Wilmington, where our water has been poisoned for years, and so I've always been aware of those kinds of things. It's been really empowering and that's definitely the route that I'm trying to head with my photo career as well. I started more editorial photo work and then I've been dipping my toe in and now I'm fully geared towards photojournalism. I'm somewhat new in that area, but I've always loved portraits and meeting people and learning about local issues, and so I think it's a great fit for me.
GJ: So what do you think of the reporting that's been done previously about the Gullah Geechee corridor? And do you think that it's been underreported in the United States?
MN: Well, I think there is an understanding in this part of the country about the Gullah Geechee culture, [but] that is even pretty recent, because they succeeded in having that declared a National Heritage Area about 15 years ago, and that has really boosted the profile and given it more of a national profile about that culture. But there's still not a lot that people know about it. Most of what I've seen covered is culture, about these being the descendants of enslaved Africans from 400 years [ago], and the food, that kind of thing.
But the reporting on the climate impact is recent, within the last few years. That's come about because of studies that show how these people are among the most climate threatened in the world, because of where they live, because of other factors like development and gentrification. And so they're starting to be more about that. The people who live there are talking about finally getting attention, because they've been saying for generations, you guys are messing things up by building here and making things harder for us. And they're finally getting some recognition for what they had been saying for the last 30, 40 years.
GJ: What about for you, Mallory? What news were you exposed to previously about the Gullah Geechee corridor as someone living within it?
MC: Not a lot. I don't know if it's willful ignorance or just a lack of it being covered. Probably a little bit of both. But even when I was working on this, someone would say, “Oh, what are you in Charleston doing?” And I would tell them, and [they’d say], “What is that?” or “I've never heard of that.” Or alternatively, when I was in South Carolina, there [are] certain areas that are tourist traps. It's just a gross thing in Charleston, there's these markets and there are all of these tourists that go and they think they understand, but they don't really understand what the culture is, or what's happening. I think people just stop at like, “Oh, that's interesting” and then move on. So I think it's great for people when I sent this article to so many people, and so many people were like, “Oh my gosh, wow, I never put any of this together.”
MN: One of the people quoted in my story, Michael Allen, worked with the Park Service for nearly 40 years before he retired. He was part of getting recognition, making the plan for how we recognize this part of the country as a historic site. He's really ambivalent about it now, because he thinks there's a lot that the more we know about the culture, there's a lot of displacement going on. Because people see this really beautiful part of the country where that's been cut off for a lot of time and so it's becoming more popular, but also forcing the people out who have historically been there. And then appropriating the culture, like a lot of the folks who are making money off Gullah Geechee stuff are not Gullah Geechee at all. So the people who take up something because they see a good marketing opportunity, and the people who really are part of it get left out. And he feels that the culture is being usurped in that way.
"I think it's a common, way too common, story. And people are sounding the alarms, but we don't have to go to the Marshall Islands to see it. We just need to go to James Island, and it's right there."
GJ: How do you think that this story could be applicable for people living outside the Southeast U.S.?
MN: I think it is. I just finished a story about climate refugees in Latin America, in Panama. And they're facing the same thing. This is when the conquistadors came 500 years ago, they were a step ahead of them in moving to be a place where they could maintain their autonomy. So now, they were given these islands, this archipelago that used to be called San Blas, but they're sinking. And so they have to move and will probably be among the first climate refugees, because they are planning to be moved within probably by the end of the year, to places on the mainland. So the Gullah Geechee story is just emblematic of all of these similar stories around the world, where, Indigenous people, people who've been there, are being moved out by a whole host of things that have to do with climate.
But you also have among Gullah Geechee, not just people moving because of the climate, but also people moving because other people want that land that they did not want 300 years ago, or 200 years ago, because there was so many mosquitoes and all this, but now it's this great beachfront property. So there's something like that happening on Long Island within a Native American tribe. They are being run out. They're surrounded by the Hamptons, right? These multimillion-dollar mansions, and their place is just shrinking, and they're being displaced. So I think it's a common, way too common, story. And people are sounding the alarms, but we don't have to go to the Marshall Islands to see it. We just need to go to James Island, and it's right there.
MC: In a similar vein, I used to live in West Virginia, and with mountaintop removal, and the flooding we saw in Kentucky recently—all of the chemicals, all of the flooding, all of those kinds of things— it’s a similar story, not quite the same with climate change, but environmental justice related. I think that there are so many places around the country, around the world, where we could take a look and find similarities and how things are being done and who's being built up, what part of town are they saving in Charleston, what part of town is being flooded, all of those things. I think Appalachia is another great example of that.
"Who covers the beat has a lot to do with what gets covered."
GJ: Yeah, for sure.
MN: I also want to say I think it's very important. One of the things that I'm doing is starting a fellowship for environmental journalists of color, and there aren't nearly enough. And who covers the beat has a lot to do with what gets covered. So when we have this right here on our doorstep, and it should be covered a lot, so that we see who's being impacted. We need more people who come from that environment, actually grew up in those environments, because you can see the long tail of these things happening. But [instead] they don't live there, they come in, and they may be sympathetic, but a lot of times they see the people who live there, they are still are otherized. They think this is a neat, little, quirky story about these odd people living in this strange place. That comes through in the reporting a lot of times.
MC: That's something I worry about a lot as a photographer, too. I constantly ask myself, is this my story to tell? I think I've learned a lot the last few years about just coming to a place with genuine intentions, and trying to get to know people. I think that photography for me is, there's a lot of taking involved in it, and I don't want to ever have somebody think that I'm just there like, “These people are on display,” or “What's happening here, there's a disaster.” It's important to me to ask those questions ahead of time and to try to get to know people because I think it's such a fine line with photography, too. It's such a personal thing. In this story, when I went down to Charleston, Mosquito Beach is tiny, like a road. So no matter what color my skin was, they don't know me because I don't live there. But walking in, you have to be aware of that. So I tried really hard with [Bill] “Cubby” [Wilder]. We talked on the phone a few times, and we met twice. I think that is the same with photography, I think for too long, it was the same person taking pictures over and over again. It's nice to have different points of view.
"I constantly ask myself, is this my story to tell? I think I've learned a lot the last few years about just coming to a place with genuine intentions, and trying to get to know people."
GJ: Yeah, definitely. I was going to ask about Cubby, and Connie McCoy, and your other sources that you seemed to really speak with in-depth and get their full stories, and how you approached them and earned their trust.
MN: One of the things that I tried when I was working with journalists and other people and talking about the process, sourcing is a very big part of that. How do you find [new] sources so that you're just not going back to the same people who are always quoted? What's helpful to me is to get introduced by somebody, and whenever I'm talking to sources say, “Is there anybody you think I should talk to? Could you introduce me?” And that goes a long way because, like, Michael introduced me to Cubby. And I spent time with him, it was really funny, and we talked a lot on the phone, and then he introduced me to people. And then I think when I connected him to Mallory, she wasn't starting from scratch because he trusted her because we had developed trust. And I actually just found Connie, because there had been this little story about him, and I hunted him down and talked to him. He's like, “I'd be honored to talk to you.” And he wanted to talk about it. We actually sometimes assume that folks don't want their stories told, but a lot of times they do. Just nobody asked them. We keep asking people about them, but not them. We often try to talk to people about other people instead of talking to those people themselves.
MC: Yeah, I think what Melba said, she laid the groundwork of that trust, and she was able to vouch for me. But I think for me, it's slightly different, because I'm not having these long interviews, and I don't have a chance to really have a good rapport going with somebody. Sometimes I'm meeting them for the first time, with Connie and Cubby I had talked to them both on the phone before. So at least we had heard each other's voices and we had chatted for just a few minutes. When I meet people, I typically just start to just talk to them and ask them about themselves. I think for me, it's reading people and reading their body language and reading the room, when it's time to pick the camera up and when it's time to put it down. And some people just want to chat.
But for instance, there was a woman at Mosquito Beach the second time I came. I parked and walked up because I didn't want to park on the street. And then she immediately came out and she was like, “Hey, can I help you?” And she was really skeptical, understandably. The moment I mentioned Cubby, she was like, “Oh, you want to come inside? Do you want some tea?” So it's like this shift that happens. And it's because then Cubby had called, there was a group of guys sitting out, and he had called one of them. They said, “Oh, yeah, Cubby told me that there might be a woman wandering around with the camera.” So it was making time and space for listening to people and really talking to them. And you can tell a lot of people don't like texting, especially I'd say anyone over 65, 75, I find that they just don't love texting, and so just take the time to get on the phone with them. For me, it has gone far.
"We actually sometimes assume that folks don't want their stories told, but a lot of times they do. Just nobody asked them. We keep asking people about them, but not them."
MN: One of the things that [I did] working with Mallory is I shared a draft with her. It's an early draft, but a draft nonetheless, so she can see where I'm going. And the context of these people, what context I'm writing about them in, which also gives her probably some ideas about how to photograph and what context to photograph them in. Because Cubby’s out there the first time I met him he came up in his old truck, and I was like [to Mallory] “Make sure you get a picture of Cubby by his truck.” And I think when you told him that I'm sure he was like, “Oh, by my truck?” I just think it helps a lot. I think for the photographer, unless you're just capturing news shots or whatever, but framing for features, it helps to see the story. Sometimes I have thought [in the beginning], this person or this is going to be a big part of my story. That's why I don't think it's that productive to take a photographer on my first reporting trip, because it's a waste of time, really, I never know. To go along with the story, it's important to know what the story is, and sometimes the writer doesn't know until he or she is way into it.
"Many of these stories are so place-based, and so I think it's important that you validate that where the person is from is important, what they're saying is important, their story is important."
MC: I can definitely say sharing a draft is so vital because I make a shortlist based on the article and I have an app on my phone, and as I'm reading, I just highlight something and then I add it to my notes, and then it just creates a list that I can just go through and check. And usually I look for in an article, if there's locations or names, or anything else that's been talked about more than once, I usually put those on the list. Sometimes I don't get all of them. Sometimes some of them aren't relevant. But it's also good because I like to know what the story is. Because the way I take pictures is very conversational. I talked to people almost the whole time we're shooting and so I'd be talking and taking pictures and it just relaxes people and you get a very natural expression. So it's nice that I can do a little bit of research about Mosquito Beach or I can look up things so that I can say, “Oh, yeah, I saw that there was that celebration last week. How was it?” It's really helpful for me to just have a few of those things in my back pocket that I can pull out. I think it validates that I'm not there just taking a picture and leaving without speaking to them or trying to get to know them. Many of these stories are so place-based and so I think it's important that you validate that where the person is from is important, what they're saying is important, their story is important. And I think just having that little bit of knowledge ahead of time goes a long way for me.
GJ: Was there anything that any of your sources said during an interview or just chatting that really surprised you?
MN: I would say that people, even who this is happening to, don't really realize what's happening to their people who are the victims of environmental injustice or environmental racism. I'm surprised at how many of them don't realize what's going on and how far removed a lot of them are from that. Writing and reporting on the industrial hog and poultry farms and the wood pellet [manufacturers] that are these really polluting and devastating industries that are situated exclusively in poor communities of color, not just some, but exclusively. I still find that when you point out to people how for one minute somebody suggested putting a hog farm in Pinehurst, which is this exclusive golf community, and that conversation was shut down so fast— I still think there are a lot of people who don't realize. One thing because local media has been so snuffed out, and there's news deserts … there's not as much reporting or awareness of it. I think that's probably my thing is how many people know so little about what's happening to them.
MC: I think that even after doing this for six years, I'm still amazed that people are so personal with me, people will talk about really personal things and open up to me. I think there's something about me that makes people comfortable. I feel like people put trust in me. To stand in front of my camera and to talk to me is a very vulnerable thing. And that always surprises me that people are willing to do it, because I'm not sure that I would be willing to do it.
MN: Yeah, it's always amazing what people are willing to tell you. I'm thinking, “You do know this is gonna be in print, right?” But I'm also very grateful.
GJ: Where do you think that more reporting is needed about the Gullah Geechee corridor in the future?
MN: I think more reporting is needed about climate displacement [in] communities of color everywhere, not just the Gullah Geechee corridor. That’s the most prominent for me just because I live in this area. It's an opportunity to introduce people to a culture that many folks don't know. I think we need more reporting on climate change as an environmental justice issue. It is an environmental justice issue. People need to understand that this is not just about how many inches of fresh powder we get in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or you know, what's happening to the polar bears, [it’s about] the folks who are most impacted and will be most impacted. We need reporting about that. I received the Alicia Patterson fellowship to spend the year reporting about communities being displaced by climate change.
MC: I think the same thing, and I think the heirs property situation is interesting to me. Just from a human background, a legal background, and I think that not a lot of people know or understand that, what's going on with that. I know that there are some states that have passed laws that are helping with getting aid after hurricanes or [from] disaster relief funds, partition sales, all of these things. I think Melba in your story … it was the leading cause of land loss.
MN: Heirs property is the leading cause of Black land loss in the country.
MC: I think [we need] more of that [reporting]. I think that's a concrete way of saying, look at the disproportionate effect even on that side, generational wealth, all of these things.
GJ: I'm wondering how you combined all of these different factors that cause displacement into one story, because it seems like there are environmental, socioeconomic, and racial factors. And so you have to talk to people who know things about all of those different causes. How do you combine it all together cohesively?
MN: I cry a lot. I'm not talking about crying at the unfairness of it all. I do a lot of that, too. But it really is a challenge. And one of the reasons that I think [of] the Gullah Geechee story as an anchor story, is because all of those things are happening there. The development not only gives people a way to take this property that they didn't want in the first place now that it's valuable, but exacerbates the impact of climate change, like erosion, and they have the heirs property, then they have racism, and just regular gentrification happening. All of those elements were prevalent in this one situation; there are other places where it's happening, but not all that other stuff is happening. So that was a challenge. But I was looking at it, and I was saying, it's more of an explanatory story than a narrative. A friend of mine texted me last night, she says she finally read it, and she’s like, “Oh, this is great. How you got all that stuff in there in that space to explain?” And I had to explain these things, how this is a culture that is being attacked from all sides, and find people that represent that.
GJ: How does reporting about climate change and environmental justice affect you? And how do you deal with it?
MN: It’s very painful for me. I'm serious. It really is. Because these are my people. I come from Arkansas, but I've seen what happened, our family had heirs property. And about 10 years ago, we realized how screwed up that was. We all took it out of heirs property, and so now the six of us, my siblings and I, we don't hold property in joint tenancy, we hold one-sixth of my parents’ property, so that ended that craziness. But my grandfather's line is still in heirs property. He had nine kids and his kids had a bunch of kids and then they had kids. So how small is that, all divided up? And how hard it is to do anything with it, and people not realizing that. Just seeing the injustice is really hard. And then that environmental reporting, and combined with important reporting on the pandemic, to be honest, it messed with my mental health. It was hard to do, a lot of good work, but it was hard psychologically, admittedly, because you just see one injustice after another that goes back [to] the root of which reaches back so far. It's hard, personally.
MC: Justin Cook is a photographer who is a Pulitzer grantee too, and I follow him on Instagram, and he has a book involving the Outer Banks. But he posts, maybe every couple of weeks, positive stories like climate change stuff, whenever there's like even a tiny little bit of progress or something that's positive. I find that kind of stuff trying to believe there's some hope, or there's still some good. I try because otherwise it's hard to get yourself out of that hole, the hopeless hole, that if you're paying attention that you should be in.
GJ: What else do you hope to achieve, or is there anything that you're looking forward to, in 2023?
MN: I'm going to be spending a lot of time on my grant, my Alicia Patterson fellowship. [Also] a lot of focus on trying to help and get more people of color into reporting on environmental issues, on the environment, environmental justice, things like that through the fellowship and teaching a class at Wake Forest this semester.
MC: I'm hoping to continue down this path of photojournalism and get more experience. I would love to go to school for it. So we'll see if that happens. But there's a lot going on, I think always looking local is the best thing to start with and there's so much going on in Wilmington, the environmental justice track is what I'm interested in, in neighboring counties, but even right in Wilmington, so I'm trying to get some story ideas together for some personal work involving that, but I'm still rushing through it right now.
GJ: Melba, how are you trying to get more people of color interested in reporting environmental justice?
MN: Well, one thing is I created a fellowship that's going to be run out of Wake Forest University. We have funding from the Mellon Institute, where we will have between five and eight journalists of color. And they will be together for one week in June, and then produce stories. And so hopefully, we're going to do that right now. We have a commitment for three years to do that. So that's one thing. I'm involved with The Uproot Project, which is a group of environmental journalists of color. So my class that I'm teaching this semester is called a deep dive into environmental journalism. So they’re students at Wake Forest, about half come from the journalism department and the other half comes from the African American studies division, and they seem really excited about covering environmental journalism. So I want to do that. Just speaking to people, talking to other groups and talking about how important this is to cover.
"Climate change is real. And it is an existential threat. I want folks, especially my people, to understand that."
GJ: I would love to take that class. What do you hope that people will take away from this particular story?
MN: I realized that it was more of an explanatory story than a narrative, even though there are narrative portions, the narrative was used to explain the situation. It was important for me to put in data and research. I hate numbers and stuff. But it was important for me to put in what the studies have found, to chronicle or just illuminate that these many people are being impacted, the percentage, how poverty plays into it, and things like that. Most importantly, I want people to take away knowledge, I want them to understand what is happening, who it's happening to, and get a little bit pissed off, do something, at least just advocate for this. To see how this is just one link in a chain of injustice. This is just one part of it. But it's all intertwined. And it's important, very important. I know, sometimes folks get tired of me. But climate change is real. And it is an existential threat. I want folks, especially my people, to understand that.
MC: I think Melba said it beautifully. I just hope my small part in this, my small contribution, can maybe further humanize what's going on. When you look at somebody's face, look at their eyes, you look at the location, I think it helps a lot of people to really put themselves there. I just hope that people take the time to read the words and look at the pictures and, like Melba said, maybe get a little angry, and then move forward and do some good for what's going on.
GJ: Is journalism your way of channeling that anger?
MC: Yeah, I think photography for me feels like a way to contribute. Sometimes when I'm on these assignments, it's a way for me to get involved in something. I just feel like my camera is my way of contributing and learning. From there, whenever there's something that sparks, which this has sparks for me, then I can … continue with it and it branches out to other things.
GJ: Great. Is there anything else that you want to add?
MN: I just want to say I really love working with the Pulitzer Center. I know a big part of their focus is on the environment and climate change, and I hope we get to do more projects together.