The Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission on Thursday unveiled three alternatives for preserving those sites and the rich culture of the sea islands off the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
The plans include everything from archiving the history of the culture to preserving natural resources and providing economic opportunities for island residents.
Known as Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Florida and Georgia, the culture generally remained intact because of the islands' isolation along the coast.
Gullah communities were established by freed slaves after the Civil War and most people made livings fishing or farming fields of vegetables and row crops.
Now those islands are feeling the pressure of rapid development and are as likely to have golf courses and plush upscale resorts as fishing and farming hamlets.
The commission, established by Congress in 2006 through the work of South Carolina U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the first black congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction, has been working on a plan to preserve the sea island culture.
It began with a series of 21 public meetings 2 years ago in the corridor reaching from Wilmington, N.C., south to Jacksonville, Fla.
"One surprise was getting names and locations of sites associated with the culture we had no knowledge of," said Michael Allen, of the National Park Service who is coordinator for the project.
He said there are now about 1,000 sites catalogued. There are an estimated 250,000 Gullah and Geechee in the four states.
The Creole Gullah language survived in the isolation of the sea islands. Creole languages develop when speakers of two languages who can't understand each other remain in long contact, as African slaves did with their masters. An estimated 10,000 people still speak Gullah.
For years, islanders were told to avoid speaking the language and many would hide their Gullah-Geechee roots because it was considered a sign of ignorance.
But Allen said that has changed in the more than a decade he has worked on the project.
"There were more people who were willing to say they were a part of the culture and acknowledged that," he said. "There was more of an internal awareness of who they were in the context of the culture."
One alternative the commission has suggested - and one required by federal law - is taking no action and keeping the status quo.
The second stresses archiving the history of the culture and the significance of the culture. The third proposes enhancing economic opportunities, protecting natural resources, and preserving traditional skills of the Gullah and Geechee.
The panel could accept one of the proposals, "a combination of ideas from more than one of the alternatives, or an entirely new alternative," said Emory Campbell, the commission chairman.
The commission takes comment through Oct. 26 and may decide on an alternative at a meeting in November in Brunswick, Allen said.
The plan will then be refined and submitted to the National Park Service where budget and other aspects will be considered, Allen said.