Synopsis of 'Behind God's Back'

When freedom came to enslaved Africans who toiled on rice plantations in lower Berkeley County, South Carolina, many remained to farm the land and raise their families in settlements near the plantation gates. Four generations later, their descendants have shared for the first time family joys and sorrows in “Behind God’s Back,” written by Charleston-based writer Herb Frazier and illustrated with the paintings of Columbia, South Carolina, artist John W. Jones.

“Behind God’s Back” is a compilation of accounts of the experiences of Gullah people who struggled after Emancipation, through the Depression and into the middle of the twentieth century to maintain their African-based lifestyles in rural communities near Charleston. Gullah people live in the coastal area of the Southeastern United States. They have preserved more of their African cultural heritage than any other black community in the country.

The stories in “Behind God’s Back,” never collected until now, come from whites and blacks who live in the communities of Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, and St. Thomas and Daniel islands. Their recollections reveal the interaction between African Americans and whites.

Their relationship has been interspersed with conflict and violence. The most notable example is the Cainhoy gunfight of 1876 when black Republicans stood their ground during a political rally to achieve a rare victory against white Democrats in the violent period of Reconstruction. 

Northern industrialist and philanthropist Harry Frank Guggenheim built a retreat near Cainhoy where he hunted and entertained his celebrity guests. He owned nearby Daniel Island where his workers, black and white, tended to his herd of beef cattle and lived on the island with their families.

Following Guggenheim’s death, Daniel Island’s farmland was transformed into an upscale neighborhood now annexed to the city of Charleston. This seemingly overnight development along with other residential and commercial growth on St. Thomas Island and nearby Cainhoy has longtime landowners wondering whose property might next be touched by the bulldozer’s blade. If more land is lost, some fear that endangered Gullah traditions might be eroded even further or lost completely.

The Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina in Charleston contracted with Frazier to write a history of the Cainhoy-Wando-Huger area. The foundation is concerned that a surge of residential and commercial growth in the area following the 1992 completion of the Mark Clark Expressway (Interstate 526) will alter the area’s rural character.

This collaboration between Frazier and Jones is in keeping with Jones’s ongoing effort to bring attention to the everyday lives of Gullah people as they struggle to sustain their culture. Jones’s goal is to depict Gullah experiences since the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the pre-Civil War era and contrast it with African Americans of today. Jones explores life through art with the use of oils, acrylics, and watercolors to create realistic interpretations of everyday life and landscapes.

Illustrator: John W. Jones, jwjones50@aol.com

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