I had the honor of meeting and speaking with Joseph Legree, Jr., a 2009 South Carolina Folk Heritage Award winner. Mr. Legree has been making casting nets for most of his life and grew up living off of the land and fishing off the coast of St. Helena Island.
I spent nearly an hour with him as he demonstrated his net making techniques and discussed the challenges of modern life clashing with the traditional way of living in a Gullah community.
Unfortunately, his nets are not selling well these days. Mr. Legree told me that it’s now against the law to catch fish with a casting net - they must be caught with rod and reel. Actually, it’s not illegal to catch them; it’s illegal to keep them. It seems a strange juxtaposition that one element of government celebrates his trade and another makes it obsolete.
Cast net making, fishing, and oystering are central elements of Gullah culture. It’s unfortunate that some kind of exception can’t be made for traditional methods used by community elders, even if they simply restrict the numbers. I can’t imagine there’s much danger of older Gullah fisherman “fishing out” the area. It’s really the large fishing industries that threaten the population.
The challenge with a dialect recording of Joseph Legree, Jr. is that his Gullah accent is strong enough to make him very difficult for a midwestern accent speaker like me to understand. I was able to grasp the basic idea behind much of what he said, but the precise words were often lost to me.
This reminds me of Cajun dialect recordings I made a few years ago. I was able to speak to an elderly Cajun woman, but I sometimes couldn’t tell when she drifted from English to French and back again. I had an interpreter along with me that time, but I was on my own with Mr. Legree.
In the end, I walked away with a great appreciation of his traditional craft, and I understood some of the challenges he faces carrying on such traditions in modern America. There seems to be a growing appreciation for Gullah heritage after many decades of focusing on integrating into mainstream American culture. The generation of practitioners that was lost in the middle, however, may be enough to permanently break the tie with the past. When people like Joseph Legree, Jr. pass, the true traditions may pass along with them.