The Gullah Woodsman: Bill Green

Peter Frank Edwards
by Roger Pinckney - December 2012/January 2013

Deep in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Roger Pinckney sits down with Bill Green—huntsman, horse whisperer, chef, and dog trainer—to hear what he’s learned from a lifetime on the land they both love

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Bill Green settles into his rocker, stretches his legs, wiggles his toes, and holds forth on mules and men, a passion of fifty-three years and counting. “You can work a mule, but you better get his trust first.”

At the moment, Hurricane Isaac is beating the hell out of New Orleans. We’re six hundred miles away as the fish crow flies, but the storm is big, sloppy, and slow—rain and gale for the last three days. Damp but mostly dry, Green, who is sixty-two, and I sit on Miss Liza’s porch. It’s a good place for the spirits to work, Green reckons. A bench under a live oak would be better, but it’s too drizzly for that. Spirits work overtime here on Middleton Place, just west of Charleston, South Carolina. 

Green looks off into the middle distance, as if he is reading God’s teleprompter off the rain. His voice is soft and lilting, a gentle patois of slaveship, blues, and voodoo. 

“I drove mules when I was nine, hauling collards and cabbages out the field. That mule don’t like you, he’ll wait till the man come around and start stepping all over them plants. The boss thinks you don’t know mule and snatches you off of that wagon quick and puts you on the ground cutting cabbage head.” 

Green is pure Gullah from James Island, South Carolina. Most likely you know about the Gullah, our dearest link to Africa. About 250 years ago, West Africans shuffled ashore in Charleston and Savannah, a dusky and barefoot legion some hundred thousand strong. Wide-eyed at sand dunes, palmetto trees, and crashing surf, many must have wondered if the ship had turned around in mid-ocean and brought them home again to the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, to the beaches of the Bight of Benin. 

There can be no bright spot in a life of bondage, but they tried to make the best of it. There were the fish, shrimp, oysters, clams, things they already knew, okra, tomatoes, onions, greens, rice, melons. When possible, there were boats to be built and they could build them; land to be tilled and they could farm; game to be taken and they could hunt. They knit African nets and wove African baskets, endured. They got land with freedom on the Great Day of Jubilee.

From the Santee River in South Carolina to Savannah, Georgia, along two hundred miles of coast, the Gullah still cling to the Edge of America, a culture under threat, discussed in Congress and bemoaned at the UN. Green and I don’t fret much over this. We both know the story, and it is far too sad for words. How these sleepy Sea Islands became the target of developers who displaced the locals. How the taxes went through the roof, how land got too expensive to farm, how waterfront condos gobbled up the riverbanks till there was hardly a place to dock a shrimp boat any more.

After talking mule, Green allows, talking dolphin was easy. “I’d go casting for mullet with my daddy and my uncle. Thump on the boat and call them up.” He stomps three times for emphasis. “Got to know all them porpoise by name. Here comes ol’ Ben. ‘Show us the fish, Ben!’ He swims alongside the boat and take us right to them, way up a dead-end creek. Ben would hem them in and we’d let him eat first. Then he’d back off and we’d throw the net. All the way home, neighbors would come running with washbasin and pan, because they knew the porpoise got us plenty to share.”

By age thirteen, Green was unloading banana boats on the Charleston waterfront. The following year, he switched to wrestling cotton bales. He and his partner, another Gullah farm boy, worked so fast the other stevedores threatened to drown them if they did not slow down. His career on the docks came to a sudden end when he filled out an application to join the U.S. Merchant Marine. “I was a big boy for my age,” Green says, laughing. “They didn’t know I was only fourteen.” His application was soundly rejected.