Willie Heyward Jr., tribally known as Halo Quaponda, has a seven year plan. He wants to re-nourish the oyster beds off of Sol Legare Road and Mosquito Beach, indigenous lands of the Gullah Geechee nation.
Halo references local stalwart, Joseph Fields Farms, when describing the importance of Mosquito Beach to the Charleston area.
"It's as if Joseph Fields, his whole farm flooded out due to a hurricane then the city came back and put concrete on his farm and said 'OK, plant some seeds.' If a tomato grows through that, is that really a farm? No, that’s a concrete jungle," says Halo.
Getting rid of the concrete along Mosquito Beach's marshy shores (see his 2015 video below) is just part of Halo's plan. A natural storyteller, Halo also the owns the Folly Beach Farmers Market, in addition to being CEO of Preserve the Gullah. He's teaming up with the community of Sol Legare, Concerned Citizens of Sol Legare, SCDNR, and SCDNR's South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program (SCORE) to tackle the oyster re-nourishment project starting Fri. June 14 at 10 a.m.
SCDNR wildlife biologist Benjamin Stone explains that S.C. oysters are "considered to be substrate limited, meaning we have a decent population of adult oysters, but need more substrate or surfaces for larval oysters to attach to and grow to create new oyster reefs."
To increase the larval population off of Mosquito Beach, Stone says their strategy will be to provide "more suitable substrate" for the baby bivalves. They'll use two different restoration techniques: using mesh bags filled with oyster shells (many of the shells come from the state's recycling program) and using re-purposed crab traps. The traps are coated in a thin layer of cement that forms a hard substrate for larval oysters to attach to; the trap reefs work well in softer pluff mud sites, too, as they don't sink and get covered in the mud.
The launch at Mosquito Beach will involve some hands in the marsh grass, boots in the mud labor, yes, but it will also be "fun, communal, happy," says Halo. "You think we were out here cleaning the beach that we owned doing nothing?" It will be a light-hearted affair, with music and muscle cars and friendly competition — who can do the most good in the shortest amount of time?
Mosquito Beach, which is now part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, was bursting with the bivalve industry in the middle of the 20th century.
In 2006, Sol Legare resident Ed Palmer shared his memories of the area's heyday with City Paper: "Mosquito Beach was what really made a difference for Sol Legare in the '50s and '60s. One section of Mosquito Beach was the oyster factory. That's why there's an oyster house here now. For most of the men who live on this road, as we grew up, that was our way of life. Now, it's got to the point where nobody in the younger generation wants to do it. It's a dirty job and it's hard work."
Halo, who is seventh generation Gullah Geechee, isn't looking to become the next big oyster farmer. He just wants to rejuvenate the land his ancestors farmed, to educate others, with his carefully woven tales, about how and why it's important that they know where their food is coming from.
"The oyster reef was the gold," says Halo. "The resource, the first plant not as a vegetable but as an idea — it was the first seed not as a plant, but as an action. The oyster reef gave Gullah the empowerment to come to an area where they couldn’t go, develop economics, show their authenticity."
Minutes from Folly Beach, Mosquito Beach served as the Sol Legare community's playground, with clubs and restaurants and motels. This was their recreational haven — they weren't allowed in many other spaces during segregation, including Folly.
The Gullah nation's relationship with the land of Sol Legare is complicated, of course. The Soloman Legare Plantation was divided and sold to families of freed slaves during Reconstruction. They lived off of the waters, off of the Crassostrea virginica.
"This is the start of showing how communities can work together and help each other," says Halo. "Seven years of this, we'll keep rebuilding, there can be field trips for kids, restaurants can come up with certain recipes [with the oysters], things that keep the message going in an organic way."
As the Lowcountry continues to grapple with development — including pastel condos going up on the corner of Folly and Sol Legare Roads — Halo doesn't want to scream reminders that the Gullah were here, have been here, for generations. They're still here. And they want to share their knowledge, deeper than any five star chef's, with everyone.
"I know elders who can take an oyster out of that ocean, put it in a jar, no seasonings, nothing, and they way they shucked it and saved it and stored it is so authentic you don't want anything else to touch it," says Halo. "You want to pick it up out of the jar and eat it."
Learn more about how you can help Preserve the Gullah's re-nourishment project tonight at the Folly Farmers Market starting at 4 p.m. at Folly River Park.