Jim and Carol Alberto get schooled on Daufuskie
Story by Carolyn Males
Right now it was the brackish smell and feel of spray from the Calibogue Sound that had our attention. Jim Alberto stood at the helm of his small open motorboat as his wife, Carol, and I sat back watching Daufuskie Island’s wooded shoreline loom closer into view. On this trip here, one of the hundreds the Albertos had made over the years, we were traveling back in time as well as into the present.
The Albertos had first crossed the Calibogue in 1974 as starry-eyed college grads who’d been hired to teach on an island (without a bridge or grocery store) in a two-room school led by a school board that supervised by neglect. Electricity, it should be noted, had arrived only twenty-three years earlier.
Smells. I remember smells even though it has been almost thirty years since I left. The pluff mud at low tide and dying spartina grass rafting out to sea, the blue clay that appeared mysteriously on the beach after storms — prehistoric sea marsh. All the creek smells. New grass, old grass, dead fish, oyster flats. The wood-stove smells in our classrooms.” — Jim Alberto, Daufuskie Daze
While Carol finished up her master’s degree in Columbia that September, Jim had hunkered down in a county-provided shack that resembled a glorified deer stand. It did have running water, albeit rusty, as well as a shower. But the latter came with a corroded bottom forcing Jim to straddle the edges lest he go tumbling through to the pit beneath the rotted floorboards. After Carol arrived, they eventually got their promised trailer. Happily it was new; not so happily, its utilities were powered by hundred-pound propane tanks. Where to get refills? In Bluffton, naturally, so hauling the empties onto a boat at the public dock, traveling to the mainland and bringing back full ones became yet another Harry Homeowner chore along with weekly hour-long boat runs to the mainland for food and other necessities.
Indeed, Daufuskie and its then 85 residents had been mostly forgotten by the world until Pat Conroy penned a fictionalized account of his abbreviated teaching career there. The resulting book, The Water is Wide, was published in 1972 and two years later Hollywood turned it into the movie Conrack starring Jon Voigt. Conroy’s teaching stint had lasted about nine months. The Albertos would hang on for nine adventure-packed years.
Recently Jim, buoyed by Carol’s memories, had decided to write a memoir of their island sojourn titled Daufuskie Daze and over the past three years I’d had the good fortune of being entertained by their rollicking tales as we pulled the book together.
Now as we were tying up to the dock at Freeport Marina, I’m setting foot in their world. Here we pick up water at the General Store and rent a golf cart, the main means of transportation on the island.
Fifteen minutes later we’re rolling past the Marsh Tacky horse stables and then onto Haig Point Road where we glide by the entrance to Haig Point’s private residential enclave and then that of Melrose, a pretty waterside community with a resort that’s been on a financial rollercoaster ride. Both developments, along with Bloody Point on the south end, were started in the mid-eighties just as the Albertos, infant Zach in tow, were decamping for Hilton Head Island living.
Through the dense tangle of pines, magnolias, and palmettos along the main road we catch glimpses of dirt tracks with trailers and cottages with traces of haint blue paint (traditionally made from indigo and guaranteed to ward off bad spirits) around windows, on shutters and doors. We pass hand-lettered signs announcing firewood for sale and offering repair services. “This road was just packed dirt and there weren’t any street signs when we lived here,” Jim observes. Back then the young couple had traveled around the five-mile-long island in a succession of battered vehicles––some brakeless (requiring tricky maneuvering, especially around water), others without reverse gear –– bumping along rutted lanes alongside islanders’ oxcarts, roving cattle, and wayward dogs.
As we glide along, I consider that much of this verdant growth we’re passing might, in fact, be a more recent feature. An 1862 map shows the island divvied up among ten plantations growing indigo, fruit and vegetables, tobacco, and Sea Island cotton. While enslaved Gullah families worked the fields and tended the big houses, planters would live much of the year in Savannah and beyond. After the Civil War, the freed slaves became sharecroppers or hired hands. Then around 1920 boll weevils smacked King Cotton with the kiss of death.
By the early 20th century, timbering along with oyster shucking houses and a cannery boosted the island economy as fisherman plied the waters in their hand-built bateaux. Disaster struck again when industrial pollution in the Savannah River shut harvesting down. Jobs disappeared and most of the working population moved off island. Grandparents were left to raise children, a situation that had greeted the Albertos forty years ago.
Now turning onto Church Road we come to the First Union African Baptist Church, a white wooden structure built in 1884. As we walk up, we hear a woman from inside the sanctuary singing, “Jesus on the mainline, tell him what you want…” The voice, it turns out, belongs to Sallie Anne Robinson, tour guide and celebrated cookbook author who is showing her visitors Daufuskie’s only active church. The sixth generation islander, a former Conroy student and a classroom aide for Carol, exchanges hugs with the Albertos before we all hop into our golf carts to continue our respective journeys.
A quarter of a mile down the road we reach the Mary Fields School where we pull into the same spot where Billie Burn used to drop off and pick up students in her rattletrap mayonnaise-colored school bus. As we approach the steps, Jim smiles. The small palmetto that he’d planted by the front door in 1978 now shades the roof. Then swatches of blue on a clothesline against the white low-slung building catch our eye. The patterned fabric is a preview of what we’ll find inside.
But first Jim offers a history lesson. While Beaufort County had seen fit to build the single-room White School in 1913, they’d ignored black children. In the 1930s the Union African Baptist Church had raised funds to remedy this inequality. One hundred and four African-American students, grades one through eight, were soon packed into the two classrooms in shifts with few supplies and little support from the county. It would be 1950 before they’d get indoor restrooms and a kitchen with a wood-burning stove.
Meanwhile in 1962, the white Daufuskie School shut its doors, its only student having graduated. As for high school, the teens were boated over to the mainland on Monday where they lived in a boarding house or with relatives until being sent home on Friday. By the time the Albertos arrived fourteen years later, only twenty-two students were left. However, integration didn’t arrive until the late ‘70s when four white children moved to the island. Mary Fields’ last students would put down their pencils in 1997 when the new school opened.
Lesson over, we enter. Here draped along Carol’s old grade one-through-four classroom blackboard are swaths of blue scarves, dyed from indigo plants the artisans at Daufuskie Blues have gathered from around the island. Now where kids once hunched over scarred wooden desks, sit vats of water and dyes, cutting tables, and an ironing board. Jim wanders into the adjoining classrooms where he taught older kids. Today it’s an all-purpose meeting room. Jim notes that the odor of creosote that had filtered through from the old wood-burning stove in the kitchen is long gone.
It was in these old rooms that kids learned about island wildlife from the glass beehive and the snake skins Jim tacked up on the wall. Before heading back, we grab a look at the public dock where oystermen and steamers from Savannah once docked. From here, the Albertos had made runs to the mainland in a series of sometimes leaky, much-abused watercraft on which they wove through marshes, oyster beds, and rivers, sometimes braving icy winds and pea soup fog.
Transportation has improved since the 1970s. Our golf cart will easily get us back to the marina and the bow of the Alberto’s boat will soon be pointing us toward the lights of Hilton Head as this slow-paced, ever-interesting island fades into the mists.