His home had no running water and no electricity, and there were no paved roads, no stoplights, no marinas and no bridges anywhere on Hilton Head Island. But there was food on the table, friends to play with, school to attend and work to do every day.
This was life on Hilton Head Island in the 1930s, not just for Charles Simmons Jr., now 85 years old, and his family, but for all of the other native black islanders as well.
It was a good Gullah life, a life apart from the big wide world around them, except for the occasional trips to Savannah by boat for groceries, clothes, and socializing with family and friends.
“It was a whole different world before the bridge was built (in 1956),” said Simmons, relaxing in a comfortable chair with a walking cane by his side outside on the 8-acre property he owns next to the Broad Creek Marina and Up the Creek restaurant. “We went to Savannah, which was our main place to shop for food, clothing …we left from right here. My dad operated a ferry, and the boat left right here (formerly Simmons Fish Camp).”
His dad, Charles Simmons Sr., who was affectionately known as “Mr. Transportation” and died at the golden age of 99 in 2005, worked the river to Savannah twice a week: Tuesday day and nights and Fridays with an overnight and return trip home on Saturday afternoons.
“They also had some things they would take along things to sell,” said Simmons, a cheerful, reflective man with a hearty laugh. “The main crop was butter beans, or lima beans as they call it, and watermelon. … Those farmers farmed a lot of watermelons. Sometimes my dad had to make a special trip just to take the watermelons. We would stand here and load watermelons all night. We all kids. Every once in a while we would drop one and then that’d be the one to eat.”
Simmons junior was born in 1928 an only child in their home in the Spanish Wells area on the island, assisted by a midwife. His neighbors were farmers and fishermen and some worked at the Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah.
“You know, we didn’t know anything about poverty, we didn’t know anything about segregation, not a thing,” he recalled. “We were free, the island was about 98 percent black, and the few white folks that lived over here, you know, we got along.”
His mom, Estella, kept him out of elementary school initially because Charles was “a little skinny fella not strong enough to yet walk that far” to the building near Honey Horn Plantation, he said. But he already knew how to read, write and some math before enrolling in the first grade.
He later attended the historic Penn Center School on St. Helena Island in the seventh grade, where he lived in a dormitory during the week and traveled back and forth home by boat on weekends.
After graduating with 21 other classmates, he attended South Carolina State University for one year and then was drafted into the U.S. Army for a two-year stint.
During this time he was writing to a young woman in New York that he first met at Penn Center years before. In one of those letters he asked his future wife Rosa if she would marry him if he ever decided to get married. She said “yes,” but told him she didn’t want to live on Hilton Head.
So the young Hilton Head native and the young St. Helena native got married in 1953 and, sure enough, would settle down here without complaint from her and raise four children (three of whom live here today; one is deceased), five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
After his military duty ended, Simmons returned to the university to earn a bachelor's degree in business in 1956.
Unlike many of his friends who would move away from the Lowcountry, Simmons had no urge to settle down and raise a family anywhere else but “home.”
“I’ve never been anywhere yet … that I would give up for Hilton Head,” he said.
He went to work with his father, drove a truck and a bus that transported workers to and from the construction site of the island’s first hotel, and worked at two of his dad’s stores. He also took care of the family’s livestock, and would head to Daufuskie Island on Sundays on his dad’s barge to load it up with newly purchased cows, return home and take them to market by truck on Monday mornings. He later would work at Hargray, entered into business ventures, and served on boards of various civic and academic organizations.
The Simmons’ family settled in comfortably with their new life together on the island, but there was change rolling in with the Lowcountry tides.
The James F. Byrnes Bridge, a two-lane toll swing bridge, opened in 1956 and connected the island to the mainland for the first time. It marked a new era for the thousand or so native islanders, but Simmons had glimpsed the turning times a few years earlier.
“The changes started before I went to college, because the bridge was built in ‘56, that’s the year I graduated, and I would say, back in the early ‘50s is when the development started,” Simmons recalled. “There’s always been a saying that the developers, the white folks, came and took all the black folks’ land. That’s not true. And I hear that quite a bit, even now. That’s not true. That’s not true. But I’ll admit that they bought it, you know, almost at a steal, but they didn’t exactly came and say, ‘This is not your property. I surveyed it and it’s mine.’ That’s the impression that most people say, ‘They just came and took the land without even without even paying anything for it,’ but that’s not true.”
Simmons does concede that most of the native black islanders picked up their roots and relocated.
“All of the people who live over on this side now, were originally over on that side … Harbour Town, all up in there, Palmetto Bay Marina, all of those, the black folks lived there, I don’t know if they owned it, but all of them lived over there,” he said. “They eventually came over here and were able to buy some property. … So that’s why you find that most of the native islanders lived along this area here (in Spanish Wells along Broad Creek).”žThese days, Charles Simmons Jr. holds on to the more than 20 acres of land he owns in several parcels on Hilton Head and Daufuskie, but he isn’t completely sure what the future holds for the family lineage.
“I’ve heard some of them (his peers) saying, ‘Look you now, my children are not going to keep it up, they’re just going to let it go, so why not just sell it, get something out of it, give them a couple of dollars, and everybody’s happy,' ” he said.
“I don’t feel that way yet, but I don’t know. … I’ve had some offers for this place, great goodness; I could live like a king for the rest of my life.
“I’m proud of what my father did in his day because of what he did back then, I played a little part in it too, but he accomplished much more than I did,” Simmons said. “I’m happy and proud that I can build on it, preserve it, that’s the main thing, to preserve it, not sell it out like most of the fellas I know whose parents left ‘em a bunch of land.”