Joseph Legree, Jr.
A fixture in the St. Helena community, Joseph “Cap’n Crip” Legree, Jr. spent his life preserving the cultural values and traditions of his Gullah ancestors. A community partner with Penn Center for more than 20 years, Legree contributed to the oral history and folklife of the Gullah people by demonstrating the craft of cast net weaving as a presenter at the Center’s annual Heritage Days Celebration. For decades, Legree demonstrated the connection between Gullah culture in South Carolina and West African art forms to dozens of groups of all ages.
Legree was born April 4, 1924, the second of Joseph Legree Sr. and Geneva Brown Legree’s 14 children. He attended Frogmore School until third grade, when he began working the fields to help support his parents and siblings. He learned how to crab from his father, and began working the river by the time he was seventeen. He learned the art of cast net making from a fellow St. Helena resident, Mr. Harry Owens, when they worked together on an oyster boat. Legree crafted nets for fishing and shrimping and based the size of the net on the height of the caster. Admiration for Legree’s skill led local author Pierre McGowan to include him in two books about life on the barrier islands.
Legree survived both of his wives, Jannie Holmes Legree and Clara Byas Legree, and has 6 living children. Legree has 23 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren. While one of his nephews and one grandson have learned how to partially construct a net, none of his family members fully cultivated Legree’s skill. One of his goals was to ensure a family member was able to construct a cast net from start to finish. Fortunately, one of Legree’s grandsons showed an interest in learning the art form and hopes to continue the tradition. Legree volunteered much of his time driving family and friends to appointments and other activities. He continued to spend time on the water, but did it more for pleasure rather than necessity in his later years. He always took special pride in being surrounded by family. He found joy in making cast nets and sharing his recipes at family gatherings. Legree passed away in 2017. Legree received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in 2009.