Gullah traditions live on in South Carolina
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Linda Lange, Scripps Howard News Service
Emory Campbell, an educator, author and historian, leads tours through historic Gullah neighborhoods on Hilton Head Island.
By Linda Lange, Scripps Howard News Service
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Vestiges of Gullah culture cling to the saltwater marshes and maritime forests of the Lowcountry with the same tenacity as Spanish moss on ancient live oaks. Gullah traditions move with the wind, but don't let go.
The West African heritage brought to this coastal region by enslaved workers remains in the workmanship of sweetgrass baskets, on the plates of Lowcountry cooking, in the pungent odor of brackish water.
Gullah Heritage Trail Tours offers a two-hour narrated drive though 10 Hilton Head Island neighborhoods, with commentary on history, language, foods and folklore.
Guides are fourth-generation Gullah family members. Tours depart from the Hilton Head Island Welcome Center. For more information, call 843-681-7066 or 843-681-3069, or visit www.gullaheritage.com.
A one-room schoolhouse, tabby ruins, churches and blooming indigo are poignant links to the past. Some structures blend so well with their surroundings that they almost escape detection. Visitors along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia may overlook the rich cultural tapestry of the Gullah people unless they make a point to stroll into an art gallery that sells regional handicrafts or stop at a historical marker at a cemetery.
The Gullah people are considered by many to be the most culturally distinctive black population in the United States. Their self-reliance served them well. When the rice, indigo and cotton plantations closed down, the black workers stayed on the land and, in many instances, lived in isolation for more than 100 years.
"We pretty much governed ourselves in terms of getting along. We really relied on Christian beliefs. Praise houses in the communities dictated how we believed. Their leadership kept people in line," says historian Emory Campbell, a fourth-generation Gullah family member. He served as the executive director of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island for more than 20 years.
Campbell, 65, grew up on Hilton Head Island and now leads Gullah Heritage Trail Tours through the 10 original Gullah neighborhoods here. He's a slender man with salt-and-pepper hair and a wide smile. As a way of introducing local culture, he speaks the Gullah language, known as Geechee or English Creole. The word "Gullah" is thought to come from "Gola," or the African homeland Angola.
"We had witchcraft and superstitions mixed in with our religious background," Campbell says. "Sometimes people would be buried near the waterfront because they believed that spirits move across the water." Hilton Head Island now has about 3,500 Gullah inhabitants.
The Gullah history of Hilton Head Island is unique because plantation slaves gained freedom and became self-governing early during the Civil War. "The Union invaded and took over this island in 1861. Slaves from other plantations came here in large numbers because they thought the Union being here meant they would be free. They started working and made about $4 a month," says Campbell.
"One of the places they settled was Mitchelville, established by Maj. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel. He set aside about 1,000 acres, and in 1863 started selling it off. It went for about $1 an acre. People saved money to buy land because they knew land meant freedom," explains Campbell as he drives his small bus toward Mitchelville. This was the country's first settlement of Freedmen (former black slaves), and its founding came before President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Residents elected their own officials. The town council passed laws, including the state's first compulsory-education law.
The U.S. government abandoned this fledgling community in 1868 because President Andrew Johnson was "very sympathetic with the Confederates," Campbell says.
After the Civil War, many former slaves remained on Hilton Head and on other South Carolina islands, such as Johns and Daufuskie, and Georgia's Sapelo, Harris Neck and Cumberland. They fished and farmed. They operated sugarcane mills and gristmills. They grazed their livestock and hunted on the open, common land.
Over the years, vast tracts of land fell into the hands of Northern industrialists who used them as hunting preserves. Lumber companies harvested the timber.
Major change came to the coastal region in the 1950s when the long-overlooked beaches showed promise for tourism. Developers scooped up land parcels and began building resort communities. Once bridges connected Hilton Head and some of the other barrier islands to mainland towns, life was dramatically different for the Gullah islanders.
Gated neighborhoods sprouted in the fields and maritime forests. Many Gullah people felt displaced because they no longer had access to familiar places and they couldn't afford the pricey new houses.
Our tour takes a break at Driessen Beach Park, a public area operated by the town of Hilton Head. Campbell says the beach was the only one open to blacks during the segregation era. Gullah islanders weren't allowed on "the whites' beaches." This was a difficult time, he says.
As he drives down side streets on the north end, Campbell points out restaurants, small business and unpretentious houses belonging to the native islanders. At Broad Creek Marina, we stop at the Simmon's juke joint, where he learned to dance decades ago.
At the close of the two-hour tour, participants ask where to find books and crafts relating to the Gullah culture. Lowcountry craftsmen are best known for sweetgrass baskets. The coiled baskets maintain a tradition brought from West Africa in the 1700s. Pleased that he has piqued their interest, Campbell directs people to De Gullah Creations, an art gallery and collectibles shop at Shelter Cove Mall. Nationally known Gullah artists show their works at the Hilton Head Art League Gallery in Pineland Station. The Heritage Museum holds books useful for research on family roots.
Travelers may continue their Gullah heritage experience in South Carolina by going to Daufuskie Island and St. Helena Island.
We leave behind Hilton Head and drive to Beaufort, where we take the Sea Island Parkway (U.S. Highway 21) to St. Helena Island. Small businesses and careworn houses are interspersed among farms and forests. As they have done for generations, families hunt game, cut timber, tend fields and fish for shrimp and crab.
To fuel our next undertaking, we have lunch at Gullah Grub, a small roadside restaurant. Food here is a good thing, pure and simple. Hearty meatloaf and fried chicken with a huge selection of vegetables cover plates. The sweet-potato pie is absolutely delicious.
We continue to feel the spiritual power of the Gullah people as we drive on Route 45, a road narrowed by giant trees. Earlier generations built and worked on plantations, growing indigo and long-fibered Sea Island cotton. We wander about the ruins of the Chapel of Ease. Slaves built this for plantation families. The walls are made of tabby, a mixture of lime and crushed oyster shells.
Our journey comes full circle as we follow Land's End Road and reach the Penn Center National Historic District. This 49-acre complex with 15 buildings is one of the most significant black American landmarks in the country.
The Penn Center was founded in 1862 during the Union's occupation of Beaufort. Pennsylvania Quakers opened a school for freed slaves; it served as a model for other schools soon to be opened across the South, including Tuskegee Institute. Through occupational programs, it evolved into a community center for all citizens of St. Helena.
The school closed during the 1950s; however, the center evolved into a meeting place for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Civil-rights leaders planned nonviolent protests, including the Poor People's March on Washington. It was one of the few places in the segregated South were biracial political groups could meet without fear for their safety.
The Penn Center's focus these days is on preserving the language, culture and history of the island's Gullah population.
First Published February 22, 2007 12:00 am