San Rafael Valley, AZ ~~ Photo by Bill Haas

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


"If people have to keep leaving this island to find work, the culture's gonna die."
(J.R. Grovner, Sapelo Isl, GA)

As mentioned previously, the National Park Service has designated an area from Wilmington, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida as the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Tourism, resort developments, gated communities and golf courses threaten the land and communities inhabited by Gullah-Geechee people since the late 1700's. There is no formal visitor center, defined geographical border or any specific monument. The "Corridor" simply encompasses communities in areas along the Barrier (Sea) Islands where attempts to preserve the rich heritage, culture and traditions of formerly enslaved Africans are a constant challenge -- now a priority.

I had the good fortune to visit two more Gullah-Geechee communities: St. Helena Island and Charleston, both in South Carolina. St. Helena Island is about 10,000 Gullah people strong, and it's best known for its museum and restored Penn Center, the first school for freed slaves.
When Union soldiers took control of Port Royal Sound and forced Confederates to flee, the Port Royal experiment was started by abolitionists and missionaries from the North. Its aim was to prepare emancipated and abandoned slaves for freedom by teaching them to read and write and learn a trade.

In 1862, Laura Towne and Ellen Murray, white abolitionists from Pennsylvania, were the first to arrive as part of the Port Royal Experiment. These women (again the women!!) started Penn School and created its fundamental curriculum. Then, in the early 1900's, Penn Center became a Booker T. Washington "model of industrial training" project. Today, Penn Center has a museum and 19 restored buildings that can be utilized as a conference center and retreat. It hosts myriad programs, described in detail here:
Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed in this cottage, while Penn Center served as a retreat for meetings and study during the Civil Rights Movement.
The Gullah-Geechee people speak a lilting language with grammar and sentence structure from West African languages and with a Creole influence. They are quick to defend their unusual dialect: "It's a combination of English and African -- it's not broken English, it's our language." And it's a language elders are trying gamely to preserve; some can switch effortlessly back and forth between the Gullah language and cultured English ... hilarious, especially when spoken rapidly!
As practiced by the Gullah-Geechee, religion evolved through the generations. Despite their oppression, independent expression survived and they were able to blend seamlessly the songs, superstitions and rituals of their ancestors with regional Christian and Muslim beliefs. "Churches" commonly served as community centers rather than places of worship.

Known simply as the "Brick Church," it was built by African slave labor with hand made bricks that had been ballast for the ships that had delivered them to Charleston slave markets. It faces East, where the rising sun promises a brand new day.
One of the two original teachers from Pennsylvania is buried here, in this separate, whites-only graveyard. The second teacher's coffin, also originally buried here, was removed and returned to Pennsylvania, but her monument still stands. The Gullah-Geechee graves are scattered about the grounds; some are protected by low tabby walls.
Some original buildings (this barn and pump house) remain untouched and, for me, are charming remnants of the Penn Center of old.
This is what's left of the Chapel of Ease, built of oyster tabby in the mid 1700's and destroyed by a fire. The trees surrounding it are covered with Spanish Moss and "resting" Resurrection Fern.
Believe it or not, Resurrection Fern is considered an "evergreen"! Like Spanish Moss, Resurrection Fern (Vine) is an "epiphyte" (attaches to a host and gets its nutrients from the air and water) and in the first photo appears dead. Its fronds are simply dry and curled, however, and as soon as it rains, even just a little bit, its fronds absorb water, unfold and turn green and lush almost magic! The photo following was taken in Abbeville, LA in April, in its "resurrected" state!
There were 55 plantations on St. Helena Island that grew rice, sugar, indigo and cotton; each plantation had about 150 - 250 slaves.
"Haint Blue" graces many historic homes throughout the South, especially in the New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston historic districts, where it's traditionally applied to porch ceilings and often shutters, doors and window trim. It's an historic color, influenced by ancient African beliefs that it would keep "haints" (haunts or ghosts) and other evil spirits from entering their dwellings. It's a mellow, milky shade of blue, the color of a calming sky, that originally adorned the simple shacks of African slaves and that today has become a part of the cultural fabric of Gullah-Geechie communities.

There are some who also believe that Haint Blue, is effective in repelling insects that perceive the color as a never-ending sky. Scientists haven't weighed in to accept this theory; however, the Haint Blue ceilings I saw were spotless with nary a sign of bug life!
The road through what was originally the Coffin Point Plantation... another plantation home. Those on St. Helena Island were relatively modest.
Each plantation had a Praise House for its slaves. Praise Houses were controlled settings. Just three benches were allowed, thus limiting the number of slaves who could gather at any one time, and thus eliminating the possibility of revolt amongst the slaves. Slaves were allowed to gather one night a week and for a few hours on Sunday to sing and shout in their Gullah-Geechee language.
Drums were taken away by the "masters." In their place, the Gullah people pounded walking sticks on the wooden floor. Dried gourds with shakin' seeds, clapping hands, stomping feet and walking sticks maintained the rhythm...yes sir! You could hear the heartbeat of their African homeland as the walls reverberated with their songs. What a joyous time that must have been for people who didn't think freedom would ever come for them.
And speaking of music...remember I told you about Daniel Jenkins, the freed slave turned minister from the Low Country? The guy who started an orphanage and hired some Charleston musicians to teach his charges music? Well, Jenkins got his band alright, the Jenkins Orphanage Band. They toured the world over to perform and raise funds for the orphanage and while at it, became famous for their "hot" music of syncopated "Geechee" rhythms. In Harlem, the shout out was "Hey Charleston, do your Geechee dance"!! You know where this is going, right?
Yup, the "Charleston" craze began right here in the halls of this orphanage! The unique Gullah-Geechee music of the Jenkins Band is also credited with influencing early American jazz.
Sweetgrass Basket weaving/sewing is the oldest African craft still practiced; it's an art form prized by museums, historians and collectors. Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant, across the river from Charleston, is where one can find any size, shape, style or price of Sweetgrass basket. Dozens of Sweetgrass enterprises line the highway for several miles. The lean-to shelters are usually set up street side in front of the weaver's home. This woman and her neighbor established a table at the Charleston Visitor Center while the highway in front of their homes was torn up. The artists ordinarily prefer not to be photographed themselves but don't mind if you photograph their baskets. This sweet, generous Gullah woman acquiesced and let me photograph her while she worked.
The Gullah-Geechie people made coil baskets for function, not to be admired. They were designed to be hand carried while riding a horse taking eggs to market; they were designed for harvesting vegetables, winnowing and storage of just about everything: grain, cotton, fish, clothing, vegetables. Today, people are simply happy to have one they can afford!
Celestine had left for the day when I visited!
Visiting the Sea Islands had long been on my wish list and oh my, how I cherish the experience -- such a unique, little-known cultural treasure. I am fortunate and grateful.