Keeping Gullah culture alive
Here in the Lowcountry, we encounter Gullah culture every time we appreciate plantation architecture or admire sweetgrass baskets, savor unique local recipes or are moved by the high energy present in songs sung in coastal churches. All are linked to the culture that came together along the Southeast coast during the slave era.
A federal commission created in 2006 seeks to preserve the culture and its heritage, which includes folklore, arts and crafts, traditions handed down from generation to generation, the Gullah dialect, okra, eggplant, peanuts and watermelon.
Lowcountry residents are being asked to supply information that will help commissioners for the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor formulate a management plan for the corridor that stretches from southeastern North Carolina, through all of South Carolina and Georgia, and northern Florida, to 10 miles inland. The corridor includes Charleston, Mount Pleasant, James and Johns Island and the area's many smaller Sea Islands.
Input is needed from locals about both "tangible and intangible" links to Gullah and Geechee heritage, corridor commissioner Marquetta L. Goodwine said. She explained that information is needed not just about places and structures, but also about local lore, customs, songs and legends.
"Your input is extremely important. It is vital to the process," Goodwine said last week while speaking to a gathering in the southeastern Charleston County town of Hollywood. A computer scientist, lecturer, mathematician, historian and author who grew up on St. Helena Island, Goodwine said the Charleston area is extremely rich in the type of culture and heritage the commission wants to preserve.
She added that it's important that James Island's McLeod Plantation, the only intact, large, pre-Civil war plantation remaining on the island, be protected and opened to the public as part of the preservation effort.
The Coastal Conservation League would like the corridor plan to protect the Angel Oak.
Guests came to the Hollywood gathering, one in a series in coastal South Carolina this summer, from as far away as the local Sea Islands. Three corridor commissioners made comments and distributed forms on which written comment can be submitted.
Some who attended left disappointed that they didn't get to speak, but verbal comment will be heard at a meeting set for July 7 at Wesley United Methodist Church, 2718 River Road, Johns Island, said Michael Allen, a corridor coordinator who is also with the National Park Service in Mount Pleasant.
The two-hour forum is intended to gather input from western Charleston County, including Johns, James, Seabrook, Kiawah, Wadmalaw and Edisto islands, he said.
In Hollywood, Town Council member Annette Sausser encouraged Goodwine to talk to the area's youth. "You get some really neat stories from children," Sausser said.
Goodwine said the commission plans to solicit the input of children.
U.S. Rep James Clyburn, who wrote the legislation creating the Gullah/Geechee Heritage Corridor, cited the need to identify and preserve what remains of a unique fusion of African and European cultures. Clyburn said the culture is slipping away in the wake of coastal development and pressures from a "modern" world.
The law obligates the federal government to provide $1 million a year for 10 years to help with preservation effort and establishes a Coastal Heritage Center at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island and possibly other sites.
Also present at the Hollywood gathering were Stanford University associate professor of anthropology Paulla Ebron and some anthropology and architecture students.
Ebron said she's very excited about being part of the effort to identify and catalog information that will help preserve a culture.
Ebron said attention that is now given to sweetgrass baskets is evidence that the culture that produced them survives, is getting its due credit and is valid.
For more information about meetings, contact Michael Allen at Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, 881-5516, ext. 12, or visit www.nps.gov/guge.