Africa to Gullah: S.C. State exhibits work of first black linguist
ORANGEBURG -- South Carolina State University launched its Homecoming weekend Friday with an entirely different kind of homecoming.
The university's I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium opened the exhibit From Africa to Gullah II. The exhibit features the artifacts, photographs and texts of Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner, the nation's first black linguist. Turner taught briefly at the Orangeburg university in the 1930s.
While working at S.C. State, South Carolina's only public historically black university, Turner heard the Gullah language for the first time. He was the first in the academic community to acknowledge Gullah as an actual, distinct language. He then conducted extensive research, and connected it to languages spoken in West Africa and Brazil.
Before Turner's research, the speech of the Gullah and Geechee people of Georgia and South Carolina was dismissed as poor English or baby talk, said Ellen Zisholtz, the museum's director. Turner's work taught the world much about the migration of people from West Africa to other parts of the world, she said.
S.C. State senior Davion Petty, who's from Gaffney, said the exhibit demonstrates to him the importance of remembering history. The history of the Gullah and Geechee people isn't prominent in textbooks, he said.
"You have to do your own research, and come to events like this," he said. "You have to dig down deep and discover this for yourself."
The university's museum is well-known for such exhibits.
Zisholtz recently learned the museum was a recipient of this year's Governor's Award in the Humanities. It will receive that award Wednesday.
The exhibit of Turner's work first appeared at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the U.S. House assistant Democratic leader, saw it and was impressed. He contributed money from the James E. and Emily E. Clyburn Endowment for Archives & History to take the exhibit on the road for the next two years.
S.C. State is the exhibit's first stop outside Washington, D.C. And the I.P. Stanback Museum has enhanced it with an archival poster exhibit of the work of Gullah artist Jonathan Green.
Clyburn and Green both spoke at the opening event, which also featured a performance by the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters from McIntosh County, Ga.
Green encouraged people who attended to support arts in schools.
"The arts are not an obligation of the government, but an obligation of the people," he said. They are an important vehicle to preserving and teaching culture, he said, and they desperately need support. "You can't depend on a government to support your own culture."
S.C. State senior Janique Francis, who's from Trinidad and Tobago, also was impressed with the exhibit. People often mistake her Caribbean accent, and ask her if she's of Gullah descent from the Charleston area. So she was thrilled to get a look at the exhibit, which connected the Gullah language to other parts of the world.
She sees many connections between the Gullah culture and that of her homeland. The speech, the baskets and especially the food are similar, she said. "Eating the food, it's like I'm home."