Inaugural Gullah float gives a boost to an overlooked culture
Several Charleston County residents will be part of President Barack Obama’s upcoming inaugural parade, as they ride on a Gullah Geechee Heritage Commission float.
Gullah Geechee, a primer
Gullah Geechee people are the direct descendants of Africans brought to the United States and enslaved for generations.
Their diverse roots in particular parts of Africa, mostly West Africa, and their lives as slaves on isolated islands on the southeastern coast created a unique culture that survives today.
The culture can be seen in distinctive arts, crafts, cuisine and music — and heard in the Gullah Geechee language.
The culture has a direct link to first lady Michelle Obama, whose ancestors were enslaved on Friendfield Plantation in Georgetown.
The corridor’s website is www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org
The event will mark another milestone in the federal government’s work to preserve, protect and promote the culture.
Commission Chair Ron Daise will be among about 15 people aboard the float.
“There are many people within the Gullah Geechee culture who are not aware of the significance of the culture,” Daise said, “and this will be a grand opportunity to highlight its significance.”
The commission was created by Congress, and the National Park Service has helped it create a management plan to preserve the culture, which is a mix of African, Caribbean and European. It includes the area along the Atlantic coast, from southern North Carolina to northern Florida.
Michael Allen of the National Park Service and his wife, Latanya, also hope to be on the float, which will be the commission’s most visible undertaking so far.
“That level of publicity, you can’t buy,” Allen said. “Having this opportunity will allow the corridor to be known by people not just around the nation, but around the world.”
Those on the float won’t be donning traditional Gullah dress — partly because temperatures on Jan. 21 could be far colder than the Lowcountry’s climate — but the float will feature quilts, sweetgrass baskets and other icons from the culture.
One quilt, done by Vermelle “Bunny” Rodrigues, will tell the story of Michelle Obama’s ties to the culture. Some of her ancestors were slaves at Georgetown’s Friendfield Plantation.
Robert Macdonald of Mount Pleasant, director emeritus of the Museum of the City of New York, will be among those on the float.
Macdonald also is a board member of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Foundation, a new nonprofit that will work with the commission and others seeking to preserve the culture.
Many groups seek a spot in the inaugural parade, so it’s a real coup that the Gullah Geechee commissioners got the green light.
“For such a young organization, it’s rather startling in a way,” Macdonald said. “I think it reflects the interest in preserving the diversity of American culture and history, which has made this country unique.”
The Park Service currently is reviewing the commission’s management plan and expects to adopt it later this year. The plan calls for a network of partnerships between local governments, nonprofits and others in areas such as education, economic development and historic preservation.
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn pushed for the commission’s creation and wrote a letter supporting the float.
“I believe this float would be especially relevant for President Obama’s inauguration,” he wrote. “Michelle Obama’s family roots are in Georgetown, and the Gullah Geechee culture that remains there.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.