MOUNT PLEASANT - A former New York City policewoman might seem like an unlikely promoter of one of the Lowcountry's greatest craft traditions, but Thomasena Stokes-Marshall has proven up to the job.

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The Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival kicks off from 6-9 p.m. Friday with a "Real taste of Gullah" dinner at Mount Pleasant's Waterfront Memorial Park.

The festival, which has free admission and parking, continues from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday at the park.

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As the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival begins here Friday and continues from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, the event that the Mount Pleasant councilwoman helped create will mark a milestone: its 10th birthday.

When Stokes-Marshall moved here from New York in 1993, she got involved in her new community and helped create the festival a decade later.

"The only thing I knew about sweetgrass baskets is that they were beautiful and seemed to be well made," she says.

Since then, she has learned about the rich history, which begins on the West African coast and took root here as a crucial part of the Lowcountry's rice culture. Large circular baskets were used to fan the rice before it went to market.

As the Lowcountry's rice culture faded at the dawn of 20th century, the descendants of slaves - particularly those in the Hamlin community and Boone Hall Plantation - began selling their baskets for resale in New York and then directly to tourists traveling the newly improved U.S. Highway 17.

The festival aims to tell this story as well as promote the craft.

"Many people may admire the baskets and the artwork, but they don't know the role baskets played during the time of slavery," she says.

This year's festival begins with a Gullah dinner Friday and an afternoon-long event Saturday that provides the most extensive showcase of sweetgrass baskets in the Lowcountry. It also offers other handmade crafts, demonstrations, food, paintings, and live performances of gospel songs, praise dances, storytelling and skits.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.