New website targets black tourists, Gullah community

Sweetgrass Express is a new online publication to promote black heritage and tourism in Charleston.

Although Charleston is steeped in Gullah culture and black heritage, Deona Smith said many who visit the Lowcountry don’t know about it.

Smith published Living Roots magazine, which focused on Charleston’s African-American community, for three years until it went out of business during the recession.

Since then, as Charleston’s tourism industry flourished, she noticed a lot of the informational booklets in visitors centers failed to mention many of the tourist activities that focus on African-American history.

“People did not know there were Gullah Tours, and I’d say well, you can go to this tour, or that one, and they just did not know these things were here,” she said. “Everyone I encountered was interested, and these were not just black people.”

That’s when she realized the opportunity to revive her publication as a website, with a new twist on visitor activities.

The website, www.sweetgrassexpress.com, launched last week after a year of development.

“What we want to do with Sweetgrass is educate locals and visitors about the culture and the Gullah people, and at the same time showcase everything Charleston has to offer, the great food, the festivals,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be exclusively about the Gullah tours and things like that, but you at least need to know these options are here. And I don’t think that’s been presented or promoted widely.”

Over the past 35 years as a community specialist with the National Park Service, Michael Allen has been involved with many initiatives to highlight Gullah culture in Charleston’s attractions. He agreed that Charleston could use more initiatives like the Sweetgrass Express.

“I think it validates the work of myself and others who are working to bring the attention and awareness necessary to appreciate ... the legacy of African-Americans,” he said. “Often, that component has been missed in how we project the history and culture of our community.”

Sweetgrass Express is run by Dejo Group, the local marketing firm that also organizes events such as the Sister Summit, an annual networking conference for black women in Charleston.

The website can be a browsing tool for visitors to gather ideas, Smith said, and it’s also a resource for travel groups to plan trips or events around black heritage in Charleston.

“We have groups of storytellers, basket weavers, Gullah chefs and caterers, and we can put together an entire day just focused on the culture,” she said.

While the website has plenty to promote right now, she said she would like to see more attractions centered on Charleston’s black heritage.

“When you think about just a few tour operators who present Gullah-specific tours …. no, there’s not enough of that,” she said. “And the demand for it exceeds what we can currently handle.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail