“American Idol” winner and St. Helena Island native Candice Glover might have given an effort to preserve the Gullah Geechee culture its most high-profile push yet.
She shone the spotlight on a portion of the map now known as part of The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor this spring as a Gullah descendant – and there are signs to prove it.
New road markers – all bearing the same distinctive logo – have begun appearing along the coast of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida and soon, there will be more. Their purpose to inform travelers they’ve entered into the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor signifies another milestone reached in the ongoing efforts to promote, preserve and protect heritage, beliefs, language and customs of Gullah Geechee culture.
The signs welcome and invite guests to learn, experience and celebrate a living culture whose important contributions to the American experience have taken many efforts and decades to recognize.
The closest sign to the Myrtle Beach area is on U.S. 17 in Mount Pleasant, but Michael Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Park Service, said this month he is moving to have more signs in place this year from Wilmington, N.C., down U.S. 17 Bypass through the Grand Strand.
“We have contracted with the signage company to begin producing more signs,” Allen said. He added that the signs have been paid for, though he didn’t know the exact price per sign, and when they are ready they will be delivered to certain correspondents in each state for installment.
In addition to the new signs, local and corridorwide brochures about the culture will be out soon, a two-year internship program that kicked off this summer is helping gather stories from Gullah descendants and the search is on for the first executive director of The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, which is using a management plan approved by a federal department earlier this year to promote and preserve the culture.
“I believe that the existence of the corridor has brought about a birth of awareness that might not have otherwise occurred,” Allen said. “Now sites are willing to do things to highlight, share and emphasize the culture, and that is a good thing. There is a sense of pride and awareness with Gullah culture now and in many respects the corridor has heightened and encouraged that.”
A National Heritage Area, The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor began as a bill introduced by Congressman James L. Clyburn in 2005 and was designated by Congress in 2006. The corridor is managed by The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.
A 272-page management plan received final approval in May from the Federal Department of the Interior. Ronald Daise, chairman of The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, said the commission is dedicated to promoting a living history, along with the continued need for acknowledgement, claiming of identity and a call for the negative connotations to be left in the past in order to honor and celebrate those who have contributed a significant impact to an historical journey.
According to the corridor’s website (www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org), it was created to:
• “Recognize the important contributions made to American culture and history by African Americans known as Gullah Geechee who settled in the coastal counties of South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida;
• “assist state and local governments and public and private entities in South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida in interpreting the story of the Gullah Geechee and preserving Gullah Geechee folklore, arts, crafts and music; and
• “assist in identifying and preserving sites, historical data, artifacts, and objects associated with the Gullah Geechee for the benefit and education of the public.”
It is a land mass of more than 12,000 square miles in the southern Atlantic Coastal Plain that includes the barrier islands and coastal regions along the Atlantic Ocean. It spans about 450 miles along the coast beginning in Wilmington, stretching through South Carolina and Georgia down to St. Augustine, Fla., and reaches up to 30 miles inland in each of these states.
Almost 600,000 acres of Horry County and all of Georgetown County fall within the boundaries of the corridor.
Nearly 400 years ago, a unique culture of extraordinary diversity began their journey.
Forced from native lands in West and Central Africa to work on the coastal plantations of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, they arrived by boat to the New World. Taken into captivity and torn from family, they relied on their own languages, beliefs, traditions, culinary practices and music to sustain culture and remain true to heritages that would, through extreme and dire circumstances, lead them to unite as one.
Using special skills and knowledge acquired from a lost homeland, they cultivated the rice crops that proved a viable resource of the Carolina economy and finally regained their freedom. Theirs would become a story recognized, researched and retold by many, yet it remains vulnerable and precariously close to fading from existence.
A 2001 National Geographic report stated that Gullah culture “was in danger of fading away,” adding that preservation would be “almost impossible.”
Yet for 33 years, Allen has worked tirelessly and collaboratively with others who share his vision to create awareness to honor and celebrate the significant impact Gullah Geechee culture continues to have on the American experience.
“When freedom came, not everyone decided to leave,” said Veronica Gerald, a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University and a descendant from both Brookgreen and Longwood plantations in Georgetown County. She owns Ultimate Gullah in Conway and gives lectures and performances on Gullah culture.
Those who stayed, she said, settled in the isolated areas along the coast where they were once enslaved. Clyburn described these areas as “pockets of paradise” that provided refuge from outsiders and allowed Gullah Geechee people to live their lives peacefully while retaining cultural practices, spirituality and traditions.
One of the biggest challenges they faced – and still face – was preserving the culture and the land that Allen believes can be protected in great part with “education and awareness.”
The land, handed down among families or sold cheaply to relatives, has been a target for developers for years. Property taxes have increased over the years upward to as much as 600 percent while land developers have sought ways to acquire and commercialize areas where family cemeteries and other sacred grounds exist.
To prevent future commercialization, Clyburn took action: “The Gullah Geechee culture is the last vestige of fusion of African and European languages and traditions. I cannot sit idly by and watch an entire culture disappear that represents my heritage and the heritage of those who look like me,” he has said.
Author of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Act, Clyburn also initiated “the enabling legislation for a Special Resource Study” in 1999. The Low Country Gullah Culture Special Resource Study was authorized by Congress to determine whether or not the National Park Service should have a role in preserving Gullah culture and if so, what that role might be.
The study commenced in 2000, producing the Low Country Gullah Culture Special Resource Study and Final Environmental Impact Statement in July 2005.
In May 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Gullah/Geechee culture, coastline and Sea Islands to its list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites.
On Oct. 12, 2006, The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor was designated by an act of Congress.
Daise, also known for his role on the television show “Gullah Gullah Island,” explained the importance of creating an awareness to promote, preserve and protect Gullah Geechee as a living culture.
He pointed out language and music because both are significant to the heritage of Gullah Geechee and explained that music didn’t come (at first) from happiness but from necessity and the desire to form community, to tell a story and music became part of the day’s work to make it easier.
Music was, at times, for passing messages within community. A well known and familiar campfire song, “Kumbayah” was formed from three words in Gullah language that mean “come by here.” That phrase and “Gullah Geechee mean a lot” are spoken with utmost and revered importance in Gullah, Daise said.
The Gullah language, described as a fusion of African and European, is based on English with strong influences of West and Central Africa.
Becky Childs, assistant professor of linguistics at CCU, says of Gullah language: “… for linguists, it’s sort of like the ‘holy grail’ to us.” She describes the Gullah language as “sacred” and notes that linguists are “very interested” in Gullah language because their goal is to learn how new languages develop.
“Gullah is a Creole; an English-based Creole,” she said.
A Creole language develops in a couple of ways. It goes through a process (“similar to a life,” she noted) and it begins with two languages that come together – say, African and English – that are mutually exclusive. Nobody knows each other’s language and typically languages come together when people are under an extreme social situation that causes them, or when they have to do commerce. The two languages meet, and when enough communication enables doing whatever the task is (learn numbers from each other or for trade purposes), this is called “pidgin.”
After another generation comes along, speaking that pidgin or trade language, then it’s considered a Creole. When children are born learning and speaking that language, then you have a “full-fledged Creole”
Childs also noted that a common misconception is that Gullah is “bad English” or “broken English.”
“It’s not,” she said. “Gullah has everything every other language has: nouns, verbs, adjectives and what makes it different is how it does what it does; how it makes sense.”
“I became interested and excited about Gullah culture in the ‘80s, noting that there wasn’t much to find so I began interviewing people,” Gerald said.
This summer, in cooperation with a partnership of The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission and B.N. Duke Scholars Program, 14 interns are involved in community outreach for a two-year summer program in the Waccamaw Neck area of the corridor.
The interns will interview former residents, descendants and workers of Brookgreen, Laurel Hill, Springfield and The Oaks plantations who would like to share their Gullah Geechee experiences and memories.
The interns will also be instrumental in assisting Gerald, who noted in addition to the markers that have already begun to populate areas within the corridor, brochures will soon be available at various places: visitor centers, chambers of commerce and Ultimate Gullah.
Owned by Gerald, Ultimate Gullah is located within the corridor at 900 Third Ave. in Conway and specializes in a “variety of unique gifts created by Gullah people from around the world.”
The shop also offers an educational experience that includes tours of any Gullah settlement between Myrtle Beach and Savannah, Ga.
“Most people don’t know that Conway – and the rest of the Grand Strand, is part of the corridor,” Gerald said.
Like Gerald, Denise Dobson became interested in Gullah culture in the ‘80s. Dobson was a high school student in the 1970s prior to integration and taught social studies for 30 years in Hampton.
“I always encouraged my students to be self-sufficient through research,” Dobson said. “If they wanted to know something, I told them to look it up.” She explained to them this was the best way to discover anything they wanted to know.
When she developed a desire to learn about her own African-American heritage, she followed her own advice and embarked on a journey similar to the ones she’d sent her students on. As awareness increases through the efforts of many, these days Dobson and others are sure to find ways to become involved, learn, experience and celebrate Gullah Geechee culture.
As the journey within the destination continues, the corridor commission has issued a call for an executive director of the corridor and is accepting applications until Thursday.“The search is coming along well,” said Allen. “We have advertised locally, regionally and nationally in different ways and venues and lots of people have applied. At this juncture, we are just waiting for this person to be with us in the fall.”
Also on the horizon for the commission and the corridor, Allen said an informational banner “is being designed and hopefully will be produced relatively soon that can be placed at various historic sites across the corridor,” sort of like a “branding of the corridor so people can have a connection to it.” To complement the banner, a brochure is being developed that will impart specific information about the corridor and its relevancy in each of the states. This brochure, separate from the one Gerald is working on, is for the whole corridor.
“Always remember that we are part of a four-state initiative so it has to be comprehensive across all states,” Allen said.
When Allen drives along the stretch of roadway formerly known as the rice coast, he said he doesn’t notice the plethora of billboards, golf courses and eateries. Instead, he sees history that mimics a beautiful tapestry interwoven with threads – strong enough to withstand time and unable to be broken.
“... they seem to project a physical manifestation of the human spirit, which compels you to believe you can succeed if only you believe you can,” wrote Thomas Pyatt in a tribute to Gullah People of Sandy Island.