Gullah heritage on display for ‘comeyas’ this weekend

May 21, 2014 

Sweetgrass basket weaving, as practiced here by the experienced hands of Helen Smalls of Charleston, is one of the iconic crafts of the Gullah culture.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — The State

Here at Go Columbia, we tend to focus on things to do in the Midlands. But this time of year, with fewer local events, is the time to celebrate being two hours from the coast and two hours from the mountains. Throughout the summer, we’ll occasionally focus on upcoming events in those areas.

Gullah culture was born and bred on the South Carolina coast, and there’s no better place to celebrate the food, art, dance and fascinating people that grew from African roots in the Sea Island environment.

You can experience it all this weekend at the Original Gullah Festival in Beaufort. There’ll be steel drum bands, jazz ensembles, storytellers and all manners of dancers from 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, 921 Ribaut Road, Beaufort.

Want to buy a sweetgrass basket? There’ll be plenty of basketmakers in the arts and craft area.

The words okra, gumbo and barbecue are Gullah-derived. And you’ll be able to find plenty of okra gumbo and barbecue at the festival’s food tents.

Entry to the festival is $5 on Friday, $15 on Saturday and $10 on Sunday for anyone 13 and older. Those 12 and younger get in free. There is a separate $15 fee for the Friday Night Jam with musical acts Maluwa, Will Read and Skin-Tones in Pursuit. Go to theoriginalgullahfestival.org.

The National Park Service has designated the coastal region from Florida through North Carolina as the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The distinctive Gullah language and culture had been on the wane as more outsiders (comeyas) arrived on the sea islands and more of the longtime residents (beenyas) left. But the heritage corridor effort along with festivals such as this one are keeping the heritage not only alive but vibrant.

Sidetrip: Outdoors

While in the Beaufort area, take a drive out U.S. 21 to Hunting Island State Park. You’ll find four miles of beach, many miles of both short and long trails through a dense maritime forest and a fishing pier. The Hunting Island lighthouse is the only one on the South Carolina coast open to the public. See if you’re up to climbing the 167 steps to the top. It’s probably too late to book a campsite at the state park for this weekend, but you can go to southcarolinaparks.reserveamerica.com to check for availability later in the summer.

Sidetrip: Museums

Want to learn more about Gullah culture and the history of the Sea Islands? Stop between Beaufort and Hunting Island at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. The Penn Center complex originally was a school for freed slaves, and it later served as a retreat for Martin Luther King Jr. during the tumultuous 1960s. It’s York W. Bailey Museum features that history. A special treat this weekend is an exhibit of the art of William Kwamena-Poh. The museum is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $5 adults, $3 ages 5-16. (843) 838-2474 or penncenter.com.

Sidetrip: Food

You can find all manner of fancy seafood in restaurants throughout Beaufort County, but there’s something about the simple shrimp burgers at the Shrimp Shack that draw seafood lovers from all over. The restaurant is at 1925 Sea Island Parkway, St. Helena Island, conveniently between Penn Center and Hunting Island State Park. (843) 838-2962.

Joey Holleman

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