Celebrating the ways of the Gullah people

South Carolina: Islanders work to preserve their culture, weaving it into present-day life as intricately as they might craft a sweetgrass basket.

Destination: The South

April 22, 2001|By Harry Shattuck | Harry Shattuck,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

It was home to the first school for black freedmen in the aftermath of the Civil War. A century later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other visionaries gathered here frequently to forge paths of understanding and togetherness.

Today, the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, S.C., remains an inspiration -- a standing symbol of hope, perseverance and pride -- as well as a place for African-Americans to celebrate their culture and its roots.

For travelers, the center's York W. Bailey Museum represents the perfect introduction to Gullah, as people on this small island, almost all of African descent, know their language and culture.

A visit to St. Helena Island also provides an impetus for further exploration. All along the South Carolina coast, from Pawleys Island and Georgetown through Mount Pleasant, Charleston and Beaufort, south to Hilton Head Island and into Georgia, the Gullah culture continues to thrive.

Perhaps no other region allows such deep insight into African-American sacrifice, determination and impact.

The settlements date back more than 300 years, when West Africans were transported against their will across the Atlantic Ocean to become slaves on the area's prosperous rice plantations. As many as 80 percent of all slaves in the United States arrived through Sullivan's Island, near Charleston; many were quarantined for weeks and then sold.

These Africans brought with them skills in growing rice and indigo; in crafting intricate sweetgrass baskets, quilts and shrimp nets; in trades such as blacksmithing and building lavish homes; and above all in survival, in adjusting to new surroundings and isolation while maintaining a tight-knit faith in God, themselves and one another.

A shared language was integral to that adaptation. Rooted in their various homelands, what started as an African-French dialect blended with Creole to become Gullah (named, some believe, after Angola, but known as Geechee in Georgia). If Gullah was originally practiced in secrecy against the wishes of masters, it is now an open source of pride along this coast.

"The Gullah people continue to live in neighborhood pockets, just as did the African settlers," says Veronica Gerald, the Penn Center's historian. "And they continue to learn from each other."

They learn from the past, too. "If you don't know where you are going," residents here say, "you should know where you came from."

African influences

A horse-drawn carriage proceeds through the streets of Beaufort, on the mainland just west of St. Helena Island, a village so visually enchanting that it magnetizes film directors. The driver points to settings for "The Big Chill," "The Prince of Tides" and "The Great Santini," then pauses in front of a faded white church on New Street.

"Remember the chorus in 'Forrest Gump'?" she asks. "Those were the Hallelujah Singers. They sang in this church regularly. Then the movie came out, they made a CD and got famous, and we don't see them around here much anymore."

If so, it's because the singers, especially founder and lead vocalist Marlena Smalls, are busy spreading a message across the nation.

On this day, Smalls is only a short drive away, relaxing between morning and evening concerts at Hilton Head Island's new Self Family Arts Center, where the Hallelujah Singers frequently perform.

In stark contrast to neighboring St. Helena, Hilton Head is heavily developed and known worldwide as a golf and tennis destination. The vast majority of its tourists -- and its profiteers -- are white. But the Gullah culture is prominent here, too: African-American neighborhoods cover about 3,000 acres, and an annual Native Islander Gullah Celebration extends throughout February with a wide range of events.

"So much of the groundwork in what we call our contemporary American lifestyle is in Africanism," Smalls says. "We see it in the foods we eat: The Africans brought tomatoes here, as well as okra and squash and other foods. Africans had a heavy influence on our architecture, too, and more than anything on our music -- a universal language -- even as we've moved from a primitive style to hip-hop and rap."

Smalls, who played a small role as Bubba's mother in "Forrest Gump," still lives in Beaufort, and two of her daughters join her in the Hallelujah Singers. Her sister, Kittie Green, owns the Gullah House Restaurant on St. Helena Island and operates Gullah-n-Geechee Mahn Tours, whose excursions include Hilton Head Island.

Hallelujah Singers concerts and recordings weave music with storytelling, dramatizing rituals, ceremonies and other aspects of Gullah life.

"I live Gullah," Smalls says. "My daughters live this. We work every day at preserving Gullah. Listen to the music and the words. Study it carefully, and you can understand each phase the African went through as he was integrated with the European through the slave trade. You can understand that even though he was never intended to be here, this was a man who could adapt, who could communicate."

A guide to Gullah

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