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In the Land of the Gullahs

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 1998; Page E01


    Gullah Country, South Carolina A Gullah woman makes sweetgrass baskets, an African handicraft dating back hundreds of years. (Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce)
When I entered the village church the congregation was in full swing, belting out the day's scripture in what sounded like an African dialect. I did not understand a word, but that didn't matter. As I looked with uncertainty into the faces of the crowd--from a matronly villager with skin the color of cocoa to a burly brother with a '60s Afro--all returned heartfelt smiles.

Uplifted by a Sunday morning of African-style worship, I followed the scent of catfish and collard greens to a favored local hangout. Along the wooden porch a couple of women in braids were setting out sweet-grass baskets, a handicraft common in West African markets. Under a sagging willow, a few village elders chewed the fat of the week. Inside, families were digging into bowls of gumbo and platters of rice and okra. In nearly every town along Africa's Gold Coast from Sierra Leone to Senegal, I imagined, similar scenes were taking place.

The catch was, I was not in Africa. I was on St. Helena, an island off the marshy shores of South Carolina and home to the Gullahs. Descended from slaves brought from Africa to the Georgia and South Carolina coast in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Gullahs have clung passionately to the languages, foods and traditions of their origin. While the rest of America, including much of the African American population, is swept up in a tide of cultural homogeneity marked by Nike shoes, baseball hats and Top 10 hits, the Gullahs have held resolutely to the rice dishes, prayer rituals, rites and chants that their grandfathers' grandfathers brought from the Motherland.

Although they probably descend from different African countries and disparate tribes, Gullahs today are identified by their common language. Gullah is a Creolized language composed of words from English and several African tongues. Although some members of an older generation still communicate largely in Gullah, most Gullahs use it as secondary tongue to chat with one another. For almost all of them, English is the first language.

Gullah country does not refer to a single island or town but a string of communities in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Other Gullah enclaves have been traced as far off as Texas and Oklahoma. An intriguing destination for any traveler, the stretch of the South that many Gullahs call home seems to offer something particularly attractive to Americans descended from slaves. It is a dramatic reminder that, in the vast multicultural forest of the contemporary United States, African Americans have roots as deep as any other ethnic group.

My introduction to the world of Gullah came through cinema and literature. The 1991 movie "Daughters of the Dust" depicted a community of Gullahs battling to keep the mores of the New World from subsuming their tight-knit social circles. "Down by the Riverside," a historical account of life on South Carolina Low Country plantations, gives rich details of how slaves brought from Africa to South Carolina worked to retain aspects of their African heritage, from songs to burial traditions.

But neither the book nor film renderings of the Gullah story fully prepared me for my wanderings through the settlements where Gullahs live and gather.

To observe the Gullahs is to see a people who have been resolute about preserving their culture on American soil. Their skin tones run from the deep color of coffee beans to the hue of brown sugar. And their features, including full lips and big round eyes, recall the look of many West Africans.

"When we look for partners, we tend to look among our own people," explained Jean Smith, a retired seamstress I met on my Sunday morning stroll through St. Helena. "We don't intermarry much. That's why you see more African features in our looks." Dark skinned and direct, she was clearly proud of her culture and eager to share it.

The Gullahs I met were a fountainhead of inspiration. Among the most memorable was Emory Campbell, whose graying hair and thoughtful speech gave him an elegant Old World demeanor. As director of the Penn Center, devoted to the preservation of African culture and to the service of the African American community, Campbell straddles the enclave of Gullahs and the outside world of South Carolina. Started by Quakers in the 1800s as a private school for African Americans, the Penn Center is a cluster of buildings in St. Helena that includes a small museum and a bookstore, both of which highlight Gullah literature and history.

"We would like to think that we are a symbol of the resilience of Africa on American soil," Campbell said as we toured Gullah neighborhoods. "We are Americans, but our bond to Africa is strong. We feel it every day."

The number of Gullahs along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts has dwindled over the years, making estimates of the number of survivors difficult. But a 1979 survey by the Summer Institute of Linguistics found 100,000 Gullah speakers in the region, including 10,000 who spoke only Gullah. By Campbell's anecdotal account, thousands of families still make their homes in Hilton Head, St. Helena and other islands off South Carolina and Georgia. Many remain in the same areas where their ancestors worked rice plantations as slaves.

Beyond the people, I saw a clear African influence on Gullah dining tables. One popular dish is a gumbo containing okra, fish and hot peppers. Served with red rice, it is similar to jollof rice, a dish beloved in West Africa. White rice, a staple recalling Gullah ancestors' heritage as rice growers along the African coast, is still served at nearly every meal.

As I sat in Gullah living rooms, I sometimes heard their singsong dialect rise above the southern drawl more commonly heard in these parts. I caught a few English words here and there. But Gullah is also full of expressions used in Krio, a dialect widely spoken in Sierra Leone.

"De Fox en de Crow," a familiar Gullah fable, includes the following: "Fox call to de Crow: 'Mawmin tittuh,' he say. 'Uh so glad you tief da meat fum de buckruh.' "

Translation: "Fox called to the crow: 'Morning girl,' he said. 'I'm so glad you stole that meat from the white man.' "

Through more than two decades of painstaking research, Joseph Opala, a scholar at the Penn Center, has documented the strong links between the Gullah peoples of South Carolina and Sierra Leone. By pinpointing languages, foods and other customs shared by Gullahs and Sierra Leoneans, Opala has concluded that a large percentage of the Gullah peoples originated in Sierra Leone. In need of labor able to work in the humid, sweltering rice plantations, slave traders turned to Sierra Leone because it was a rice-growing region with a climate similar to South Carolina and Georgia. In recent years, a series of exchange visits between Gullahs and delegations from Sierra Leone have dramatized the ties between the two groups.

Guinea, Senegal and Liberia are also probable countries of origin of some Gullahs, according to scholars.

A casual traveler touring the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia will find no towering monument to the Gullah people. There is no major Gullah museum or information center. No marker depicting the location of Gullah settlements. Without assistance, it is easy to drive through the Sea Islands, stretching a couple of hundred miles, and hardly notice the Gullah presence.

But a couple of local organizations organize annual festivals, featuring music, dance, cuisine, crafts and presentations about Gullah life and history. (See Details, Page E9). Arriving in Gullah country between festivals, I relied on Campbell and a couple of other locals to serve as my guides. In a tour around Hilton Head, S.C., Campbell pointed out the areas where Gullahs were once based in large numbers, and the few scattered communities where they continue to live. During a two-hour drive, he showed us a Gullah cemetery and an oversize rock that was once used as a Gullah meeting spot.

But the most remarkable stop was a cluster of modern houses arranged in a semicircle. Initially, it looked like any other cluster of middle-class homes. But the settlement, featuring three rows of houses, was modeled after an African village. It was the home of an extended Gullah family in which the elders live in the middle, the children in the surrounding semicircle and the grandchildren in the outer ring. The original cottages had been replaced by contemporary homes, he added, but the concept remained.

Campbell, who grew up on Hilton Head and still makes his home there, told me the dramatic saga of the Gullah people on the island: how white rice plantation owners, unable to bear the heat and the disease common in the region, often left the Gullahs to their labors with little supervision.

Even after the Civil War, the Gullahs remained a world apart. One of the driving factors in that isolation, according to Campbell, was a desire to maintain the purity of the culture. Another was the fact that Gullah settlements, mostly based on out-of-the-way islands, were located in places that provided little contact with whites or any other outside cultures.

But when new roads began to link Hilton Head and the other islands to mainland South Carolina in the 1960s, many of the Gullahs sold their family plots to developers and either moved away or integrated into South Carolina and Georgia society. As opportunities began to open for African Americans in the South, many Gullahs sought to integrate into the wider community.

"When my grandmother spoke to us in Gullah, we used to laugh. We thought it was outmoded," Campbell said. "Now we understand that it provides our strongest link to our African past."

Inspired by a resurgence of the roots movement and a sense that their society is at risk of dying away, many have begun to take renewed interest in preserving Gullah ways. A number of Gullah families who had moved to other parts of the country are now returning, according to Deborah Robertson, a woman with coffee-colored skin whom I met over lunch in the town of Beaufort. She moved away to New York and other places a decade ago, only to return home last year. "We're all discovering that the culture we have here is unique and worth holding onto," she said.

The next day Kitty Green, a guide with Gullah & Geechee Mahn Tours, took me on a drive around St. Helena, which is next to Hilton Head, about two hours by car from Charleston. One stop was a cemetery where many of the Gullah had buried their dead. In the African tradition, some of the graves were covered with glass and dishes, apparently to serve the dead in afterlife. Even today, some Gullah will pass the youngest baby over a new grave before covering the burial with dirt, the guide said. The idea is to keep the spirit of the deceased from coming back to haunt the baby.

Down the road was a "praise house," a one-room building used as a Gullah meeting house as far back as the early 1800s. It's a white clapboard structure, almost hauntingly simplistic. Local African Americans still use it for occasional meetings, Green said. The Brick Church, the Baptist house of worship where I attended a Sunday service, was built in the mid-1800s by slaves. The church's congregation is not exclusively Gullah, and the services are usually held in English, the guide explained. But Gullah translations are sometimes used during services.

Before leaving the area, I dropped back into a midweek service at the church. As the crowd began to recite the closing scripture, I closed my eyes and listened. "Gee we de food wa we da need dis day yah an ebryday," they said. "Fabige we fa de bad ting we da do."

As I listened, the words became suddenly familiar. "Give us this day our daily bread," went the passage from the Gospel according to Luke. "And forgive us our trespasses."

Details: Gullah Tour

Getting There: St. Helena, S.C., is a good starting point. Fly to Savannah, Ga., rent a car and drive the 30 miles or so to St. Helena. United Express is advertising a round-trip fare between Dulles and Savannah of $185, with restrictions. Driving, count on at least 10 hours for the 500-plus mile trip.

Where to Stay: Hampton Inn (843-986-0600), in Beaufort, a few miles from St. Helena, has doubles for $80. Two Suns Inn (843-522-1122), a charming B&B at 1705 Bay St. in Beaufort, has doubles for $120 and up.

What to Do: The Penn Center, on St. Helena, will provide the basics for a crash course in Gullah culture. For more information, call 843-838-2432.

I took three tours. Gullah and Geechee Mahn Tours (843-838- 7516) offers a $17, 2 1/2-hour tour of St. Helena and surroundings, including churches, cemetery and other remnants of Gullah culture. Gullah Tours (843-763-7551) offers a $15 two-hour tour of Gullah relics in Charleston. Gullah Heritage Trail Tours (843-681-7066) does a good two-hour trip around Hilton Head for $20.

Three Gullah educational and cultural events are held annually. The three-day Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration, scheduled for Nov. 12-14, is the most important for those eager to learn more about the Gullahs. It includes Gullah song and cuisine as well as in-depth lectures in history. Call the Penn Center (see above).

The Gullah Festival, held in Beaufort every May, highlights the culture's entertainment aspects. Contact the Beaufort Chamber of Commerce, 843-524-3163.

The Native Islander Gullah Celebration is held each winter in Hilton Head. Call the Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce, 843-785-3673.

Where to Eat: Ultimate Eating (843-838-1314), in St. Helena, serves all the Gullah basics. A down-home lunch for two will cost about $30. Abe's Shrimp House (843-785- 3675), on Hilton Head, serves basic Gullah food.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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