Historic Gullah home to be commemorated on Hilton Head

tbarton@islandpacket.comMarch 26, 2012 

  • The Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island will unveil a historical marker commemorating the preservation of the William Simmons House at 1 p.m. Saturday at 187 Gumtree Road. The public is invited. Call 843-290-3730 to attend.

    To learn more or to donate to the Gullah Museum, go to www.gullahmuseumhhi.org. Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island, 3 Farmer's Club Road, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926.

Once an eyesore, the tiny house with blue paint and tin roof is now a reminder of Hilton Head Island's Gullah heritage.

Local preservationists will gather Saturday to unveil a historical marker commemorating years of work by volunteers to save the crumbling, wood-framed house at 187 Gumtree Road.

Louise Cohen, a fifth-generation native islander, and area homebuilders began renovations two years ago on the house, built in the 1930s. They rid it of termites, replaced the roof and rotted beams, secured the foundation and transformed it into the first building of the Hilton Head Gullah Museum. The project is valued at about $40,000.

A Plexiglas window allows visitors to peek inside for a look at how islanders lived before a bridge connected Hilton Head to the mainland in 1956.

"That house will be the only Gullah home that has been preserved on the island," said Cohen, founder and director of the Gullah Museum."For us to have an original in the community is a treasure. It's a piece of gold, as far as I'm concerned."

The Gullah culture arose from slaves brought to South Carolina and Georgia from West and Central Africa to work the rice, cotton and indigo plantations. But real estate development, evolving job markets and population shifts forced many to leave their traditional family land.

The museum is on land purchased by Cohen's great-grandfather, William Simmons, after he escaped from a plantation on Lady's Island during the Civil War. He became a Union soldier, enlisting in the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry. He eventually settled on Hilton Head in Mitchelville, the nation's first freed-slave village.

The house was built for Simmons' grandson, Duey Simmons, whom William Simmons raised. Cohen inherited the land from Duey Simmons' sister, Georgianna, who raised her.

"Mitchelville represented their freedom, but that house represents their independence," Cohen said. "My great-grandfather said, 'This land is where I will make my mark.' ... It's the homes they built along Gumtree Road like this that represent the vision they had for their descendants. ... They didn't have much money, but they had land to be held for the future, for the unborn generation."

Holding on was no easy task, however. Simmons' military records, including his pension, were in the name of another former slave, Ira Sherman, who loaned Simmons his pass to sell oysters and berries to soldiers. At the time, a pass was required to get off a plantation. Slaves caught without one could be seized and whipped, Cohen said.

When he joined the Army, Simmons enlisted using Sherman's name.

After Mitchelville was disbanded in the late 1800s, the freed slaves dispersed across the island, buying land with the money they made from serving in the army, farming, fishing and doing other labor.

But for Simmons to draw his Army pension, he had to get people from the community to vouch that he had enlisted as Sherman but was really Simmons.

Carrie Hirsch, a museum board member, said she sees the little house and its historical marker as part of a larger renaissance taking place across the Lowcountry to preserve Gullah culture.

"It is so crucial people understand how it was back in this bartering and farming community back in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, before modern development was brought to Hilton Head," she said. "The way of life here was special because it was a barrier island. They were sequestered from the rest of the world and had to function independently, creating this unique community and culture our children should learn about."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

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'Little House' gradually transformed into Gullah museum: April 5, 2011

Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island

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