Plan to preserve Gullah culture seen as boon for local heritage groups

tbarton@islandpacket.comAugust 5, 2012 

  • The Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission welcomes public comments on the plan through Aug. 17 at either the National Park Service planning site -- www.parkplanning.nps.gov/guge -- or by writing the commission at 1214 Middle St., Sullivan's Island, SC 29482.

    The report also is available at some libraries and at the commission's website, www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org.

A new plan meant to help coastal residents sustain their African roots could bring more attention and federal money to Beaufort County preservation groups.

The Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission released a 272-page document this month, setting the groundwork for preservation and public recognition of Gullah Geechee heritage.

The commission was formed to recognize contributions made to U.S. culture and history by African slaves who worked on the plantations that made South Carolina one of the wealthiest American colonies.

The plan maps efforts to document important sites and develop economic opportunities in a four-state, coastal corridor from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., that extends 30 miles inland.

The report calls for a sign system guiding people to sites of historic and cultural significance, including Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island and Penn Center on St. Helena Island.

It also proposes one or more coastal heritage centers in each state.

The corridor's continued development would depend on adequate funding, partnerships and community support, according to Michael Allen, a specialist with the National Park Service overseeing the corridor's management plan.

"The most important thing is this management plan is a tool that can be used by Beaufort and Jasper counties in an effort to protect, preserve and sustain Gullah-Geechee culture," Allen said. "It's an opportunity for communities in the corridor to celebrate, recognize and honor the Gullah-Geechee heritage."

The effort began in 2000, when U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the first black congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction, asked for a study of Gullah resources.

The Gullah-Geechee corridor was approved by Congress in 2006, which gave the commission a stipend of $150,000 a year and help from the National Park Service. The commission manages the only National Heritage Area devoted to the African-American experience.

The culture is known as Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Georgia and Florida. It survived in many areas untouched because of the isolation of the Sea Islands. But now the culture and many sites are threatened by coastal development and lack of awareness, education and job opportunities among Gullah people, according to the commission report.

For nearly two decades, Hilton Head native islander and commission member Emory Campbell, founder of Gullah Heritage Consulting Services, and others have labored to pass along traditions handed down for generations -- such as basket making, boat building, storytelling and net weaving.

"During that time span, a renaissance of widespread interest and acceptance of Gullah-Geechee culture, art forms, and economic ventures emerged," said Campbell, author of "Gullah Cultural Legacies."

But for those ventures to thrive -- and for Gullah folklore, arts, crafts and music to survive -- better coordination is needed among state and local governments and public and private interests along the corridor, he said.Commission chairman and St. Helena resident Ron Daise said the report can be used to help weave together Gullah heritage groups.

"As I drive around Beaufort County, I see these people going into native-island churches or businesses, and I wonder: If I were to stop and ask them -- just mention the words Gullah-Geechee -- how would they act?" Daise said. "Would it be negative? A questioning look? Or will they be able to extoll the contributions of Gullah-Geechee culture to American history?

"That is what will be done through this management, with individuals, businesses, governments and nonprofits stepping forward to partner with us."

Related content:

Gullah culture will disappear without heritage corridor, group says: Sept. 16, 2010

On its 150 anniversary, Penn Center looks to its past, future: June 23, 2012

Gullah-Geechee event celebrates culture's fishing philosophy: March 18, 2012

Mitchelville supporters fight to preserve 'an American story': March 12, 2012

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