Penn Center celebrates Gullah-Geechee heritage

achristnovich@beaufortgazette.comNovember 10, 2012 

Jahlahnee Watkins,11, a student with The Learning Tree Cultural Preparatory School in Bronx, N.Y., carries the Angolan flag Saturday morning during thePenn Center Heritage Days Celebration parade on St. Helena Island. Students carried flags representing the Gullah people as local schools and organizations celebrated the Gullah-Geechee culture. The event continues today from 10am to 1pm.


  • A St. Helena Island man has turned himself in to police after allegedly striking a police motorcycle and a pedestrian with his SUV during the Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration on Saturday.

    Luther Lynard, 25, surrendered to the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office late Saturday afternoon. He had been stopped by deputies at 11:30 a.m. Saturday on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He then tried to drive away, deputies said. That's when he hit the motorcycle and the pedestrian. The pedestrian refused medical treatment.

    Lynard leapt from the 1999 Chevrolet Tahoe he was driving and ran into the nearby woods. Entry into the celebration was shut down for about two hours while police searched for him.

    The Sheriff's Office said Lynard already faced outstanding warrants charging second-degree burglary and forgery. The South Carolina Highway Patrol will charge him with leaving the scene of an accident with injuries and fleeing to evade.

    Lynard was being held at the Beaufort County Detention Center late Saturday.

"Heritage" is about more than a where a person was born.

It's about more than the foods one grows up eating, the songs one learns to sing or the stories passed down to children.

It's about how all of those things create the whole person.

Hundreds came to St. Helena Island on Saturday to enjoy all those things -- frogmore stew, handmade crafts, gospel music and stories -- at the 30th Penn Center Heritage Day Celebration.

The emphasis was on native island culture.

On entering the Penn Center grounds, the first thing a festivalgoer likely saw was native islander Ben C. Johnson Jr. and his family sitting on the tailgates of two trucks parked near the entrance. The family sells bushels of sweet potatoes, freshly picked collared greens and bundles of six-foot-long sugar cane stalks from the truck beds.

"We're here every year in about the same spot," Johnson said.

Customers could be seen strolling through the celebration with the tall stalks of cane sticking up like snorkels from water.

Johnson's sister, Zezalee Smalls, sat near the main stage, about 100 feet away from her brother, under a blue tent with a white and purple banner that said Gullah Church Nurse's Association. She was among the first African American nurses hired at the Naval Hospital, she said, and worked there for 34 years.

The association's founders -- most of whom are native to the island -- knew they were rare liaisons between modern medicine and the holistic Gullah-Geechee approach, according to association member Saundra Renee Smith.

"When we first started, you needed to speak Gullah," she said. "It took a lot of convincing... but trust in some (modern) medicine was established ... ."

Robert Middleton was a baby when his adoptive parents brought him from Philadelphia to live on St. Helena. After attending the Penn Center school as a boy, he became an Army Engineer during the Korean War. After the war, he returned to Philadelphia, where he lived for a number of years.

Later, he came back to St. Helena and wrote a short book that chronicled how his life was shaped by the island .

"One of the greatest things that's happened to this (island) is the school," he said, referring to Penn Center. "I want my kids and my grandkids to know about it."

Follow reporter Anne Christnovich

Related content:

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

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