Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration kicks off Friday

tbarton@islandpacket.comJanuary 30, 2014 

Native islander Otis Chaplin turns a slab of ribs while manning the barbecue cooker during the 2011 A Taste of Gullah event at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.

JAY KARR — Staff photo

The annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration -- which began in 1996 as a way for native islanders to promote their businesses and preserve their heritage -- kicks off Friday.

All things Gullah will be on display in February on Hilton Head Island.

The annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration -- which began in 1996 as a way for native islanders to promote their businesses and preserve their heritage -- kicks off Friday.

In its 18th year, the celebration, hosted by the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association, draws crowds from around the Lowcountry and beyond. Organizers expect about 15,000 people to attend the various events throughout the month.

"Every year, we try to reach more and more people in an effort to showcase and preserve the story of the Gullah culture," said celebration chairman Charles Young III. "I think we've been successful in that. I think more and more people are becoming aware of the Gullah celebration and what we are trying to do here."

A regional marketing consultant was recently hired to help event organizers reach a younger, tech-savvy audience. Organizers now use Facebook, Twitter and a spruced-up website to promote events and allow people to purchase tickets and memorabilia online.

"We want the younger audience to learn more about Gullah and involve more young people on the island to continue the Gullah story," Young said. "We have seen some response to our efforts, but not as much as we want it to be. But we understand this will take time."

Over the next month, events will include gospel music, storytellers, African dance, arts and crafts, and the return of the marsh tacky horse exhibition, featuring the Black Cowboy Festival. The Gullah community used the horses for everything from field work and transportation to celebrating the holidays by racing them.

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. Until the 1950s or so, the Gullah way of life was virtually hidden among the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Slowly, Gullah natives became less isolated as developers moved in and the Gullah moved out. The culture's mix of African, Caribbean and European influences slowly began to fade and was threatened, according to national experts. That is why events like the Gullah celebration are integral to keeping Gullah traditions alive, according to Louise Miller Cohen, director and founder of the Hilton Head Gullah Museum.

Cohen worries the old ways will be forgotten and the history and heritage of the island's Gullah descendants lost. To prevent that, the museum is creating a documentary about life in the Gullah community on Hilton Head between the Civil War and before a bridge was built in 1956 connecting the island to the mainland.

"The vision of the museum was born out of the Gullah celebration," Cohen said. "It brought the importance of preserving the Gullah culture, language and traditions back to life. The only way Gullah culture will die is if we choose to let it die. That caused me to put my working shoes on to do what I can to help keep it alive.

"... And hopefully, because of events like the Gullah celebration, more people will become aware and choose to help in our efforts."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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