South Carolina rice, and the West African slaves who cultivated it, built Charleston into one of the largest and wealthiest cities in British colonial America during the 1700s.
Now artist Jonathan Green sees rice as a way to build bridges between people.
Green, whose colorful paintings of Gullah scenes are featured in art collections worldwide, has formed the nonprofit Lowcountry Rice Culture Project, through work with other Charlestonians and an advisory panel of artists, educators and historians.
He said the idea is to focus on the significance of rice in the building of Charleston and the Southeast and use it as a starting point for broader discussions of how race, class, art and history influenced the region and reverberate today.
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Slaves from West Africa brought the skills to grow and harvest the rice that provided planters with wealth and built the economic foundation for the region. Those slaves also developed a culture that survives today in the Gullah people of the Carolinas coast and the Geechee people of the Georgia and Florida coast.
But Green, 58, said that history has largely been lost in the telling of America's story.
"How is it through all the years that all we take from it is music and dance?" Green said. "Why not the presentation of cultural customs? Why not the visual imagery? Because there was no interest in the entirety of America to have it part of the culture."
Green said the forum, developed over three years, will work to inform people of how the bedrock of wealth in the region was the work of slaves and their cultivation of rice. It will be a way of looking at history that may be new to many.
"I hope it will be a new way of having conversations about Southern American history," Green said, adding that such discussions often get sidetracked by the issue of slavery.
"I knew and believed that my life had never been based on the residuals of slavery but was always based on West Africa and what the people did in terms of craft and culture," said Green, who grew up in rural Gardens Corner, between Charleston and Beaufort. "But I kept bumping into these really bad dudes called cotton and tobacco."
On Thursday, the project gets underway when an exhibit titled "Unenslaved: Rice Culture Paintings by Jonathan Green" opens at the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center for African American Culture.
Then on Sept. 12, a three-day Lowcountry Rice Culture Forum will be held at various locations around Charleston. It includes sessions on cooking rice, its historical and economic impact, and a visit to a rice field under cultivation at Middleton Place Plantation.
A delegation of officials and historians will attend from the West African nation of Guinea, an area from which slaves were brought to South Carolina.
The forum's partners around the country include the Maryland Institute College of Art Center for Race and Culture in Baltimore, the Georgetown County Library and the College of Charleston.
"I feel strongly the Lowcountry is truly the center for African-American culture," said Jane Aldrich, the forum's executive director. "Yes, there was slavery in Virginia and slavery in New York. But here in the rice culture these rice plantations had large numbers of people who congregated and created a culture."
She added that South Carolina rice planters such as Arthur Middleton and others were able to support the American Revolution because growing rice gave them the money and time to do so.
"Without West Africans, we might not be in the United States of America today," she said.