Beaufort County's important role in American history and culture gained significant acknowledgment last week from the federal government.
It's a milestone, not because it comes with a lot of dollars, but because it focuses on a subject long overlooked: the contributions of African Americans to our society.
After 12 years of study and public input, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor was accepted as a National Heritage Area by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Beaufort County lies in the heart of the 8 million-acre swath of land along the coast from Jacksonville, N.C., to just south of Jacksonville, Fla.
Of 49 National Heritage Areas recognized by the federal government, this is the only one that deals specifically with African-American history.
The crafters of slavery, secession and Jim Crow segregation have long dominated the South's storyline. But the beginning of the end of slavery took place in Beaufort County. And the question of how formerly enslaved people would integrate into American society was tackled first here. It was called the Port Royal Experiment. Historian Willie Lee Rose brought its peaks and valleys to life in her book, "Rehearsal for Reconstruction."
Our hope is that the historical significance of Beaufort County can be better documented, preserved and shown to the world through this new federal designation.
But we must be clear that the designation does not come with much money, and whatever happens will largely depend on a spirit of partnership and cooperation among existing entities, both public and private.
A 272-page "management plan" for the corridor outlines ways local communities might put in place its three pillars:
National Heritage Areas are a part of the National Park Service and its effort to fulfill the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and other statutes. The National Heritage Areas contribute $12.9 billion annually to the national economy, primarily by promoting tourism and visitation, according to a new study.
The food, music, language, arts and crafts of the Gullah culture are of growing national interest, even as they fade into a modern society in which few sea islands remain isolated incubators of African ways.
Recognition of the culture has never been greater. When Fox's "American Idol" came to Beaufort County two weeks ago to film finalist and eventual winner Candice Glover in her home setting, Gullah culture was front and center. The dinner table, sweetgrass basket-making and her rousing, colorful Gullah welcome at Penn Center were featured prominently. And when Glover appeared last Friday on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," he was interested in her Gullah language and culture.
Two leaders from this county -- Emory S. Campbell of Hilton Head Island and St. Helena Island native Ronald Daise -- have chaired the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission as it worked toward this milestone.
Now it is time for the citizens and private organizations of Beaufort County to cooperatively find new ways to take better advantage of this community's historical and cultural significance.