Two organizations whose fortunes are linked are getting new leaders, and their efforts could help preserve an important, but too long neglected, component of our country's history and boost the local economy in the years ahead.
Penn Center on St. Helena Island has hired Michael Campi as its new executive director. The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission has begun the search for its first executive director. Campi started his job June 17; the commission, which oversees a National Heritage Area stretching along the coast from North Carolina to Florida, hopes to have its hire in place by early 2014.
Both groups have as part of their mission preserving the culture of slave descendants on the Sea Islands and telling their story.
The success of that mission will depend on their ability to articulate it to the general public -- to gain critical financial support and draw visitors to physical sites that can offer a tangible look at a swiftly vanishing way of life.
Emory Campbell, a member of the Gullah Geechee commission and a past executive director of Penn Center, noted that Penn Center will be important in helping to establish the corridor in Beaufort County.
"(Campi's) administration is going to work hand in hand with ours," Campbell said.
The 151-year-old Penn Center traces its roots to a school for former slaves founded in 1862. The center was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974. It also served as a community center and was used by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a retreat for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Today, it has a museum and focuses on education, cultural awareness and community-building initiatives.
Its campus and its history make it a potential anchor for the Gullah Geechee corridor. Paired with the Mitchelville Preservation Project and the Gullah Museum on Hilton Head Island, it offers Beaufort County an opportunity to tell the Gullah story as few areas can in the four-state corridor.
Key to that will be implementing the three pillars of the corridor's management plan:
Education: Increasing understanding and awareness of Gullah Geechee people, culture and history.
Economic development: Supporting heritage-related businesses and promoting the preservation of the land and natural resources needed to sustain the culture.
Documentation and preservation: Preserving Gullah Geechee resources, primarily through documentation.
An example of the kind of exhibit that could be developed and displayed here is "Dawn of Freedom: The Freedmen's Town of Mitchelville," on loan this month from the University of South Carolina's McKissick Museum in Columbia. The exhibit features 33 photo reprints, maps and documents showing life on Hilton Head just before Mitchelville's start in 1862 and afterward, as well as artifacts, such as iron ware, glass bottles, clothing accessories and personal items. It will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and from noon to 3 p.m. Sundays from Aug. 13 to Oct. 30 at the Hilton Head Island High School Seahawk Cultural Center.
There is an important story to tell about Beaufort County's role in the end of slavery in America and attempts to integrate formerly enslaved people into American society. We wish Campi and Penn Center success, as well as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission as it searches for its first executive director.