Tracing his lineage back to Beaufort, Carl Liston of Greenville was one of thousands who flocked to St. Helena Island this weekend for what he called a "homecoming."
"I've never lived here but my ancestors were the people of the Sea Islands," Liston said. "I've been coming to this festival every year for the past 10 years or so. It's like a family reunion. It's like a homecoming from all of the people who trace their roots back to this area and this land."
Liston was one of hundreds who lined the streets of St. Helena Island early Saturday for the annual Heritage Days parade. The parade was the kick-off to the final day of Penn Center's 27th annual Heritage Days Celebration. The festival concluded Saturday night with a dance from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. with a dance inside the gym at St. Helena Island Elementary School.
Marching bands, churches, fraternities and sororities and other local groups paraded down Sea Island Parkway and Martin Luther King toward Penn Center, the site of the three-day festival. Penn Center is home to the Penn School, the South's first school for freed slaves when it opened in 1862.
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Organizers from the Penn Center created the festival 27 years ago to celebrate Gullah culture and its place in Lowcountry history.
"This isn't just a celebration of Gullah culture or of the Sea Islands; it's a celebration of Beaufort history," said Byron Smalls of Beaufort.
For the first time in its history, the event was not free and a chain link fence enclosed the festival area. Organizers said slumping contributions to the Penn Center forced them to charge a $5 admission fee for Saturday's events and that the festival would not have survived otherwise. Children under 17 were admitted free.
"It's five bucks," said Sammy Moultrie of Ridgeland. "This is something that I want to still be here for my grandkids to experience. Times are tough everywhere so if this is what they have to do then so be it."