Beaufort News

Homecoming in motion: St. Helena Island 'Heritage Days' parade

Children bearing the flags of the Gullah people march in the 33rd Annual Heritage Days parade on Saturday on St. Helena Island.
Children bearing the flags of the Gullah people march in the 33rd Annual Heritage Days parade on Saturday on St. Helena Island. jkarr@islandpacket.com

Tracy Brown sat bundled up in a heavy coat looking out at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on Saturday morning.

Brown and about a half-dozen members of her extended family and their friends were among the hundreds already lined up and waiting on either side of the road for the Heritage Days parade to start.

It was early yet and the temperatures were still hovering in the lower 40s, but that didn't stop the St. Helena Island native from saying hello to almost everyone who passed by.

"I have the mouth, so I say, 'Hey everyone,'" she said, laughing and waving to a crowd forming on the other side of the road.

Part of the 33rd annual Heritage Days Celebration, which kicked off Thursday at the island's Penn Center, the procession is said to be the "largest parade of Gullah-Geechees in existence."

"It was the first-ever Gullah-Geechee celebration, and it was also the first celebration of the founding of the Penn Center," said Victoria Smalls, director of development and community outreach for the center.

For many, the parade and the center's celebrations have become something of a homecoming -- both for those who have left the area and those who have stayed.

"But even for people who have never been here," said Smalls. Once people come to the celebration, they tend to come back, she said.

For Brown, the parade brought back memories of her late father, Arthur C. Brown, or "Mr. B.," as everyone called him.

Brown and her family had set up early to get food ready to sell to hungry crowds after the parade concluded. Talking about the food in particular had her reminiscing.

"They used to come from miles around to eat his food," she said.

In fact, most of the recipes in use on Saturday -- including the barbecue sauce -- had been his, Brown said.

"And people still stop by to talk about him," she said. "His barbecue was succulent."

For Leigh Aiken, John Gardner and Jeffery Jenkins, the parade was a time to reunite with old friends.

Graduates of St. Helena High School class of 1963, the three were enjoying catching up and trying to figure out who was who as they stood watching marching bands and floats drift by.

"Some you recognize right away," Aiken said laughing. "And some you're like, 'What's his name?'"

All three said they particularly enjoyed the cultural aspects of celebration.

"It's a reinforcement of our culture," said Aiken, "that it's still alive and well. And seeing the younger generations carry it on is nice."

Out of the three, only Aiken had returned to the area after living in Seattle. Attending the parade each year and seeing people from her youth has been especially meaningful, she said.

"For me, it's nice to be back home," she said.

Standing next to her, Gardner, who now lives in Charleston, seemed to second her notion.

"It's just a very good homecoming," he said.

Follow reporter Mindy Lucas at twitter.com/MindyatIPBG.

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