Gullah commissioners meeting in right place

We welcome today the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission to its first meeting in Beaufort County.

The corridor, designated by Congress in 2006, extends along the coastline from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla. It is home to a unique American culture. The Gullah culture is shaped by captive Africans enslaved during the lucrative production of rice and cotton, followed by free descendants who for many years were left in isolation on islands, such as St. Helena, Hilton Head and Daufuskie in Beaufort County.

The commission, led by Emory S. Campbell of Hilton Head Island, has been charged with working with the public to create a plan to preserve and manage cultural assets in this fast-changing landscape.

In Beaufort County, the 15-member commission finds itself at ground zero of the African-American experience. It is here that the enslaved first tasted freedom when the Union took Hilton Head in a single day in 1861 and made it headquarters for its Department of the South. Here, in Port Royal, the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation took place on New Year's Day 1863. The first enlistment of African-American soldiers happened here. What came to be known as the Port Royal Experiment took place here, the beginnings of Reconstruction and the building of a new, reunited United States of America without slavery.

Beaufort County has a powerful story to tell, and that should fit well with the commission's goals.

A sense of what it means to Beaufort County is evident in this weekend's 25th Original Gullah Festival in Beaufort, honoring its co-founder Rosalie Pazant, who died in September.

We're glad that on Thursday, the commissioners were to see firsthand some of the efforts in southern Beaufort County to document the culture. In Bluffton, they were to visit the Heyward House and Garvin's House, one of the first houses of freedmen, as well as a Gullah museum at St. John's Baptist Church. On Hilton Head, they were to visit the Mitchelville site, which we hope can soon be enhanced to tell the world its significance as a planned community for freedmen as the nation began removing the bindings of slavery. They also were to visit the Gullah Museum emerging on Gumtree Road in a tiny home that dates to the era when the Gullah eked out an existence in a remote place with wisdom and ingenuity.

In its meeting today at the Bluffton library, the commission will tackle ways to implement a plan for the corridor. The plan is to include archiving the history and significance of the culture, while enhancing economic opportunities, protecting natural resources and preserving traditional skills.

"Over the coming months the commission will continue to reach out to partners in a strategic manner to build the critical relationships needed to implement the management plan," Campbell said.

Beaufort County has a lot to offer the commission, and the commission can help this community share it with others.