David Lauderdale

Inaugural parade one giant leap for Lowcountry culture

As a child, Ron Daise learned from his parents that he was to rise above his Gullah rearing on St. Helena Island.

On Monday, he will ride in President Barack Obama's inaugural parade.

Oddly, he will be there as a champion of the same Gullah culture that was seen as backward, inferior and simple-minded when he was a boy.

He hopes the inaugural float sends the message that the formerly enslaved and their descendants have woven a bright thread in the American fabric, despite long odds.

Daise is chairman of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, one of only 54 organizations from 2,800 applicants invited to ride in the parade.

The commission was established by Congress in 2006 to identify ways to protect, preserve and interpret the unique culture along the coastline from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla. The Gullah/Geechee coast was on the National Trust for Historic Places' 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2004. Now it is the only National Heritage Area dedicated to the African-American experience, and a management plan completed by the commission last summer awaits the secretary of the interior's signature.

"If anyone hasn't acknowledged the significance of our heritage," Daise said, "this will hopefully encourage them to investigate it and accept it, and therefore acknowledge it."


Symbols of the Gullah culture going to Washington include sweetgrass baskets and the raw materials used to make them, sheathes of rice, a handmade fishing net and walking stick, a bottle tree and quilts. Speakers on the float will play music -- spirituals and other genres influenced by the Gullah: blues, jazz, swing and gospel.

Banners will salute the 11 military bases in the corridor and congratulate the president. The corridor's website and logo will be displayed. The cover of the management plan featuring a painting by Gardens Corner native Jonathan Green will be on the float, representing Gullah's future.

Daise will be joined on the float by a commissioner from all four states in the corridor.

But the significance of the day will best be told in a story quilt from Georgetown.

It features first lady Michelle Obama, a descendant of a Gullah family in Georgetown.

The quilt is called "From The Slave Cabin to the White House," said Vermelle "Bunny" Rodrigues of Pawleys Island, who made it with a team of helpers for Obama's first inauguration.

Small scenes representing the first lady's family heritage circle the bright yellow quilt measuring 70-by-90 inches. Depictions include her great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, who was enslaved at Friendfield Plantation near Georgetown. It traces her family generation by generation, including her grandfather's move to Chicago, and his retirement to Georgetown, where Michelle Obama visited as a youth.

In the center is Michelle Obama in a graduation gown, beneath the words "Harvard" and "Princeton."

Rodrigues said: "We wanted children all over the world, not just Gullah children, to see that through education, you can end up in high places."


Emory Campbell of Hilton Head Island chaired the corridor commission before Daise. Like Daise, he has evolved during his lifetime to replace shame with pride in the unusual language and habits of his culture.

That attitude is significant locally, he said, but also nationally.

"It shows how far we've come as a country to recognize that our culture is worth preserving and honoring," Campbell said. "We still do not talk enough about slavery, or the segregation era when black people were denied participation in democracy.

"Now you have a president whose wife comes out of this culture, and we are in that parade. Wow."

Michael Allen of the National Park Service in Charleston will be on the float. He has been the government liaison for the corridor since a study in 2000 delved into whether it was worth pursuing.

"Because of the lineage of the first lady," he said, "and the fact that this float is representative of the culture she comes from, and the fact that I have walked the grounds of Friendfield Plantation and have seen the quote 'big house' and the rice fields and slave burial grounds and slave cabins, we can balance that by seeing her living today at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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