Plan to preserve Geechee and Gullah island culture comes together

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By Bruce Smith

Friendship AME Church in Mount Pleasant, S.C., is one of about 1,000 culturally significant sites documented by the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission.  BRUCE SMITH/ASSOCIATED PRESS
BRUCE SMITH/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Friendship AME Church in Mount Pleasant, S.C., is one of about 1,000 culturally significant sites documented by the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — On the sea islands of the Southeast where the descendants of enslaved people have dwelled for generations, a plan is nearly complete to help preserve their unique Geechee and Gullah culture from rapid development and modern culture.

The management plan for the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor reaching through four states from southeastern North Carolina down past St. Augustine, Fla., is expected to go out for public comment next month. By summer’s end, it’s expected to be approved by the U.S. secretary of the Interior.

Known as Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Florida and Georgia, the people and their descendants preserved a coastal culture based on farming and fishing with, among other things, their own creole language, history, cooking and crafts such as weaving sweetgrass baskets.

The 21st century is intruding, however. From the sprawling suburbs of Jacksonville, Fla., north to the condominiums of Hilton Head Island, S.C., breakneck development threatens the culture.

The management plan would clear the way for some federal money to be used to educate people about the culture, put signs at locations of importance and create a complete inventory of Gullah and Geechee sites.

It focuses on education, documentation and preservation and developing economic opportunities, said Michael Allen, the Gullah-Geechee coordinator for the National Park Service.

“This is the largest multistate heritage corridor and the only one of the 49 in the nation that deals with African-American history and culture,” he said.

A plan like this one for the 200-mile corridor would have been unheard of a few decades ago. In the past “Geechee or Gullah were fighting words. Don’t call me such a thing. Those were pejorative terms. That has completely turned around,” said Althea Sumpter, a scholar from Atlanta who has studied the culture and grew up on St. Helena Island near Beaufort.

“Now you have a generation that is completely disconnected from what I call the elders,” she said. “You have a younger generation whose learning and understanding comes from the outside though television and from the media and pop culture. We have to educate both those from the outside and those of the culture about it.”

Ron Daise, another St. Helena Island native best known as host of the children’s television show Gullah Gullah Island in the 1990s, is incoming chairman of the commission.

Daise said he has seen more awareness of the culture in recent years and that may help with more sensitive coastal development.

“Those who are newcomers to these communities will realize the significance of it and will work with those of the culture,” he said. “I think there are many who are, let’s say, ignorant of its importance but are willing to come to a greater understanding.”

The draft calls for expanding the corridor southward along the Florida coast to include St. Johns County. An early version envisioned three heritage centers in the corridor. The new plan doesn’t dictate where they should be but suggests centers in areas where private and public partnerships can be developed and that have a strong connection to the culture.

In developing the plan, public meetings were held in all four states and more than 1,000 significant sites identified, Allen said.

According to the U.S. Census, about 3.1 million people live in the corridor, roughly 800,000 of them black. What is unclear, and what commissioners hope to find out, is how many of those blacks are Gullah or Geechee.

The corridor effort began in 2000 when U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a black congressman from South Carolina, asked for a study of Gullah resources.

The corridor was approved by Congress in 2006.


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