Myrtle Beach: Rediscovering
its Gullah Culture. Its WHAT????
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Victor Block
people would think that Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justice Clarence
Thomas have much in common but they would be wrong. Both are part of
the small but unique Gullah community, primarily residing in South Carolina
and Georgia but whose roots extend from Wilmington, North Carolina to
St. Augustine, Florida, descendants of slaves from the early 18th century
who share a common language, culture, history and food. Michelle celebrated
that heritage at the 2012 inauguration; Justice Thomas credits it for
much of his silence on the Court. And Congress recently has taken steps
to put the Gullah (also known as Geechee) culture back on the map.
But first, some background. In the 1700s, rice
plantations flourished along the coastal areas and barrier islands stretching
from North Carolina to Florida. Because they required specific skills,
slaves were brought to these coastal areas from similar environments
in Africa where rice had been grown successfully for centuries. In many
cases, the Africans knowledge of rice cultivation far exceeded
that of their masters. Because the work required a wide variety of skills
that only the Africans possessed, they were often accorded more responsibility
and autonomy than their cotton-picking counterparts.
They came with their own language, beliefs and customs
and because they were so isolated in coastal regions that were
not connected to the mainland until the 1950s, their Gullah culture
flourished and proliferated among the many Africans who came to settle
there and still endures today. The Gullah people developed a separate
Creole language and distinct culture patterns that included more of
their African traditions than African-American populations in other
parts of the United States. A recent visit to Myrtle Beach brought me
in direct contact with the culture, its descendants and its current
connection to the Nations capital.
Meet Veronica Gerald, owner of the Ultimate Gullah Shop
whose great-great-great grandmother was kidnapped from Siera Leone at
age 9 and spent her whole life at Brookgreen Plantation, as did her
descendants. Brookgreen Plantation, one of the largest and most prosperous
in South Carolina during the 18th century, was built by Gullah slaves.
It was combined with three other plantations to form
Brookgreen Gardens in 1930 and is now a showcase of art, gardens and
nature with the largest display of American representational
sculpture in the world. Fox, deer and birds add their voices to the
wide expanse of nature trails, tree-lined vistas and bronze, marble
and stone edifices. But once upon a time, it was the Gullah voices that
echoed from these fields and dominated the landscape.
And Brookgreen is only one of many places where the
Gullah voices have been drowned out by modern conveniences. Visiting
a golf course constructed on a former plantation site that includes
an early slave cemetery, Veronica observed: My grandfather is
buried on the 10th hole. She also noted that Gullah cemeteries
are always built near water (and apparently water hazards
that the spirits can float back to Africa.
Such tales are one of the many delights of a Gullah
Tour that Veronica conducts, tracing their history from slavery through
modern day. A stop at her Ultimate Gullah shop brings you in contact
with all kinds of Gullah wares including crafts, foods, jewelry and
My favorite? The De Nyew Testament, the Bible totally
written in Gullah. I would have been hard-pressed if I had to translate
even one page into English.
Gullah is very much its own language and initially
those who spoke it were looked down upon as illiterate. It has been
said that one of the reasons Clarence Thomas maintains his much-reported
silence on the Supreme Court is that hes always been a bit self-conscious
about the way he speaks.
In a December 14, 2000 New York Times article,
Thomas told his story this way: "When I was 16, I was sitting as
the only black kid in my class, and I had grown up speaking a kind of
called Geechee. Some people call it Gullah, and people
praise it now. But they used to make fun of us back then. It's not standard
English. And it just got to be, I didn't ask questions in college or
For all those reasons, and a few others, I just think
that it's more in my nature to listen
. The only reason I could
see for asking the questions is to let people know I've got something
to ask. That's not a legitimate reason in the Supreme Court of the United
Now meet Ron Daise, Vice President of Creative Education
at Brookgreen Gardens, where he conducts weekly Gullah-oriented programs.
He also is chairman of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor
Commission. In 2004, the Gullah culture was placed on the list of Americas
11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic
Preservation. In 2006, the Commission was created by Congress to change
that, by recognizing the contributions of the Gullah people and preserving
historical sites as well as their folklore, arts, crafts, music and,
of course, their language.
Ron tells of one evening in April 2013 when he was watching
American Idol, and one of the seasons top two finalists, Candice
Glover (later the season 12 winner), was asked to reveal something no
one knew about her. When she responded that she spoke a second language
called Gullah-Geechee, Ron claims he stood up in his living room and
Time to meet Bunny Rodrigues, a story-quilt maker and
former owner of the Gullah Ooman Museum in Pawleys Island along
the Myrtle Beach Strand who spearheaded the creation of a large 90x70
quilt dedicated to re-telling Michelle Robinson Obamas family
history from slave quarters to White House. On a January 2008 visit
to her maternal ancestors hometown in Georgetown, just south of
Myrtle Beach proper, Michelle became immersed in a history being visually
retold that she was not all that familiar with.
The bottom left panel in the quilt shows a slave cabin
reflecting where Michelles great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson,
had been born into slavery about 1850. Other panels depict her great-great
grandmother working as a slave, her great-grandfather Fraser Robinson,
Sr. who learned how to read and write because he lived with a white
family, on up through Michelles marriage to Barack and their ascension
to the White House, a stark contrast to the slave cabins origin.
Frasers philosophy of education got passed down
to his son who graduated high school and went to Chicago to find work:
that was Micheles grandfather and the rest is current
history. In the center is a life-size Michelle sporting a cap and gown,
with Princeton and Harvard delineated in large letters above. I
wanted to emphasize her education, claims Bunny, and have
that be an inspiration, that you can have ancestors in a slave cabin
and end up at Harvard.
Although Bunny did the story line and cut out every
piece, over 40 people were involved in putting the quilt together, from
threading needles to making coffee to taking pictures. People eager
to do something, anything, to touch a piece of history, which, indeed,
is has become. From January 11 to September 31, 2009, the quilt hung
in the Washington, DC Historical Society but by the second inauguration,
it made it to the big time: it rode in a Gullah-Geechee Corridor Commission
float in the 2013 inaugural parade.
Now the Gullah language and its heritage
is about to be rediscovered over 300 years later. As their Gullah heritage
is celebrated by Michelle and others and the Gullah-Geechee Corridor
Commission gains in importance, an emphasis on Gullah culture is enjoying
increased notoriety from North Carolina to Florida, with the Myrtle
Beach Strand, where Gullah connections are being newly discovered across
the area, one of its most important hubs. So yall come on down
meet with descendents of slaves, take home some sweet grass baskets,
feast on hoppin John and no doubt youll "Hunnuh come'yuh
ta hab a gud time."
For more information about The Ultimate Gullah store
and its tours, contact Veronica Gerald at firstname.lastname@example.org;
for more information about the Gullah-Geechie Corridor, contact Ron
Daise at email@example.com;
for more information about Michelle Obamas quilt and the future
of the Gullah Ooman Museum, contact Bunny Rodrigues at 843/237-9603.
America Islands; Southwest
Louisiana Mardi Gras; Lewis
& Clarke Expedition Cruise; Samish
Island's Culinary Museum