More than 20 representatives gathered at Midway’s Dorchester Academy on Friday to discuss preservation and cultural reclamation during the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission’s fall meeting.
Comprised of representatives from Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas, the commission was designated by Congress in September 2006 to recognize the cultural contributions of the Gullah/Geechee people, descendants of Africans brought to the Southeast as slaves.
At the beginning of the meeting, South Carolina Commissioner J. Herman Blake gave background information on the Gullah/Geechee.
"Our goal is to try and share with the general public as much as possible some perspectives on the Gullah culture," he said. "We can’t go into the future without continuing to revere and honor the past."
Since 2008, the group has been creating a management plan for the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service to use in preserving the culture’s language, artifacts, folklore, crafts and land.
South Carolina Commissioner Ronald Daise, who starred in the 1990s Nickelodeon television show "Gullah Gullah Island," updated the group on the plan’s progress.
Between now and January, the commission will make final revisions to the plan and submit it to the National Park Service’s Denver Service Center for review, Daise said. The DSC will release the plan for a 30-day public comment period between January and March.
When introducing the Gullah/Geechee culture, Blake spoke about the traits that West Africans brought with them to America, explaining that they came with a sense of small-scale political organization and a tendency toward gender equity.
They were experienced in farming, fishing and hunting and skilled at cotton and rice production, he said.
"Those Africans, who came here from many different parts of Africa with many of the roots we have described … went through a severe trial," Blake said. "I don’t think the literature or any of our understandings can really articulate the seriousness of that severe trial or any of its consequences."
He explained that 200 years of enslavement, isolation of the coastal sea islands, the illegal import of slaves from Africa as recent as 1858 and a century of post-emancipation oppression combined to create and foster the Gullah/Geechee’s rare culture.
"When I think of enslavement … I think of generations for over 200 years where a child was born and could have no hope beyond where his parents were — think of what it does to a culture or how it creates a culture — if for 200 years, there’s no hope for young people," he said.
Much of the culture has been passed down through oral tradition, Blake explained. He conducted research through interviews of direct descendents of enslaved people, whose stories have been sanitized in many historical representations.
For 200 years, South Carolina had a black population majority that mainstream historians have overlooked in favor of exploring European influence, he said. In the 1900 Census of Hilton Head Island, there were an estimated 2,000 African-Americans and 10 whites.
But Jim Bacote, director of Geechee Kunda Cultural Arts Center in Riceboro, said the group does not place enough emphasis on Liberty County’s Geechee influence. While Bacote is pleased that the federal government has taken an interest in the culture, he attends the meetings to make sure they "get it right."
"The reason we’re here … is to dispel the myth they are perpetuating that ours is a dying and faltering culture —that could never happen as long as the Geechee people in Liberty County and Coastal Georgia are alive," Bacote said. He could not quantify the number of Geechee people in the area, but he said most coastal African-Americans identify with the culture.
Bacote shared stories about his relatives, who were self-sustaining in the region after slavery ended.
"After enslavement, there wasn’t a lot of commerce in the county. The free labor was gone, so the white folks went on to other things. They just left us to fend for ourselves, which was fine," he said. "There wasn’t any anxiety, there wasn’t any depression, no one starved, there wasn’t any drug abuse — everyone was patient and loving."
Since Geechee Kunda opened, many of Bacote’s relatives who once distanced themselves from the culture have reclaimed it, he said.
"And we are not exclusive. We try to tie everybody in. Everybody is loved," Bacote said.
In other news, the group has applied for 501(c)3 nonprofit status, which will aid in future fundraising efforts by allowing tax-deductible donations. In the meantime, those who wish to donate without tax deductions still may
For more information, go to www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org.