By Renée S. Gordon
ABOVE PHOTO: Remains of Sugar Mill in Darien, Georgia. This mill is located in the Gullah Geechee Coast. The Gullah Geechee Coast was on the 2004 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
(Photo: National Trust for Historic Preservation)
“One day the white men arrived in ships with wings, which shone in the sun like knives.”
–African Oral Tradition
On October 22, 2009, the US Senate passed the Civil War Sesquicentennial Act (CWSA) establishing the years 2011 through 2015 as a time to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the conflict that helped define our nation and has continued to resonate culturally, socially and legally throughout the years. The act, in recognition of the fact that this four-year period provides an opportunity to preserve and promote sites related to the Civil War, notes that this is an unparalleled opportunity to explore and interpret the contributions of previously underrepresented groups such as women and African Americans.
As an outgrowth of the CWSA the National Park Service (NPS) has the stated goals of moving beyond the battlefield, expanding outreach, offering unmatched visitor experiences and creating a legacy that will ensure continued visitation to sites of memory and commemoration. Most notably the NPS must acknowledge the institution of slavery as the principle cause of the Civil War and present Reconstruction and its legacy as part of the larger story. I cannot express strongly enough how important the CWSA and the stance of the NPS are. For the sesquicentennial commemoration, and forevermore, the importance of the African American presence will no longer be marginalized at national sites.
The 2010 International Heritage Conference, attended by members of the Alliance of National Heritage Areas and partners, was held in South Carolina in June. The overarching theme was “Advancing Beyond Borders.” Charleston, the host city, crafted regional historic tours around the concept of “Interpreting Sensitive Stories” and the sites and attractions visited were selected based on the their superior interpretation of the African American story. www.explorecharleston.com
South Carolina is a perfect location from which to begin or continue to understand, through travel, aspects of African American history. Many Philadelphians have familial ties to the state and because Charleston was the largest port on the Atlantic Ocean south of Philadelphia, it is estimated that 40 percent of all the people of color who survived the middle passage first set foot on North American soil in this colony.
Though only 5 percent of all the transported Africans ended up in the US the number is still in the millions. The European trading of Africans began in 1441 when two Portuguese captains, Goncalves and Tristão, enslaved 12 Mauritanians and transported them for sale in Portugal. The trade grew in each ensuing year as other countries began voyaging to Africa to raid the “slave coast.” Britain entered the trade relatively late but with gusto. The British accounted for the enslavement of nearly 3 million people in the 18th-century alone.
The first people of African descent to arrive in the South Carolina region accompanied the Spanish explorers to Fort Royal Sound in 1526, more than 100-years before King Charles II granted the area to his allies in 1663. The first European settlement was established in 1670 and consisted largely of colonists from Barbados along with their enslaved. The colony’s slave code of 1690 was based on a preexisting model from Barbados. One-hundred-years later 43 percent of SC’s population, 107,094 people, was enslaved. By 1860 there were 402,406 people with African ancestry, 57 percent of the state’s population, and 26,701 slaveholders. The average male was valued between $1200 and $1500, or $28,500 and $35,500 in modern currency.
Nationally 49 areas have been deemed National Heritage Corridors by the US based upon their cultural, historic, natural or recreational national significance. These “living landscapes” are not part of the NPS but are instead an alliance of community, state and private individuals and organizations seeking to identify, preserve, protect and promulgate the heritage of an area. In 2006 Congress designated the region from Wilmington, NC to Jacksonville, FL as the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The 12,000-sq. mi. Corridor includes the coastline of four states, with South Carolina encompassing the 90-mile portion of the GGCHC that is considered the “heart of the Corridor” with Highway 17 as its main artery. www.nps.gov/guge
The Gullah are a unique cultural group of African Americans who are descendants of slaves whose origins were West African. They brought with them 3,000 years of knowledge of rice growing and South Carolina planters benefited from their expertise, technology, skills and labor and tended to purchase workers from areas where rice was a major crop. The work was labor intensive and the enslaved tended to be isolated on these plantations. After the Civil War many stayed on the land and formed small fishing and farming communities. The large Black population and limited interaction with other cultures allowed the Gullah people to retain many of their afrocentric folktales, music, traditions, crafts and cuisine and the Gullah language is a Creole, English-based language with a large infusion of African words. www.gullah.sc/
The GGHC Tour begins as you cross the diamond-towered Cooper River Bridge that connects Charleston and Mt. Pleasant and is the longest cable-stayed bridge in North America. It offers a great view of Charleston Harbor and Sullivan’s Island both sites of importance in the story of the African Diaspora. Records indicate that in 1707 the SC legislature requested that a lazaretto, or pest house, be built on the island. These buildings were used to quarantine slaves thought to have communicable diseases, prior to their entering Charleston, for a period of 10-40 days. Hundreds at a time were held in isolation. www.townofmountpleasant.com
The sweetgrass basket is the state’s official craft and they have been displayed as an art form in museums around the country including the Smithsonian. In the 1930s craftspeople began selling seven traditional African inspired types of baskets along the then dirt road that was Highway 17. With the modernization of the road and influx of residents some of the weavers were displaced. In 2009, a $250,000 permanent structure, the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Pavilion opened at the Memorial Waterfront Park in Mt. Pleasant. A visit here is a must whether your interest is in purchasing a real treasure or learning about the baskets, the weavers and the culture that produced them. There is a video, artifact displays and interpretive plaques as well as individual artisan kiosks. These masterworks are not inexpensive but they are museum quality. Take note of baskets woven by Alethia Foreman, one of a limited number of left-handed weavers. A marker has been placed on Highway 17 at Hamlin Road. www.sweetgrass1festival.org
McClellanville is a small, post-Civil War town that was established on land that was once two plantations. It was a coastal retreat for planters who lived along the Santee River. The town is picturesque and has been the setting for several movies. There are a number of historic structures, the most notable of which is the architecturally singular Old Bethel AME Church.
Samuel Drayton, a former slave, constructed Old Bethel in 1872 in Gothic Revival style. The structure has fish-scale siding and insect repelling cypress shingles. The interior has original pews and the rear windows have colored glass. A burial ground is adjacent to the church. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. www.townofmcclellanville-sc.ne
In the 1840s Georgetown County had 45,000 rice fields and Highway 17 transverses the county’s Santee River Delta and draws you into the history. Travelers get glimpses of the 22-mile long Santee Canal. It was dug out by hand using enslaved labor, from 1793 to 1800, to get rice to the fields. The clearing of the swamp was so dangerous and rigorous that the life expectancy for workers was 2-years.
The 91,000-acre Brookgreen Gardens is one of South Carolina’s premier attractions. It is a National Historic Site, features the largest outdoor figurative sculpture garden in the world and boasts the only coastal Carolina zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It opened to the public in 1931 with the goal of preserving and displaying indigenous flora and fauna.
The area was originally the home of the Waccamaw Indians but in 1711 it was granted to Robert Daniel. William Alston, Jr. gained possession in 1764 and developed the land. Modern Brookfield Gardens encompasses four former rice plantations The Oaks, Brookgreen, Springfield and Laurel Hill.
The highlight of a tour to Brookgreen is “The Low Country Trail Audio Tour,” a 30-minute ¼-mile walking tour that takes visitors through a fictionalized day in 1810 on a rice plantation from four points of view. The narrators, a plantation owner, an overseer, and an enslaved male and female, are depicted as huge sculptures along the trail. Interpretive plaques give details of life on the plantation where as many as 2,000 enslaved people worked and the 10-acre slave village had 51 structures. www.brookgreen.org
Friendfield Plantation, the ancestral home of First Lady Michelle Obama, is an appropriate place to end this leg of our journey. The rice plantation complex, including a cemetery, sunken gardens hand-dug by slaves and 5 of the 35 original slave cabins, was listed on the National Register in 1996. The plantation is not open for tourists. www.south-carolina-plantations.com
Next week we visit additional sites that help make South Carolina an exceptional destination. All the information you need to plan a wonderful vacation is available online. www.discoversouthcarolina.com
I wish you smooth and enlightening travels.
Travel Tip: For a delightful introduction to Gullah/Geechee culture visit www.knowitall.org/gullahnet