Hilton Head: The heart of Gullah/Geechee Corridor

Typography

S.C. Congressman James Clyburn worked tirelessly to gain official recognition of the importance of Gullah culture to the region and to the nation. His leadership led to the establishment of the Gullah/Geechee Corridor. This was an attempt to expand our understanding of American history, but for the congressman, it was also a personal journey because of his own Gullah ancestry.

“The Gullah/Geechee culture is the last vestige of fusion of African and European languages and traditions brought to these coastal areas,” he said. “I cannot sit idly by and watch an entire culture disappear that represents my heritage and the heritage of those who look like me. The sights, sounds and tastes of Gullah/Geechee culture have been slowly vanishing along the coasts of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The Gullah/Geechee way of life is an integral part of the Southern heritage, and I am committed to ensuring we protect and preserve it for future generations.”

For 400 years, Gullah/Geechee people lived along 79 coastal Sea Islands, from North Carolina to Florida and roughly 35 miles inland. The Gullah culture survives today because the Gullah people are actively resisting cultural extinction, and insisting that their culture and history be acknowledged and valued as an important part of American history. That’s where the Gullah/Geechee Corridor comes in.

“The corridor hasn’t begun to explore the depths and the richness of the culture that we have. It’s a jewel that we are working to uncover,” said Dr. Herman Blake, executive director of the Gullah/Geechee Corridor.

blackhistory016

It took Clyburn seven years of dedication and hard work to establish the value of the corridor and prove the need for recognition of the Gullah/Geechee culture. Finally, on Oct. 12, 2006, by an act of Congress, the Gullah/Geechee Corridor came into existence. It was authorized as part of the National Heritage Areas Act of 2006. A 15-member commission comprised of experts in folklore, historical preservation and anthropology was created to manage what is now known as the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. As a national heritage area, the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is not considered a part of the national park system; however, the congressional act authorizes the secretary of the Interior to provide technical and financial assistance for the continued development and implementation of the management plan. 

Hilton Head Island is quickly becoming the heart of the Gullah/Geechee Corridor because of its physical location at the “center” of the corridor, the important historical artifacts that remain on the island and the concentration of Gullah people who continue to maintain and live on their land. They continue to fiercely protect their culture and the traditions that have always been a part of the lifeblood that sustains Hilton Head.  

The Corridor Commission is actively working to retrieve, preserve and protect the Gullah/Geechee culture, and provide the well-deserved historical respect and credit that the community should have for its cultural contributions to American culture. The commission has provided evidence that shows how Gullah language and traditions have been woven into American culture. For example, the traditional Gullah spiritual "Kumbaya" (“Come by Here”) has been embraced by all cultural groups, and is as much a favorite in churches as it is in Girl Scout troops. Similarly, the Gullah influence is evident in American language.  The words “tote,” “banjo” and “gumbo” are examples of this. 

The Corridor Commission has significant challenges to overcome. Traditionally, Gullah culture and information has been preserved orally and passed from family to family. Entrusting outsiders with family information that is very personal, or with artifacts that have personal valuable can be a challenge especially for older generations. Currently, Blake is working on a video collection of Gullah elder’s recounting family histories to preserve their oral stories for future generations. This kind of information is being captured at Gullah family reunions or other informal gatherings. The process involves recording family stories of survival. However, this is not an easy process because of logistics. Often, older people distrust technology and are uncomfortable with communicating by email or even by phone. As Blake points out, “Gullah culture is a face-to-face culture.”

In addition to documenting the oral stories and preserving the culture, the Corridor Commission is committed to being a resource for all of the community development organizations and leaders within the Gullah/Geechee Corridor. This is a broader effort to provide a variety of resources, information and cultural support for issues that affect the Gullah communities, such as changing demographics, the impact of future land development, and the erosion of land that has been in families for hundreds of years.  Development trends on Hilton Head show how complex these issues can be. For example, it is estimated that before 1956, the original Gullah families owned close to 2,000 acres of land on Hilton Head Island. Today that number is down to about 700 acres, and because of population shifts, an island that was almost 100 percent Gullah is now one in which Gullah people make up only 8 percent of the population. Daufuskie Island is another example of these changing trends. At its peak in the 1940s, Daufuskie had more than 1,000 Gullah residents. Now, it is estimated that only 9 native island families remain. Emory Campbell, one of the best-known Gullah historians and owner of the Gullah Heritage Trail Tours on Hilton Head Island, points out that “land and use of the land is important to the Gullah culture. Unfortunately, there has been a clash between tradition and development.”

Other projects that the corridor has taken on have been for communities such as Sapelo Island and the Harris Neck Land Trust, both in Georgia, where local issues of land loss to development has been an increasingly critical issue. 

If you are interested in documenting your Gullah stories or for more information about the corridor, go to www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org.