Emory Campbell a leader in the Gullah preservation movement
Emory Campbell has spent a lifetime enduring and influencing change on Hilton Head Island. He grew up Gullah at a time long before artists and tourists celebrated the culture.
Long before the days of a bridge connecting the Sea Islands to the mainland, Campbell boated to high school and became the valedictorian at Michael C. Riley High School in Bluffton. At first, the scholar was oblivious to the history of the region.
He left the Lowcountry to get an education — first a biology degree at Savannah State College, later a master’s degree in environment engineering at Tufts University in Boston. Campbell was intent on using his education to help his family — helping his parents build a house and getting his paraplegic brother medical help up north.
But while he was up north, Campbell became increasingly curious about his culture’s history, and that fed a hunger to return to the Lowcountry to help his people.
“I was learning just how important the islands and the culture were. The more I learned, the more I knew I needed to make my way back home and help,” Campbell said.
He has done more than help over the last half century. He’s championed health care and infrastructure for the Gullah and worked to protect land from being lost to developers. In his three decades leading the Penn Center, he evolved a school started to educate freed slaves into a vital force to preserve and honor the Gullah heritage.
Campbell also served as the first chairman of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, helping to oversee the preservation of the Gullah over four states.
Today, he runs Gullah Heritage Consulting Services and leads Gullah Heritage Trail Tours on the island.
He’s evolved from a wide-eyed and ever-curious youth to a constantly active participant in his culture’s history. The spiritual leader of the Gullah preservation movement has been more reflective than ever as of late, taking part in a documentary chronicling the Gullah, “Hilton Head Island Back in the Day: Through the Eyes of the Gullah Elders.”
“What a wonderful project that has been,” he said of the film, which was released in October. “Gullah is all about storytelling, about sharing tales of working and loving the land from generation to generation. But we haven’t always been good at documenting that history, so this was so important.”
Campbell has been a doer for so long, and doers don’t spend a lot of time looking back or patting themselves on the back. But he sees progress, as the Gullah have gone from a displaced by development to blending into “progress.”
“More people are more conscious of the culture than 20 years ago, there’s a renaissance of awareness among the general public,” he said. “Half a century ago, it was more scholars that took interest and that interest flattened out. Now we have both scholars and citizens taking action, and that’s such a good thing.”
He said the Gullah Celebration, which is taking place this month around Beaufort County, has been a catalyst for the evolution of understanding the Gullah.
“People are continuously asking about the culture, and that’s beautiful. I take such joy in quenching that thirst for knowledge and sharing my stories,” Campbell said. “The celebration has helped that so much.”
He has seen Gullah evolve from a swept-under-the-rug reminder of a connection to slave history that the masses wanted to forget to a celebrated bridge between the region’s past and future.
“When I see the Hallelujah Singers cherished and honored, when I see our Gullah basket weavers used as a symbol for tourism throughout the state, it’s real progress in understanding the vitality of our people,” he said. “Cultural tourism is becoming more and more popular, and I thank goodness the culture has been rediscovered.”
Campbell said that his Gullah tours, which run twice daily Tuesday through Sunday and once on Sunday, are comprised of two-thirds white people and a third of people of color.
“That’s a number I love to see. It means that we are truly becoming ‘we.’ It’s not just us and them,” he said.
But Campbell said there are still many challenges, first and foremost making sure the Gullah people can hold onto the little land they have left — a number that has shrunk from 10,000 acres at one time to 650 acres.
“We don’t have the policies in place that says people can live on the land without a real struggle,” he said. “We have to look at the preservation of these families through their income. If we can put a cap on taxes for high-income people, no reason we can’t do the same thing with lower-income folks on the land. That way, they hold on to the land they deserve.”
Campbell says that while cultural appreciation has grown, the legislative support has been stagnant both locally and throughout the Gullah-Geechee Corridor.
“We have had champions like Sen. Waddell, but we’re working on the commission to find those champions today,” he said. “We need laws for our people where income dictates taxes more than the value of the land. Keep the taxes reasonable and as income goes up, people pay more into the taxes. But right now, the value of the land is so high, the people can’t pay those taxes and it’s getting harder to keep the condos away.”
He is also hopeful that as Gullah becomes more of an economic driver for the region, the dollars generated are put back into the community.
“I haven’t seen that yet,” he said with a smile. “Scholars know how important regions like Mitchelville are to telling the story. I’m hoping that the county and the state will see it and put money into rebuilding the reconstruction sites.
“We can do so much. I’ve seen it around the country. I visited the Alamo and what they’ve built there, what they’ve done there to honor the history, it’s outstanding and it drives tourism,” he said. “There are so many ways to tell our story. We have to have an infrastructure and so many of us like Tom Barnwell and others are ready. We can market and educate so much more with the right resources.”
Campbell said that the future of the preservation movement is all about education and celebration. His eyes light up particularly when talking about today’s kids.
“You know, I’ve seen it for so long. At the Penn Center, I’d see Gullah kids come in with their shoulders shrugged because they didn’t understand the importance of their culture, thought it was just all old slave stories,” he said. “We’d go through the day and those kids would leave with chests puffed out proud because they suddenly realized. Kids would say to me smiling, ‘My grandparents, my family helped build this.’”
Campbell knows kids aren’t working the land like they used to and aren’t experiencing Gullah life firsthand as they blend more and more into the modern conveniences around them on the island.
He points to places like Myrtle Beach, where the elementary schools teach a Gullah-influenced curriculum. He says that kind of curriculum should be in the schools here, in the geographic epicenter of the culture.
“I love to see kids excited about learning, it’s so vital to keeping the culture alive,” he said. “We just need to foster pride. Incorporate it into the school lessons, plan more field trips where kids can see the land, play with horses, work in the gardens. Then, they see how special the land is and they want to protect it themselves. Then they become the new champions.”
Campbell points to restaurants, institutions like Dye’s and newer family-run places like Ruby Lee’s that serve and honor Gullah recipes.
“Honoring our food ways, seeing it run by families, it’s such a joy and so, so important,” he said.
He sees much progress, but still knows there’s so much more to be done. Just as he worked with others to translate the New Testament into Gullah years ago, he says creating a Gullah dictionary is a must.
“We need a champion to take that on. Keeping the language alive, showing new generations how important a communication tool it is, making them bilingual, it’s so needed,” he said.
Campbell knows technology is just as vital.
“I’m using a not-so-smartphone right now. My Blackberry needs updating and I’m going to make that happen,” he said, showing the curiosity for knowledge that never goes away. “I want to learn all about apps. I want to find the kids who want to build the Gullah history app. As much as I want to show kids the Gullah life, we need to connect with them on their level just as much.”
As for his legacy, Campbell said he hasn’t spent as much time pondering that. He just knows what he wants for those around him.
“I want them to have pride in themselves, to know themselves and their culture and to be so proud,” he said. “I guess I want people to look at me, to see that I took the time to see who we are and that I tried to honor that my whole life. That’s all I want, for people to honor themselves.”