Gullah voices bring attention to needs, promote heritage

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Editor's note: This is the third and final in a series of articles about the rich Gullah history on Hilton Head Island.

By the 1970s, development on Hilton Head Island was charging forward, ever since Charles Fraser and his partners began buying huge chunks of this sea-island land in the mid-1950s. They bought most of the island's 26,880 acres, and today, the original native islanders own fewer than 1,000.

As described in the second article in this series, some Gullah heirs sold their entire properties to developers and relocated off the island. Others sold portions of their acreage and stayed on the island. Some natives were sticker-shocked by rising taxes and were forced to sell.

The Gullah here endured poverty, a lack of healthcare services and the lack of infrastructure (water, sewer, paved roads) on the island's north end for three decades, from the '60s to '90s, thus limiting their inclusion into the emerging affluence of the modern-day Hilton Head.

But the Gullah didn't suffer in silence. Native islanders Thomas Barnwell Jr. and William Grant even testified before a U.S. Congress committee in 1969 about the Gullah's medical needs on the island.

They promoted their heritage through education, individual leadership, legal action, political savvy, and powerful group organizations that sent a strong message to the newcomers and local government. They flexed their cultural muscle and today's 2,600 native islanders are at last reaping the benefits.

In 1980, Dr. Emory Campbell, a Gullah descendant and ardent community activist, was appointed director of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, the nation's first public school for freed slaves in 1862.

Then he was named the chair of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission that Congress formed in 2006 to help preserve, protect and sustain the Gullah tradition because of their contributions to the American culture.

"We are the endangered species," he said as chair. Campbell is an author, speaker, director of Gullah Heritage Consulting Services and manages the Gullah Heritage Trail Tours.

Other notable individuals and milestone events include:

  • Barnwell has a long list of community service in a variety of organizations and commissions, including the Penn Center, and has been a strident advocate for healthcare, anti-hunger, housing and employment for native islanders.

His mother, Hannah, was the first registered nurse for island natives, a midwife, and organizer of the island's first day care center and kindergarten in 1956.

  • Louise Miller Cohen founded the Gullah Museum on the island in 2003. The home was built in 1930 by a slave descendant. Its purpose is to revive, restore and preserve the Gullah history, customs and traditions. She has received local, regional and national honors for her work.
  • A documentary film entitled "Hilton Head Island Back in the Day...Through the Eyes of the Gullah Elders" premiered at Coligny Theatre in June.
  • Campbell, Barnwell and "Mr. Transportation" Charles Simmons Sr. are included in "History Makers," the nation's largest African-American historical archive.
  • The town formed the Gullah Geechee Land and Cultural Preservation Task Force in 2017, headed by Lavon Stephens, to promote the preservation of the culture.
  • The Gullah Celebration showcases African American history and culture, and its 23rd annual event will be held over several weeks in February.
  • The Rotary Club of Hilton Head Island has inducted notable Gullah visionaries to its Hilton Head Hall of Fame since 2012. Inductees have included Simmons, Barnwell and Campbell.
  • The town of Hilton Head hired a consulting firm - The Walker Collaborative - in 2018 to help preserve the Gullah heritage on the island.
  • The town appropriated $15,000 in 2018 to erect roadside signs identifying 12 historic Gullah neighborhoods in Ward One on the island's north end.
  • Mitchelville Freedom Park, located on Beach City Road, is a work in progress by the Mitchelville Preservation Project, whose goal is to interpret in words and images the sacrifice and resilience of the nation's first freed slaves in 1862 during the Civil War.

Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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