Thanks to my dear friend and former colleague, Lesley Younge, I have been including the Gullah of the Sea Islands in my teaching of the Transatlantic Slave Trade due to their historic connection to Sierra Leone. While I’d long been aware of this connection it took Lesley to research and create compelling curriculum featuring these remarkable people. And the more I taught this and investigated them on my own the more I wanted to go visit the Gullah myself. This summer it finally happened.
Last week I was incredibly fortunate to attend an NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshops, Gullah Voices: Traditions and Transformations. Conceived and run by Dr. Robert Stephens and Dr. Mary Ellen Junda, professors of music at the University of Connecticut, it was a remarkable experience. Over many years Bob and Mary have carefully researched and cultivated relationships with members of the Gullah community, experts, and informed academics to created an important and memorable learning experience.
We were centered in Savannah, Georgia. I arrived early morning on Sunday and since my room wasn’t ready and the institute wasn’t starting till late afternoon, I took the hotel concierge’s suggestion and went a trolley tour. While I’d seen Forrest Gump when it came out and knew of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, it surprised and amused me how often the tour guide pointed out places featured in both. At moments we would stop and a costume actor would board, speaking about his or her moment in Savannah history. (On our final morning three of these actors showed up at our hotel’s breakfast, pleasing some of us more than others:)
The institute began with introductions, a captivating talk by Dr. Erskine Clarke, and the glorious Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters. You can get a taste of them here. The next day we went on an African-American tour of Savannah led by the passionate and informed Karen Wortham. Traveling in the same sort of trolley as the day before, I was struck by how different the information I was hearing as we drove through many of the same places.
At the African-American cemetery Karen showed us a whipping tree, pointing out the visible marks of the whip.
She took us to a burial of someone born enslaved who fought with his master for the Confederacy. She said over and over how important it was not to erase these discomforting pieces of history, but to keep them to understand them.
Karen spoke of “The Weeping Time,” the Butler auction (that I recall being so movingly memorialized by Julius Lester in his Day of Tears) and of the Ebenezer Creek Tragedy. She also told us about this hanging tree that is in one of the parks I passed in my tour the day before (but heard nothing about then).
Chilling too were the slave barraccoons near the river. I’d written of the ones in Mende country in Africa is My Home so to see and be in one was just one of the many many tear-inducing moments of the week.
And here is dinner — a yummy lowcountry boil!
On Tuesday we traveled to St. Helena’s Island and the historic Penn Center which was one of the first school for freed slaves , one of the most important African-American institutions in existence. Having long heard about this place it was thrilling to finally see it for myself. We were so honored to have as our guide Mr. Robert Middleton who had been a student there.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr used Penn Center as a retreat and stayed at this house.
Many of the beautiful trees are over 400 years old.
We then traveled to St. Helena’s gorgeous public library for a fabulous lunch catered by Gullah Grub and more interesting speakers including the distinguished Emory Campbell, organic Gullah farmer Sara Green (more about her work here), Victoria Smalls of the Penn Center, and performer (and creator of the television show Gullah Gullah Island) Ron Daise. Our day on St. Helena’s ended with a visit to the Praise House with Mr. Middleton.
St. Helena’s Praise House
On Wednesday we were taken to aesthetic, historical, and emotional highs by way of visual artist Leroy Campbell. I didn’t take photos so be sure to go check out his amazing work, especially the on-going series, Gullah Collection.
Our final field trip was to Sapelo Island where there is still a Gullah community of 47 permanent residents. (Great New York Times article about the place here.) In preparation for this day we had read resident and cultural historian Cornelia Bailey‘s memoir, God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man and so meeting her was another of many highlights of the week.
Dayrise on Sapelo Island
Resident Mrs. Handy’s son was our tour guide. Loved her additional remarks!
Sapelo Island Post Office
We were incredibly fortunate to be able to wander the Reynolds Mansion (as it is usually occupied — you can rent it for a remarkably reasonable price!) I’m not going to put all my photos of the place in this post, but it is one crazy place (you can see them on my #gullahvoices twitter feed if you are interested.)
Lunch with Mrs. Bailey was a special time indeed.
For me probably the most emotional day was Friday when we heard from Wilson Moran who spoke of the research done that linked his family to another family in Sierra Leone via a song. I knew about this and had thought I’d seen the movie about it, “The Language You Cry In,” but viewing it early in the morning before Wilson’s talk had me in tears as they filmed it when the war in Sierra Leone was still going on. When Wilson mentioned mutual friends he saw my grin and we connected afterwards. So so moved by this.
There was, of course, much more to the week. My fellow-scholars were so impressive and I loved getting to know many of them. One of them, Line-Andrée Marshall, has done a lyrical, poetic, and beautiful post on our week as well: “Shall We Gather By the River? Gullah Voices and Echoes.” Please be sure to view it as it is much better than this one.
Thank you, Bob and Mary Ellen and to everyone involved in creating this moving and memorable experience.