Finding Gullah

The day for our visit to the 15th Annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration dawned blustery and rain soaked, but we were not to be deterred.

We drove through the precipitation to the prescribed point, only to find that the Freedom Day Parade was not only deterred, but detoured, deferred, delayed, diverted, disassembled, and finally postponed.

Gullah Schoolhouse

Disappointed but undaunted, we slogged through a soggy parking lot into the old schoolhouse across the street from the Historic St. James Baptist Church for the Ol' Fashion Gullah Breakfast.

These schoolhouses were built throughout the Sea Islands to serve the Gullah people, who have a proud tradition of education dating back to the founding of the Penn Center in 1862.

Gullah Breakfest, oyster stew, grits, whole fried fish

Outside, a tent had been set up to serve as a kitchen, De Gullah Ooman (woman) Kitchen, with plates being passed back and forth through a side door.

As we have learned in our travels, people eat what is regionally available, so breakfast on the Sea Islands means a plate of fried fish, shrimp & grits and stewed oysters.

Not what many folks would consider breakfast foods perhaps, but mighty good eating anytime of day.

Ervena Faulkner of the Island Packet

With the parade postponed, we had plenty of time to linger and chat about history and folklore with many of our fellow breakfasters, including a ghost story from local Lowcountry columnist Ervena Faulkner.

Although she has not seen the spirit herself, she knows some who have witnessed the light of a beheaded lost lover desperately trying to return to his love. When not spinning yarns, Ervena writes a food and lifestyle column for The Island Packet.

The next event, a film “Remnants of Mitchelville” and a presentation about the Mitchelville Preservation Project, was held across the road in the St. James Church. Founded in 1886, this church is one of the few remaining ties to Mitchelville.

In 1861, during the Civil War, when Union troops landed on Hilton Head Island the
plantation owners fled, leaving the slaves behind.

Considered "contraband," as slaves were not yet free in America, the Union faced a dilemma. Were the Gullah people slaves or freedmen?

In 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the slaves of the
Sea Islands were freed by military order.

Major General Ormsby M. Mitchel suggested a town be built for the new freedmen. The first compulsory education laws in the state of South Carolina were enacted in Mitchelville.


Most of the residents worked as contract labor for the military, so the end of the war brought hardship.

The town diminished through time, but survived for several decades with residents who raised subsistence crops and fished.

By the time the Great Depression rolled in, Mitchelville had disappeared. All of the original buildings were wooden structures and the town has been completely lost.

The Mitchelville Preservation Project is working hard to bring it back.

The plans for The Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park include a recreation of the first Freedman's Village, as well as a memorial to commemorate the Gullah people's "experiment in freedom" and a Welcome Center / Pavilion for exhibits and special events.

Worthy goals for bringing attention to this often overlooked episode in American history.

Gullah art at the Coastal Discovery Museum in Hilton Head

In our conversations that morning, the Gullah Heritage Trail Tour came up again and again - a tour of the island led by guides who have lived in the community their entire lives.

With all of the high praise, it seemed the perfect way to complete our Gullah experience.

So we bid adieu to the church and headed to the Coastal Discovery Museum to meet up with the tour.

While we waited, we browsed the museum's displays of vibrant works by Gullah artists and sweetgrass baskets along with several botanical and sea-life exhibits. Within minutes, we were introduced to our guide, Irvin Campbell.

Irvin Campbell, Gullah Heritage Trail Tours

Mr. Campbell is a fourth generation Gullah Hilton Head descendant so he really knows the island firsthand.

He began with a little background on the Gullah language. Still spoken by about a quarter million people along this coast, almost all Gullah are bilingual, speaking English as well.

Once considered just a dialect of English, more recent studies have deemed it a unique language. The roots come from the native languages of the enslaved Africans brought here, mixed with English. This makes for some recognizable words, but the overall effect is a wholly distinct language.

De Gullah Ooman Kitchen

For example, “Cuz dis ya sum fa eat, ga mek hunnah knock hunnah mammy.” meaning “Don't sit next to your mother while you eat.” was written on our breakfast menus.

Not something we could have figured out without help. Perhaps the best known example of the Gullah language is the song “Kumbayah,” which is Gullah for “Come By Here.”

With our language lesson learned, it was time to see the island. As Mr. Campbell drove us around, he gave us details about not just the area, but the lifestyle. “We used to fish over there,” or “My cousin's family lives there” was an ongoing banter as we went along. He personally knew so many of the people and places we passed by, it was like having an old friend show us around. He told stories of the fields and beaches where he played as a child, now filled with condos and hotels.

Change came very slowly to Hilton Head because there was no electricity until 1951 and no bridge to the mainland until 1956. But once the connections to the outside world were made, the pace picked up drastically. Within ten years resorts had sprung up all over the island and land speculating ran rampant. As property values skyrocketed, families that had lived on the land for generations had to sell just to pay taxes on the new values. The amount of land owned by Gullah families dwindled to a tiny portion of the island, but a few of the families have held on by renting out parcels or building their own developments.

Hilton Head Island

After the tour and our conversations with Mr. Campbell, we realized that it would be easy to visit Hilton Head and never get an feel for its rich history.

The island has been completely transformed into a golf, shopping and beachhouse playland.

Hopefully the Mitchelville Preservation Project can bring a more visible reminder to visitors and residents alike.

David & Veronica,

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