Celebrating the heritage of slave descendants through Gullah tours

  • Europe
  • Friday, 26 Jul 2013

AT Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, a Charleston suburb, Jackie Mickel stands barefoot in front of an old slave cabin, her black hair tucked beneath a white turban, perhaps like her great-great-grandmother did when she was enslaved in Dorchester County approximately 25 miles (40.2km) inland.

But Mickel is here by choice, eager to reveal the mysteries of the Gullah or Geechee people, descendants of West African slaves who toiled on Lowcountry rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. Because they were isolated on the South Carolina Sea Islands for generations after the Civil War, the Gullah retained much of their culture and language – far more than any other group of African Americans.

The Gullah dialect is an English-based Creole language with a strong African influence incomprehensible to most Americans. Therefore, Mickel gives a brief Gullah vocabulary lesson before she tells the story of Brer (Brother) Rabbit, a witty character that often pops up in Gullah folklore to outsmart stronger, more powerful characters, like Brer Wolf and Brer Alligator. When these tales were told by slaves, Caucasian plantations owners were the brunt of the joke, often compared to the character duped by a weaker but wiser one.

Mickel is a gifted storyteller, captivating the audience with her animated facial expressions and powerful voice. Her listeners are as spellbound as nursery-school kids as she takes them along on Brer Rabbit’s adventures.

Boone Plantation dates back to 1681 and has passed through several owners. At the plantation, tour guides in antebellum costumes lead visitors through a Georgian-style mansion that was built in 1936; however, to many, the nine remaining slave cabins beneath towering Spanish moss-draped oak trees are more intriguing than the grand house with its elaborate antique furnishings.

Each cabin depicts a different aspect of slave life, from musical and culinary traditions, to the vast knowledge of indigenous herbs used to make medicine and treat wounds.

In one cabin, a Gullah woman in a wide-brimmed hat patiently sews sweetgrass baskets, an accessory famous to the area. This centuries-old basket-making tradition flourishes in the Lowcountry, a craft that can be traced all the way to West Africa.

These coiled baskets, once made by slaves for agricultural purposes, are now sought after by tourists as souvenirs. Roadside basket stands are scattered on the sides of US Highway 17, a portion of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that runs along the Southeastern coast from Pender County, North Carolina, to the southern border of St Johns County, Florida.

There’s no shortage of plantation tours in the South, but few offer such an unflinching look at the injustices of slavery, while also celebrating the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those forced to endure it.

Gullah Tours go beyond Charleston’s antebellum mansions, bustling markets and gleaming monuments. They showcase the African American perspective. Just hop on a bus with Alphonso Brown, owner and operator of Gullah Tours. His passion and knowledge is evident as he points out the wonders of the city that were “built, designed or created by blacks, but for whom credit was never given.”

Brown was raised by his grandparents in a rural community outside of Charleston, and grew up with their Gullah language and traditions. It was during this time – the 1950s and 1960s – the Gullah were often ostracized as primitive and uneducated because they spoke “broken English,” which now can be recognized as a separate language.

“In my case, I’m no longer ashamed of my past or those from my past who shaped my future,” said Brown.

By the 1980s, Brown had embraced his heritage to such an extent that he started a tour company in an effort to share it with others.

On the tour, Brown introduces tourists to Cabbage Row, the section of Church Street that inspired the fictional Catfish Row in The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, originally an opera and now a revived American Broadway musical. He also drives to the east side of town, which was a crucial link in the Underground Railroad, a portal to freedom for slaves.

Moreover, at a small frame house on Bull Street, Brown explains that the government-recognized National Historic Landmark was the residence of Denmark Vessey, a freed slave who organized a failed slave uprising. Authorities discovered the plot and Vessey was hanged along with more than 30 co-conspirators.

A tour highlight is the home and workshop of Phillip Simmons (1912 - 2009), a renowned Charleston blacksmith whose decorative yet wrought iron gates and balconies adorn the city. Unlike many talented black artists and craftsmen in prior generations, Simmon’s work was widely recognized.

Although they were once marginalised and deprived of their rightful place in Charleston history, today, the Gullah are celebrated for their unique heritage that has helped shape the city.

Gullah Culture: Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens is one of America’s oldest working, living plantations. Live presentations on Gullah culture are offered daily. 1235 Long Point Road, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina 29464. 1-843-884-4371, http://www.boonehallplantation.com/. Admission: US$20 (RM63) adults, US$18 (RM57) seniors, US$10 (RM32) children aged 6 - 12, Free for children aged 5 and under.

Gullah Tours leave from the bus shed at the Charleston Visitor Center. 375 Meeting St., Charleston, SC 29401. 1-843-763-7551, http://www.gullahtours.com/. All seats are US$18. – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/McClatchy-Tribune Information Service

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