It's hard to imagine that Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have much in common, but they do: Both are part of the small but unique Gullah community that resides primarily in South Carolina and Georgia but whose roots extend from Wilmington, N.C., to St. Augustine, Fla. These people are descendants of 18th-century slaves who share a common language, culture, history and food. The first lady celebrated that heritage at the 2012 inauguration; Thomas credits it for much of his silence on the court. And Congress has recently taken steps to put the Gullah (also known as Geechee) culture back on the map.
In the 1700s, rice plantations flourished along the coastal areas and barrier islands stretching from North Carolina to Florida. Because they required specific skills, slaves were brought here from similar environments in Africa, where rice had been grown successfully for centuries. In many cases the Africans' knowledge of rice cultivation far exceeded that of their masters. Because the work required a wide variety of skills that only the Africans possessed, they were often accorded more responsibility and autonomy than their cotton-picking counterparts.
They came with their own language, beliefs and customs -- and because they were so isolated in coastal regions that were not connected to the mainland until the 1950s, their Gullah culture flourished and proliferated among the many Africans who came to settle there, and it still endures today. The Gullah people developed a separate Creole language and distinct culture patterns that included more of their African traditions than African-American populations in other parts of the United States. A recent visit to Myrtle Beach brought me in direct contact with the culture, its descendants and its current connection to the nation's capital.
Meet Veronica Gerald, owner of the Ultimate Gullah Shop, whose great-great-great grandmother was kidnapped from Sierra Leone at age 9 and spent her whole life at Brookgreen Plantation, as did many of her descendants. Brookgreen, one of the largest and most prosperous plantations in South Carolina during the 18th century, was built by Gullah slaves. It was combined with three other plantations in 1930 to form Brookgreen Gardens and is now a showcase of art, gardens and nature with the largest display of American representational sculpture in the world. Fox, deer and birds add their voices to the wide expanse of nature trails, tree-lined vistas and bronze, marble and stone edifices. But once upon a time Gullah voices echoed from these fields and dominated the landscape.
Today Brookgreen is only one of many places where the Gullah voices have been drowned out by modern conveniences. Visiting a golf course constructed on a former plantation site that included an early slave cemetery, Gerald observed: "My grandfather is buried on the 10th hole." She also noted that Gullah cemeteries are always built near water so that the spirits can float back to Africa.
Such tales are among the many delights of a Gullah tour that Gerald conducts, tracing the history from slavery up to the present, and her shop provides all kinds of Gullah wares that include crafts, foods, jewelry and books. The De Nyew Testament -- my favorite piece even though I couldn't read it -- is a Bible totally written in Gullah.
Gullah is very much its own language, and initially those who spoke it were looked down upon as illiterate. It has been said that one of the reasons Clarence Thomas maintains his much-reported silence on the Supreme Court is that he's always been a bit self-conscious about the way he speaks.
In a Dec. 14, 2000, New York Times article, Thomas told his story this way: "When I was 16, I was sitting as the only black kid in my class, and I had grown up speaking a kind of a dialect ... called Geechee. Some people call it Gullah, and people praise it now. But they used to make fun of us back then. It's not standard English. So I learned that, and I just started developing the habit of listening. And it just got to be, I didn't ask questions in college or law school ... . For all those reasons and a few others, I just think that it's more in my nature to listen rather than to ask a bunch of questions. The only reason I could see for asking the questions is to let people know I've got something to ask. That's not a legitimate reason in the Supreme Court of the United States."
Now the Gullah language -- and its heritage -- is about to be rediscovered more than 300 years after it began. In 2004, the Gullah culture was placed on the list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2006, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission was created by Congress to change that, to recognize the contributions of the Gullah people and to help preserve historical sites as well as their folklore, arts, crafts, music and, of course, their language.
Now meet Bunny Rodrigues, a story-quilt maker and former owner of the Gullah Ooman Museum in Pawley's Island along the Myrtle Beach Strand who spearheaded the creation of a 90-by-70-inch quilt dedicated to retelling Michelle Robinson Obama's family history from slave quarters to the White House. On a January 2008 visit to her maternal ancestors' hometown in Georgetown, just south of Myrtle Beach proper, Obama became immersed in a history being visually retold with which she was not familiar.
The bottom left panel in the quilt shows a slave cabin reflecting where Obama's great-great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, had been born into slavery about 1850. Other panels depict her great-great-grandmother working as a slave; her great-grandfather, Fraser Robinson Sr., who learned how to read and write because he lived with a white family; and on up through Obama's marriage to her husband and their moving into to the White House. Fraser Robinson passed his philosophy of education down to his son, Obama's grandfather, who graduated high school and went to Chicago to find work. The rest is current history. In the quilt's center is a life-size Michelle sporting a cap and gown with Princeton and Harvard delineated in large letters above.
"I wanted to emphasize her education," Rodrigues said, "and have that be an inspiration, that you can have ancestors in a slave cabin and end up at Harvard."
Although Rodrigues did the story line and cut out every piece, more than 40 people eager to touch a piece of history were involved in putting the quilt together, from threading needles to making coffee to taking pictures. From Jan. 11 to Sept. 31, 2009, the quilt hung in the Washington, D.C., Historical Society, but by the second inauguration it rode in a Gullah-Geechee Corridor Commission float in the 2013 inaugural parade.
As their Gullah heritage is celebrated by Obama and others and the Gullah-Geechee Corridor Commission gains in importance, an emphasis on Gullah culture is enjoying increased notoriety from North Carolina to Florida, with the Myrtle Beach Strand, where Gullah connections are being newly discovered across the area, one of its most important hubs.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about the Ultimate Gullah Shop store and its tours, visit www.ultimategullah.com.
For more information about the Gullah-Geechie Corridor, contact Ron Daise at email@example.com.
For more information about Michelle Obama's quilt and the future of the Gullah Ooman Museum, contact Bunny Rodrigues at 843-237-9603.
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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