A Path Through Gullah Country

Author(s): Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff Date: December 1, 2002 Page: M1
Section: Travel

Alphonso Brown is sitting in the driver’s seat of his tour bus and telling one of his famous folktales as visitors settle in their seats. Then, without warning, unfamiliar words pour out of his mouth, lilting into a rapid melodic blend of Old English and West African words and dialects. Brown, 57, a native Charlestonian and former band teacher, eyes the baffled tourists and lets out a mischievous laugh. And so begins an experience unlike most historic tours. For two full hours, Brown rolls along in his white minivan through the narrow, old streets of Charleston, telling the story of the Lowcountry from his unique point of view.

“See, Sullivans Island,” Brown says, pointing ahead of him. “African-Americans say, `That’s our Ellis Island.'”

Brown is Gullah, a direct descendant of the African slaves who lived by the Sea Islands and along other parts of the coastal South where the rich Gullah culture thrives amid traditions older than the nation itself.

While many former slaves moved across the country, many remained on the coast of South Carolina, where the lack of bridges kept them isolated for decades. That isolation preserved a unique cultural link to Africa and the distinctive dialect with which Brown peppers his tours, using such phrases as “U duh one uh we people yah?” (Are you one of us?) This unwritten language, heard in the marketplaces of downtown Charleston and along the barrier islands, has always been hard for an outsider to understand. It was born out of necessity in the slave ships and ripened through the years into a Caribbean-sounding dialect with African words, syntax, and sentence structure.

But the language isn’t the only thing that ties Gullahs to the western coast of Africa. Tourists, if they put their minds to it, can also see the links in the twist of the wrists of the women and men sewing sweetgrass baskets along the roadside; under a live oak tree in McClellanville, a nearby fishing village, where Charles Williams sits knitting the shrimp nets just like his forefathers did generations before; and in churches on St. Helena Island, two hours away, where parishioners engage in a spiritual dance called “shouting.”

The culture exists along a geographical area the size of Maryland, stretching from coastal South Carolina, through Wilmington, N.C., and parts of Georgia to Jackson, Fla., and 30 miles inland, but the history began around Charleston. As many as 80 percent of all African slaves brought to America, selected for their rice- and indigo-growing skills and transported during the horrific Middle Passage, came through Sullivans Island.

Until recently, though, Gullahs (sometimes called “Geechee” elsewhere in the South) hid their unique culture, speaking the dialect in private or not at all. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who hails from the Gullah culture of Georgia, has said he was ashamed of the way he used to speak, and indeed, Gullah was mistakenly cast as bad English grammar.

So important is the Gullah culture in Charleston that it can be seen in every aspect of the city, from the shrimp and grits served at the best restaurants to the ornate gates and distinctive architecture seen all over the Lowcountry. But while Charleston is rich in history and the city has made tourism a vital part of its economy, it still doesn’t offer much in the way of an organized showcase for this culture, which is believed to have retained more African traditions than that of any other black community in the nation.

That may all change when the National Park Service completes a study aimed at preserving the Gullah culture, which is under threat from rapid coastal development. Study investigators have traveled across the Gullah communities in the South seeking out such sites as cemeteries, Praise Houses (tiny religious rooms used during slavery as meetinghouses), and “telling trees,” the specific live oak trees, dripping in Spanish moss, under which African-Americans would gather.

Tours like Brown’s are popping up, museum guides who lead visitors through mansions and plantations are including the Gullah story in their lectures, and Beaufort holds a Gullah festival every May. Although the Gullah people are often wary of strangers, many are now embracing their culture. Outside interest is growing rapidly, too: Lorenzo Dow Turner’s “Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect” was reprinted this year, decades after first publication. And after the Smithsonian expressed interest in the art form, the basket makers have found themselves and their work highly sought after.

Still, exploring the Gullah culture is not as simple as walking the Freedom Trail in Boston. Tourists have to know where to look, taking a day trip to Pawleys and St. Helena islands and visiting the large plantation homes. But the best place to start is in Charleston with one of the tours owned and operated by Brown and his wife, LaQuines. The tour will not only give a taste of the Gullah dialect, it can help tourists map out what they want to come back to see in more depth. Besides, the man is a great storyteller.

“Have you seen the movie `Glory,’ ” Brown asked when I took the tour recently, pointing toward Fort Sumter where the black Massachusetts troop immortalized by the movie fought a respectable battle.

He waved past former slave homes sprinkled around Charleston, pointed out the slave headstones present in the parking lot of the Old Bethel Methodist Church, and slowed down near cobblestone streets at the old slave mart on Chalmers Street where slaves were inspected and then auctioned. The city was never segregated, so slaves and whites lived next to each other, he explained. In the churches, slaves sat in the balcony, free blacks in pews toward the back, and the whites in the front.

Another guide might roll past the elegant Miles Brewton House and explain that Brewton was a commercial sea captain, that the house is of a Georgian s tyle, and point out the spikes around the roof. Brown was more blunt: “Miles Brewton was big in the slave trade industry. You can tell by all the slaves’ quarters at the side of the house. Notice spikes on the roof. They were placed there after Denmark Vesey’s insurrection.”

Vesey, he explained, was a freed black man and chief organizer of a rebellion that was prevented when two house slaves in Charleston warned their master about it. Vesey was hanged along with 34 other conspirators. “After that, all the whites were fearful for their lives, and that is why they placed spikes all over the place as a deterrent,” said Brown.

He slowed his tour bus at 89-91 Church St. to show the tourists “Catfish Row,” a three-story tenement and the setting for George Gershwin’s 1935 opera, “Porgy and Bess.”

The real Porgy was named Samuel Smalls, a disabled beggar and a Gullah who traveled around town in a cart pulled by a goat. Brown said Smalls was mean as a snake and died of a mysterious illness in 1924. It is widely believed, he said, that Smalls was “fixed,” or “rooted.” In other words, someone put a voodoo curse on him.

That starts Brown discussing the practice of roots, brought to Charleston by the early Africans and still practiced among white and black Charlestonians alike.

“We were taught when you meet one of those people be respectful,” he said. “Say good morning, good evening, and goodbye!” He later explained, in his lilting accent, why he doesn’t talk much about the local witch doctors. “I sure don’t want to put myself in jeopardy,” he said. “You just don’t tread certain territories. Those people are kind of devilish. A witch doctor ain’t nothing but an herbalist gone bad.”

Throughout the tour, Brown pointed out elaborate black iron gates and fences surrounding the most stately homes in Charleston. The gates were designed and made by Philip Simmons, who was born in 1912 on the barrier island and moved to Charleston in 1920. Simmons also created window grilles, stair rails, balconies and room dividers. Near the end of the tour, Brown surprises the tourists and stops at a modest home where Simmons still lives and works. World famous for his designs and celebrated by the Smithsonian, Simmons obliged his guests, posing for photographs and chatting with children. He still designs some gates these days, but most of the work is done by his nephew, Carlton.

Our tour ended there, but Brown can keep it going for those who call ahead, escorting them to McCleod’s Plantation on James Island, where he has exclusive permission to tour the grounds of the plantation home, which is in the process of opening to the public.

Anyone interested in Gullah culture should drive north along Highway 17 and visit the basket makers. One of them might be Vera Manigault, whose family on her father’s side has been making baskets for generations. The meticulously woven baskets cost as little as $30 and as much as $2,500. The materials used are sweet grass, pine needles, bull rush (marsh grass), and palm.

“It’s an art form in my father’s family,” Manigault told me when I visited. “I learned it at 5, but my mama said I was 4 1/2. Everybody in my neighborhood did it. Children pick it up fast.”

On St. Helena Island, two hours from Charleston, the Penn Center is a state treasure. Once the first school for former slaves, the center is now a 50-acre national historic landmark district where tourists can walk along the galleries in the York W. Bailey Museum and pour through historical documents, artifacts, and photographs or take a basket-weaving lesson.

Other must-visit sites are the rice museum in Georgetown, and a wonderful shop on Pawleys Island. At Gullah O’oman (woman), owner Vermelle “Bunny” Rodrigues (a former Boston schoolteacher) will continue where Brown left off, telling Gullah history in her native tongue and showcasing the quilts that depict her people’s journey.

The Gullah people have come a long way, she told me when I visited. Even when she was a student in the 1970s at the historically black South Carolina State University, she and other Gullah women would have to gather in private in order to speak their language without criticism.

“There was a time we were made to feel bad about ourselves,” she said. “There was a tendency to look down on the people along the coast. But now everybody wants a piece of us.”

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