Charleston Magazine, April/May 1993
By Amy Adams
“Yea Chaa’stun Stories een Gullah”
“Yenna who roll ya eye ’bout Chaa’stun?” Charismatic and down-to-earth tour guide Alphonso Brown, his smiling brown face topped with a hat made of sweetgrass, speaks with a Gullah accent as colorful and rich as the stories he tells. “At first people want to hear my whole tour in Gullah, but after a block or two, I have to translate,” he says with a laugh.
Brown grew up about 13 miles south of Charleston in rural Rantowels, a community where Gullah has been passed down since the time of slavery. “It’s a private language that developed from West African languages and English. It is spoken, not written, among family and friends,” Brown explains on his private tours. “I grew up with Gullah. As a child, English was my most difficult subject in school.”
When Brown became licensed 10 years ago, he saw a city rich in black history but poor in knowledgeable guides. “I started out giving bus tours, but I found when people asked about Charleston’s black history, that I didn’t know about.”
So Brown, band director at Rivers Middle school and the father of three boys, began his quest for information. “It’s like searching for gold – once you find a vein, there’s a wealth to be had.” Brown tapped into the minds of old, black Charlestonians such as Sarah Dowling, 82, whose husband was a superintendent of the Jenkins Orphanage for black children.
Brown is currently writing a book about his findings. His collection, A guide to Gullah Charleston, gives brief historic summaries accompanied by a phonetic translation into Gullah.
Brown doesn’t give his Gullah tour without a visit to 30 ½ Blake street. There, in a shed blackened by time and toil, artisan and blacksmith Philip Simmons, known worldwide for his ornamental iron gates, continues to weld and mold his masterpieces. The 81 year-old Simmons still welcomes Brown and his visitors. As the two shake hands and break into Gullah, you become witness to Charleston’s living History.
“Oh, yes, I love every moment,” says Brown. “Our history is alive and well.”