From Footnote to Front Page: Time Is of the Essence in the Study, Legislation and Preservation of Gullah/Geechee Culture, and Grass-Roots Activists Are Leading the Way

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For generations, scholars theorized that Gullah/Geechee language and culture originated among populations of Africans enslaved on South Carolina and Georgia rice plantations. But some of them also maintained that the culture could only be found in a few isolated pockets on remote islands off the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. This is the view romanticized in films such as Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust" and novels like Gloria Naylor's Mama Day.

Gullah and Geechee--they're two words whose origins no one really knows, describing a culture whose significance only a handful of scholars have claimed to understand. That could all change, however, if U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., has his way. Clyburn is on the verge of seeing H.R. 694, the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Act, pass both houses of Congress with strong bipartisan support. This legislation, which authorizes spending $2 million per year for up to 10 years to establish a Gullah/Geechee Heritage Corridor, could make Gullah and Geechee household words and change the shape of the American history curriculum.

"The Gullah bill has passed the House with unanimous approval and is now awaiting action in the Senate. Last year the Senate passed a similar measure, so I am hopeful they will give the bill overwhelming support when it comes up for a vote," Clyburn says, adding that action on the bill can't come a moment too soon.

"Time is of the essence in preserving the Gullah culture," he explains. "The passage of time is like the waves slowly eroding the beach--as more time passes we lose more of the Gullah land, tradition and language. It is imperative that this legislation is implemented as soon as possible so we can begin the important work of preserving this culture rather than relegate it to a footnote in history books."

From footnote to front page--that's Clyburn's goal. And what's fascinating about what he's about to achieve is the relative lack of leadership by the scholarly community. Researchers may indeed have been laboring for nearly a century in the disciplines of anthropology, linguistics and history, among others, to document Gullah and Geechee culture, but the charge here is being led by an extraordinary grass-roots coalition.

Anchored by local Gullah activists and "art-ivists," preservationists and environmental groups, amateur history buffs, tourism agencies and entrepreneurs, this multiracial, multifaceted group--jokingly called "the Gullah Mafia" by Joseph Opala, an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker from James Madison University--has attracted the support of major foundations, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, most importantly, the National Park Service. Their aim? Well, in effect, it appears to be to rewrite American history.

"We've spent live years chasing a dream and now we're moving into reality," says Michael Allen, a member in good standing of the "mafia." Allen is the National Parks Service education specialist who led the research team that supported Clyburn's efforts.

"Personally, professionally, spiritually--from whatever perspective you could name--this has been a good journey. And now we're hoping the work we've done can serve as a guide for others," he says.

Cynthia Porcher, a member of Allen's team and the principal researcher on the NPS report describing the "national significance" of Gullah/Geechee culture, notes that preservation groups will be the first to see the fruits of the team's labors.

"I didn't go into a single (Gullah) community where there wasn't grass-roots work being done. These people have not been waiting around with their hands out for Congress to come in and save them," she says.

But now the difficult hand they had been dealt includes two aces. First, the designation of the Gullah-Geechee Coast as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation--for which Porcher wrote the nomination. …