Historic St. Helena Island, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation is one of the last Sea Islands with a contiguous Gullah/Geechee community throughout the entire island. The people of St. Helena Island have stood for their rights over the eras of time and against the odds that worked to enslave them during the chattel slavery era and beyond it during the timeframes in which people tried to make them become ashamed of and to end the expression of their culture through their language, African traditions, and spiritual practices. As a result of the continued power of this community to come together, it has become a place and space of celebration of rich and interesting history and the continuation of a unique culture that is now recognized around the world.
The second weekend of each year is the annual Heritage Days Celebration which began as an event to bring back the “Farmers’ Day” tradition to Penn School which was the first trade, agricultural, and normal school for freedmen in the United States of America. This celebration has grown to be a homecoming for native St. Helena Islanders.
This year as folks return home, they will find a brand new state-of-the-art library with the first “Gullah/Geechee Room” within it. The library will be officially dedicated on Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 10 am and the entire community is invited to take part in this historic event.
The library will be the site for special activities during the Penn Center Heritage Days on Friday from 9 am to 2 pm.
At 7 pm in Thursday evening, the community is invited to take part in the Praise Meeting/Community Sing at Bethesda Christian Center on Dr. Martin L. King Drive or one at Frissell Hall at Penn Center, Inc. This tradition continues to go on to keep alive the Spirituals which are the official music of the state of South Carolina and of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.
On Friday, November 9, 2012, the Heritage Days Celebration continues at the St. Helena Elementary School Gymnasium with the Heritage Symposium which will be a historic discussion about Douglas A. Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.” From there folks can support the Gullah/Geechee businesses in the Corners Community of the island and then proceed back to the Penn Center, Inc. grounds to see the exhibitions featured there including the “Sankofa Museum on Wheels” and the “Slavery by Another Name Paintings and Assemblages” exhibition in the York W. Bailey Museum. (The opening reception for this will be held Thursday from 4:30-6 pm.)
At 6 pm, the heart and soul of St. Helena Island comes out as the native Gullah/Geechees of the island meet up at the fish fry, oyster roast, crab crack and blues night at Penn Center, Inc. Folks dance to the live music as they enjoy local seafood and reunite with people that they have not seen in years or at least since the last Heritage Day.
Saturday morning, November 10th, if you are not on the island by 8 am, you may find it difficult to get on especially if you are driving because Highway 21/Sea Island Parkway will be closed down by 9 am and will remain closed until the parade ends. Dr. Martin L. King Drive between that highway and Club Bridge Road remains closed until 1 pm.
At 1 pm this year, Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation who once was an annual part of the presentations at Heritage Day from its inception, returns for a special 30th Anniversary presentation on the main stage at the event. Queen Quet will remain on the campus to meet and greet the public and educate them about Gullah/Geechee history, heritage, and culture as she does book and CD signings throughout the event. Look for the Gullah/Geechee Nation flag to find her in front of the Lathers Building.
While Queen Quet does her signings outside, authors Kevin Lowther, Bob Rogers, Robert Middleton, and Yvonne Bondurant will each present for 45 minutes beginning at the top of each hour inside the Frissell Community Hall. These book talks will take place from 1-5 pm.
The center stage entertainment will go on from 11 am to 5 pm as the annual parade ends and brings the public onto the grounds. Between acts, people should make sure that they support the numerous crafts artists and vendors and enjoy the local cuisine not only on campus, but all along Dr. Martin L. King Drive. There will even be a “Sea Islands Cook-Off” in the dining hall on the campus.
Admission through the main gate at Penn Center, Inc. is $7 per day. Many of the events throughout the weekend have additional cost. For more details, call (843) 838-2432.
Make sure to have walking and dancing shoes as you make your way to St. Helena Island to celebrate the heritage that continues amidst the Spanish moss covered oaks of this historic Gullah/Geechee place.
Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation give you an overview of the history of Penn on the video below from Gullah/Geechee TV (GGTV):