St. Helena Island Educates Through Festivals Focused on Gullah/Geechee History & Traditions

by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (

Tenk Gawd fa St. Helena nayme fa de ladee.

Tenk Gawd fa St. Helena whey de Gullah/Geechee be.

Tenk Gawd fa St. Helena an holdin pun we land.

Tenk Gawd fa St. Helena an e Sea Islandt sand.

Tenk Gawd fa St. Helena an de wata wa bring we.

Tenk Gawd fa St. Helena whey we still da famlee!

St. Helena Island is the land of my foreparents and this time of year, I feel them all around me as I harvest from the fields. The energy of our bond the heat just seals.

I hear them singing with me when I raise a spiritual and I hear the drum and the stamping stick hitting the praise house floor when I shout.  Yes, this is truly what my island is all about!

We sit with family under the oak tree and talk about our ancestors and their journey.  We teach the children about where they are from so that they know where they must go.  Win de preacha crak e teet sumbodee gwine sey, “Say so!”

We still move at a pace that is slow like a Sea Island wave and where grandmama dem wan kno ef hunnuh soul dun save!  We shouted here the day we were told that de madaba dem caan no mo enslave!  Tenk Gawd fa all a disya that keeps bringing us back home and it seems that we get here, we can hear the drum beating out that freedom tone!

I have been truly blessed this year to be a part of putting together two major celebrations to bring our folks back home to St. Helena Island and to educate the world about the richness of Gullah/Geechee culture and ourstory.   Annually, the Gullah/Geechee Nation International Music & Movement Festival™ is held in a different area of the Gullah/Geechee Nation or the African Diaspora.  We have been blessed to have town after town and community after community open their doors and their arms to us as we went to visit them.  However, there is always a point when you need to come home!

This year, we are coming home again to St. Helena Island, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation where the festival began.  We have a chance to truly anoint the stage of the new St. Helena Library‘s Performing Arts arena.   We gwine shout an bring de drum dey fa tru!

Ancestral Tribute at Botany Bay

August 2nd we will go to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to honor our ancestors that came in to the Port Royal region during chattel enslavement and to honor those that never let the drum be taken from their hearts and souls.  We honor those that fought for freedom during the US Civil War and those that had the insight to stand at auctions and purchase land for their future generations.

Saturday, August 3rd will be “Gullah/Geechee Reunion Day” which will bring the family together to shout in celebration of the freedom and self-determination of our people of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.  We will get to do this at the St. Helena Library which is a new institution that immediately became central to the community as a gathering place for education and enlightenment.  It is linked to the Penn Center National Historic Landmark District which is not unfamiliar with celebration given that we have held the Heritage Days Celebration there for 30 years.

Queen Quet at Heritage Day 2012

Penn Center, Inc. was previously “Penn School” which was the first trade, agricultural and normal school for freedmen.  The term “freedmen” referred to males and females that had previously been enslaved.  This institution was established as a place to provide them with the education that was necessary for them to be fully functioning members of mainstream society.  Many took the trades that they learned at the school and did not only go out to seek jobs, but created businesses for themselves and built their homes and the community of St. Helena to be a self-sustaining place.

In order to have a time to celebrate the agrarian success of St. Helena Island each year, Penn School would host “Farmer’s Day” and folks would come out and win ribbons for the best livestock, best jars/preserves, and even the best sugar cane and best sweet potatoes.   In the midst of the competition, the islanders were out in mass to support the event and to meet and greet one another while eating Gullah/Geechee cuisine throughout the day.  With Heritage Day picking up where they left off, not too much has changed when it comes to the meeting, greeting and the eating!

Every year thousands of folks that are native to the Sea Islands come back home to St. Helena Island for the Heritage Days Celebration to celebrate the heritage of the school and the Gullah/Geechee heritage of our island.  I remember when we started it 31 years ago. I was the only performing artist for the event for many years.  I remember dancing amidst the elders in the grass because the stage was too small to dance on at that time.  My music was all the way on the other side of the campus and we had a signaling system for it to be started and played as loud as we could get it from the component set’s speaker system!  Yes, we have come a mighty long way!  Now the celebration is not a few hours on a Saturday, but begins Thursday and ends Sunday.  During that timeframe, tens of thousands of folks get to sit and hear numerous artistic and historic presentations done by folks from not only St. Helena Island, but across the United States.


With the way that we have come over the 151 years since the establishment of Penn School, we have a long way to go through the next 100 years. To that end, the Penn Center Heritage Days Committee (which I have the honor of co-chairing with Dr. Valerie Jackson who has been a long time educator in Beaufort County School District) has themed the event: “Eyes Still on the Prize: Continuing the Legacy of Change.”  It is no doubt Divinely Ordered that we will celebrate under that theme after the Gullah/Geechee Nation International Music & Movement Festival™ ushers in “Emancipation een de Gullah/Geechee Nation.” 


Penn was here during periods of major change for Gullah/Geechees-from chattel to freedmen, from slavery to freedom, and segregation to Civil Rights.

The Gullah/Geechee legacy has been a continuous freedom journey on historic St. Helena Island.  We will celebrate this journey as we bring people further on the journey of global equality in this human rights era of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.  Hunnuh hafa cum fa jayn we an be paat de celebration!






  1. Tonya Chaplin

    I love this website! It’s very informative. I’m interested in returning home from Texas to attend upcoming festivals w my family. Please tell us more. Chaplin Family

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