Beaufort County, SC is the second oldest county in South Carolina. This county became what it is do to the blood, sweat, and tears of Gullah/Geechees that toiled in the Sea Island cotton, rice, and indigo fields of the Sea Islands that the county consist of and who worked the phosphate mines and built the buildings. For many generations, the story of Africans that were the architects of the coastal landscape that has become the Gullah/Geechee Nation was buried like so many seeds in the ground. Just as ordered by Divine Law, the seeds that are planted and are nurtured will grow. The Gullah/Geechee seed has grown to be a tree rooted deeply in Sea Island soil by the rivers of water.
During “Gullah/Geechee Nation Appreciation Week” in Beaufort County, SC, we have encouraged people to take a journey through ourstory. For many people this will involve going to talk with elders in the family to learn more about who you are related to and how you all are Gullah/Geechee. However, for many others that do not have a genealogical link or are unsure of the existence of one, this will be a time to visit museums and sites to simply learn the story of a people that they may not have heard of until they reached the Lowcountry of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. So, in order to help with that journey through the county, here are a few places that one should consider visiting:
In Bluffton, SC make sure to stop by what has become the visitors center, Heyward House. At this location stands the last of the enslavement cabins built by the hands of our Gullah/Geechee ancestors that dwelled there until they were able to purchase lands just down the road during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
Then journey from Bluffton over the bridge to Hilton Head Island, SC and see more Gullah/Geechee architecture by visiting the “Gullah Museum of Hilton Head” which was established by Elder Louise Miller-Cohen.
Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com) and Elder Louise Miller-Cohen at the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head.
The journey to the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head will help to bring to life and to mind the vision that those who had also built and maintained “Mitchelville” on Hilton Head had. These Gullah/Geechees set out to establish a town that would provide education to their children and provide them with homes. Unfortunately, many of the families of the island have since been displaced and their original homes were demolished. Yet, the Gullah Museum building stands as a testimony to the soundness of building within the spirit of Gullah/Geechees. It also stands as a testimony of how we have been able to endure and how everything that has been touched by the true Gullah/Geechee soul can and will endure and remain standing!
In order to see many more homes that have been sustained and maintained by Gullah/Geechees in Beaufort, once can visit the Northwest Quadrant in historic downtown Beaufort. From there, walk over and visit the home of Gullah Statesman Robert Smalls and the buildings that his family helped establish such as the first library for Blacks in Beaufort which is now the University of SC-Beaufort’s (USCB) art building. This building is just blocks away from the new location of the Beaufort Visitor’s Center which is the site where enslaved Africans were sold in the township.
Many of those that had been previously enslaved did as Robert Smalls did and did not settle for this as the only way that they could live. Instead, they fought back and strategized during the US Civil War. They became soldiers in the ranks of the Union Forces. Many of them have been laid to rest at the National Cemetary in Beaufort which was actually created by executive order of President Abraham Lincoln. It took generations before people would know that Gullah/Geechee and other Black soldiers that served were buried there. However, there now stands a marker for all visitors that come to Beaufort to see in honor of the 1st SC Infantry of African Descent or the 1st SC Regiment:
This marker stands on Highway 21. As you proceed on this highway across the Woods Memorial Bridge, you will journey to and through Lady’s Island to historic St. Helena Island, SC. The Gullah/Geechee story continues to be written here daily as the people of the island continue the living traditions of their ancestors through fishing, farming, architecture, quilting, cast net making, boat building, foodways, healing practices, shouting, The Spirituals, and so much more. Disya da de place whey hunnuh gwine see de culcha ebeeday fa tru ya!
Many people visit St. Helena Island annually to go to the Penn Center National Landmark Historic District. The Gullah/Geechee Nation International Music & Movement Festival™ participants will be visiting this site including the museum which is named for Dr. York W. Bailey whose home on the island is also on the National Register of Historic Places. “De Gullah Roots Experience Tour” (www.gullahgeechee.biz) always takes people to these sites and many more on the island is an interactive Gullah/Geechee journey where the history of the Knights of Wise Men Hall, the historic churches, Fort Fremont, the praise houses, and many other historic sites is told. One stop along the journey is another picturesque location that thousands of visitors pull up to each year is the Chapel of Ease which (like Penn School) was built by Gullah/Geechee hands as well.
The true journey into ourstory involves engaging with the people and learning the story from the mouths of the Gullah/Geechees that have lived it. However, as you take the time to visit these few sites, sit down quietly beneath an oak tree and tune in with your soul. You will be surprised what you will hear. Le hunnuh spirit opun an hunnuh gwine hab plenee fa share afta a journee een we storee een disya lan a de Gullah/Geechee.