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History: Giving a voice to African-American culture

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

After five years of brainstorming, information gathering and planning by the national Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, a corridor management plan is nearly ready for public review.

It’s exciting stuff for those who celebrated when the corridor was designated by an act of Congress in 2006, but following a series of public meetings, haven’t heard much else in the years since.

“It has been a long process, but we have been guided by public feedback about how this unique and significant national heritage area should be managed,” said Ron Daise, who was named chairman-elect of the commission at a meeting in Florida last month. He is vice president for creative education at Brookgreen Gardens, where he presents a weekly Gullah/Geechee program for visitors.

Daise said he thinks the public will be pleased with what the commission has come up with, but it’s too soon to go into details. The management plan is expected to be presented to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for approval this summer, but before that commission members will be working to fine tune programs it contains, as well as plans for their implementation. They will also be looking for businesses and organizations interested in serving as partner sites.

The corridor, which extends from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., exists to recognize the important contributions made to American culture and history by African-Americans known as the Gullah/Geechee, who settled in the coastal areas along the length of the corridor.

It is also intended to assist in identifying and preserving sites, historical data, artifacts and objects associated with the Gullah/Geechee for the benefit and education of the public. Additionally, it’s mission includes assisting state and local groups within the corridor area in interpreting the story of the Gullah/Geechee and preserving their folklore, arts, crafts and music.

“An important part of our implementation is to ensure that Gullah/Geechee people tell our stories,” said Daise. “History books for numerous years have been written in third person. Our history has been written about us, but there are numerous stories we’ve heard expressed in the public engagement meetings that Gullah/Geechee people want to inform others about, and they want to inform people about our stories in our own voices.”

The Gullah/Geechee culture developed from Africans brought to America as slaves to work the coastal plantations. They retained many aspects of their culture due to the geographic barriers that isolated the sea island communities where they were placed.

After emancipation, their descendants chose to remain in their isolated communities and continued to practice their own language, arts, crafts, religious beliefs, folklore, rituals and food preferences, according to the corridor’s website.

“The Gullah/Geechee people have been a mainstay to this country’s economy since the arrival of our ancestors during the transatlantic slave trade era through the present day, particularly in the era of plantations and particularly in Georgetown County,” Daise said. “So much of the labor and the skills for the production of rice and the other cash crops that were grown throughout the corridor — indigo and cotton — were due to Gullah/Geechee people and their West African acestors.”

Though Georgetown County’s rich Gullah/Geechee heritage is often overshadowed by that of nearby Charleston and Beaufort counties, Daise said he plans to make sure Georgetown County and those Gullah/Geechee people who hail from the county, are recognized and are “part of the overall scheme to show our appreciation and celebration of the culture.”

Daise has been working for decades to bring attention to the Gullah/Geechee culture. A native of St. Helena Island, he and his wife, Natalie, starred in “Gullah Gullah Island,” an award-winning TV show that aired on Nick Jr. in the 1990s.

He has worked at Brookgreen for seven-and-a-half years and has served on the corridor commission in several capacities since its inception. He is chairman of the commission’s management plan review committee and marketing committee, among other roles.

As the commission’s work moves forward, Daise and other members of the group invite the public to “join with us to celebrate and preserve a living culture that has impacted the world community.”

Learn more about the corridor at its website.

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