St. Helena Island, the Land of Gullah is one of the last frontiers along our Eastern Seaboard. With its abundant farms, and shrimp docks, St. Helena Island, just 5 miles east of Beaufort and part of the Beaufort Sea Islands, offers visitors a glimpse into rural Lowcountry life past and present.
art by Diane Britton Dunham
The Gullah are African Americans who live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia. .https://www.beaufortsc.org/things-to-do/gullah-culture/
St. Helena is home to the Penn Center, one of the first schools for the children of freed slaves which took place in a small rural cottage. This is where Martin Luther King, Jr. drafted his famous “I have a dream speech.” Even today their storytelling, cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming, and fishing traditions all exhibit strong influences from West and Central African cultures. https://www.beaufortsc.org/islands-and-towns/st-helena-island/
Driving across the Cowan Creek bridge, past lazy pastures, mom and pop stores, and a few vegetable stands I was soon in the center of Gullah culture, surrounded by saltwater marshes.
The descendants of African slaves who were brought here to work on the rice plantations, live mostly on these remote islands and have preserved much of their culture, such as their African-based Creole language and their expertise in sweetgrass basket-weaving.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, barefoot legions of enslaved Africans arrived on our shores. With them came their knowledge of rice cultivation, farming, and the seeds of vegetables such as okra, watermelon, tomatoes, peas, sweet potatoes, and peanuts.
Artist Jonathan Green depicts two slaves threshing the rice.
They are resourceful and know how to endure hardship. One of the largest communities of Gullah people in existence today is here on St. Helena Island.
One of the most enduring legacies of the Gullah people is their commitment to a spiritual way of life. The church is as important to their way of life as breathing.
The Praise Houses of St. Helena Island are one of the many significant links to Beaufort’s, and the South’s historic past still in existence today. Like in Africa, the Gullah way of life has always centered around their faith. The Praise House back years ago was their community center where they met, danced, stomped their feet and shouted praises to the Lord!
Painting by Kevin Chadwick of a young Gullah girl hanging out the wash.
Once upon a time, these tiny, plain white, small frame, little houses were all over the island countryside. The normal size was only about 18 x 20 with wooden benches inside along the walls. Several more benches would be in the middle with a stand at the front of the room where the preacher would address the congregation. At one time there were as many as 25 praise houses but today only four remain.
The size of the houses was intentional in order to prevent too many slaves from gathering at one time. Slave owners always feared an uprising. After Emancipation, locals continued to build praise houses near the plantations where they lived and worked. They became central points of contact in the community and sometimes were even used as an elder’s cabin.
The ones that remain today are the Mary Jenkins Community Praise House, the Croft Plantation Praise House, The Eddings Point Praise House, and the Coffin Point Community Praise House.
The slaves were given rations but were able to supplement them with whatever they could catch or grow on their own.
One of the most popular dishes was their shrimp and okra. Okra came over on the slave ships from Sierra Leone, Africa and soon became abundant across the island. They would serve it over bowls of rice to create a feast for their entire family.
LIVE OAKS OF THE ACE BASIN
This picture depicts the awesome power of our live oaks which at one time provided shelter for the plantation workers. Since many oaks live 500 years and beyond, no doubt this one was alive in the 1800s providing welcome shade for slaves from the torrid summer sun, standing sturdy since the time of slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation.