As I make my way down Squire Pope Road on Hilton Head Island, I am in awe of the big beautiful live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. I turn and see an old woman in a rocking chair under one of the largest trees and a few brightly dressed children sitting in a row on a wooden bench. I hear the faint rhythm of her voice as she shows these modern day children how to make a sweetgrass basket. I pull over to the side of the road to look at the new dock being built across the street. Getting out of the car, I hear a small voice “Granny, I want to hear the stories of the telling tree”. The old woman answers in her rich, sing songy voice “You dem sittin unner de tellin tree. Hunnah mus tek cyear ahde root fah heal de tree”. The children all squeal with delight to hear their Grandmother speak Gullah, the language of the Native Islanders.
She had just told them the Gullah proverb “You need to take care of the root in order to heal the tree”. Gullah is an unwritten language heard along the barrier islands of the south and is hard for outsiders to understand. It was a language born out of necessity in the slave ships and developed through the years into a Caribbean style dialect with African words and sentence structure. Gullah, sometimes called Gee-chee is spoken softly with a rolling rhythm, like wind ruffling the marsh grass.
Slaves were brought to America in the 1600’s from different communities along the Rice Coast of West Africa for their rice and indigo growing skills. Many plantation owners grew the rice known as Carolina Gold and some grew the cotton that became the world renowned, Sea Island Cotton. (Even James Bond demanded Sea Island Cotton shirts!) With the help of these enslaved Africans, the plantation owners became very wealthy. When the Civil War ended in 1865 and the slaves were freed, they weren’t able to leave the islands as there were no bridges and they had no access to boats. The plantation owners were not able to produce crops without their labor so they ended up selling land to freed slaves. That allowed them to hold on to their culture and heritage and to make a living by farming and fishing. Watch this video of Queen Quet, Chieftress of the Gullah/Geechee Nation singing and speaking Gullah:
I get back in my car drive toward the Mitchellville area of Hilton Head and along some of the streets, I see houses with the window and doorframes painted blue to ward off the “haints” (witches and evil spirits). Looking closely I see the inscription of ‘De blu keeps dem Haints away’ on one of the houses. Some of the yards display a blue bottle tree. The belief is that the evil spirits roaming at night take refuge inside the bottles, but at sunrise, they are trapped inside and destroyed by the morning sun.
This rich cultural heritage is preserved and showcased on Hilton Head every February. This month long celebration features a traditional Gullah Gospel Night featuring the Voices of El Shaddai, the acclaimed community choir of the LowCountry, Taste of Gullah, Gullah Gospel Night at Historic St. James Baptist Church and much more! This event has been recognized by the Southeast Tourism Society as one of the Top 20 Events in the Southeast. To learn more go to http://www.gullahcelebration.com/. So, come on down and see this rich heritage for yourself. You may even get to try some hoppin john or sweet potato pie! Tas’e ‘e mout! (something good to eat)
Beach Properties of Hilton Head is offering a Pay for 4 Nights, Stay for 7 Promo during February to celebrate Gullah Month. When you book with Beach Properties they will sweeten the deal with $5 off at Gullah Heritage Trail Tours. Learn more about great places to stay at www.beach-property.com and to learn more about the Native Islanders and the tours available visit Gullah Heritage Trail Tours at http://www.GullahHeritage.com .