- Associated Press - Saturday, January 7, 2017

CONWAY, S.C. (AP) - Students at Coastal Carolina University will begin fieldwork studying the Gullah-Geechee culture this spring.

The Gullah-Geechee culture is made up of descendents of West African slaves brought to the Southeast United States in the 1700s for purposes of rice cultivation, said institute director and CCU professor Veronica Davis Gerald.

Students at The Charles Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies will do fieldwork examining the impact that the Gullah culture and its diaspora has had on South Carolina and the Grand Strand, as well as studying how public policy and tourism has affected the culture.

Fieldwork

Gerald said the institute will allow students from other areas of study to look at the connections between the Gullah-Geechee culture and each student’s major or minor.

“If you’re an archeologist you might be interested in digging at a plantation or an area where slave cabins were,” said Gerald. “If you’re a historian you might be interested in the story of what happened when the people at the Brookgreen plantation remained on the plantation after freedom.”

Some activities in the institute could involve printing the stories of “elderly” members of the Gullah-Geechee community and reciprocal learning, during which students could listen to stories from aging members of the Gullah-Geechee population and in turn teach them skills such as using email.

Other focuses will be public policy and tourism, said Gerald.

“If you go to any welcome center coming into South Carolina that has brochures and marketing stuff related to South Carolina, I would imagine 80 percent of them have a Sweetgrass basket on them,” she said. “So when people come allured into the state with the offer of a culture that is unique, people come. But are the Gullah-Geechee getting any economic benefit from it?”

Gerald said she’s heard from students expressing interest in the program from as far away as Oklahoma, but she wants the institute to focus on CCU students during its formative years.

Right now, students at CCU can get minor in African diaspora studies, but Gerald hopes a degree in Gullah-Geechee studies will be available in four or five years.

Public policy and social justice

Kelly Shelton, a senior political science and philosophy major with a focus on sustainability is one of the students interning with the program in 2017.

Veronica Gerald knew of my interest in the Gullah-Geechee and she actually asked me to be a part of the program,” said Shelton. “And I had shown her so much interest in asking about her culture and interviewing constituents of hers in the culture so she knew of my passion for the Gullah-Geechee.”

Shelton’s father was a commercial fisherman and she grew up in Georgetown, Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Island, which she said gave her an appreciation for the culture.

Her focus in the institute will focus on policy and social justice.

“We’re looking to help that community, to give a voice to their community in the state legislature, to implement policy to protect their land loss,” said Shelton, referring to recent events in Plantersville, S.C., where residents who didn’t pay a $250 fee for a new sewer system faced the loss of their homes at auction.

“My role in institute will be working on social justice issues, listening to people’s stories, letting their voices be heard, translating that into policies to protect them, their land their way of life, their natural resources,” she said.

A living culture

One objective of the institute will be making the public aware that the Gullah-Geechee culture is still active.

“It is alive and kicking,” said Gerald. “We have been depicted as a kind of historic relic. In most cases when I go speak, people will say ‘Oh, you don’t look Gullah’ because they’re looking for the head rags, the apron, the outfit. In that existence, my character is not there. Michelle Obama’s character is not there, Clarence Thomas’ character is not there because we are not historic relics but we are Gullah-Geechee.”

The 8.2-million-acre Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which extends from Wilmington, N.C. to Jacksonville, Fla., is the only one of 49 national heritage areas that focuses on an existing population.

“This is a living culture,” said Gerald. “We’re still moving and living and breathing and surviving. We still have issues. What we need is people to praise our history and our accomplishments… But we now have other things going on.”

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Information from: The Sun News, https://www.thesunnews.com/

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