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Bill Will Provide Millions for Gullah Community
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Bill Will Provide Millions for Gullah Community

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Bill Will Provide Millions for Gullah Community

Bill Will Provide Millions for Gullah Community
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President Bush signs into law a bill that would provide $10 million in grant money over the next decade to support and preserve the rich history of the Gullah (or Geechee) culture. Farai Chideya talks with Democratic Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina who led the bill and Emory Campbell, a longtime activist in the Gullah community.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Among America's diverse cultures are the Gullahs and Geechees. They descended from African slaves and preserved the unique language and hallmarks of their African heritage. For years, activists have fought to preserve communities along the coastal islands of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. And now, it looks like their struggles are paying off.

Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina championed the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act that the president signed into law. It provides $10 million in Gullah-Geechee historical grant money over the next decade.

Also, on the line with us, we've got Emory Campbell, a long-time activist in the Gullah community. Mr. Campbell is the former executive director of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, South Carolina.

Congressman, Mr. Campbell, thanks for coming on.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): Hello. How are you? Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's start with this bill. Representative Clyburn, you proposed this in 2004, reintroduced the act last year - signed by the president last Thursday. What does it cover, exactly?

Rep. CLYBURN: Basically, it covers an area along the East and Southeastern coasts of the United States, from around Jacksonville, Florida - just out of Jacksonville, a little place called America's Island. And it follows U.S. Highway 17 through Georgia, through South Carolina, and ends up near Wilmington, North Carolina. This off the coast of this area or these Sea Islands, where a culture developed from people who came here from Africa, many of them became slaves. And many of them after the institution of slavery were sort of isolated on these islands.

And a culture developed, a sort of an amalgamation I would say, of European and African. And because of the isolation, speech, habits, everything just kind of developed on its own. And, of course, in many, many years later, bridges were built to these islands. And then, of course, we saw the gap that crossed fertilization of that culture.

I'm married into that culture. My wife is from Moncks Corner, South Carolina, down near Charleston. I served for a while on 10 community centers board. I was there while Emory Campbell was there for a while. And, of course, I got to really appreciate this culture because my first job out of college was teaching school in Charleston, South Carolina. And the language, the poetry, the songs -all these things, I just became enamored with.

And so when I began to hear and see that this culture was slipping away - let me give you one little example. The baskets, the people who visit Charleston, they see these ladies making these, what we call Gullah baskets.

Well, these baskets, we're making out of something called sweet grass. The sweet grass is slowly slipping away. Why? Because if developers come, we do things to preserve the wetlands and we do things to do what the majority community seemed to think is important. But never do anything to preserve things like sweet grass. And that's what sort of got me moving on this. To see this culture and all the things akin thereto slowly slipping away and nothing being done to preserve and protect it. And so that what this is all about.

CHIDEYA: Mr. Campbell, you know, I've been down in the region - some of the regions where there's this culture. And what I've heard a lot from different local residents is, you know, as people have come in - these developers have come in and built resorts, people who may be part of the Geechee or Gullah culture can't even afford property taxes. So at this point, what kinds of battles do communities face in terms of people being able to stay in the places where they grew up?

Mr. EMORY CAMPBELL (Long-time Activist, Gullah Community; Former Executive Director, Penn Center): Well, I think, you just put your finger on the problem. And I want the publicly now thank Congressman Clyburn for his bold and generous leadership in getting that bill passed that will probably helped to preserve our way of life here as a culture.

But that is the crux of the matter. This is primarily a land ownership based culture because, you know, families of - the land is very important to family. And holding the culture here in this corridor. And yet you - we do have the desirable - the most desirable portion of the country right along the coast here of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, where there's good weather and very, very good beach environment.

And so this land now is sought after, and therefore it becomes very valuable and therefore the tax assessment reflects the value of the land and people income - income of people just don't keep up with that assessment. And so much of the family land has over the years gone up to the tax sale at the courthouse steps, and families just struggle to keep it. And when they cannot longer keep it, they just sell it.

CHIDEYA: Let me go back to you, Rep. Clyburn.

Rep. CLYBURN: Yes.

CHIDEYA: First of all, you're a Democrat.

Rep. CLYBURN: Yes.

CHIDEYA: And this is completely Republican-controlled Congress. How did you even get this bill through? Were there any sticking points?

Rep. CLYBURN: Oh, yeah. It took me almost six years of working on this. The first two years, of course, I got $200,000 to do a study - a two-year study. And when that study was completed, I then took the results of that study and went to my sub-committee with it and I convinced them that this was something that needed to be done.

I worked very closely with the members on the other side. In fact, a staffer on the Republican side, when he saw the bill, he became very enamored with it because his son had just talked to him about Gullah. And he wanted to know the difference. And I had to explain to him that it's Gullah in North and South Carolina, and it's Geechee in Florida and Georgia. But it's all the same culture. And so using that relationship, I then got it through the House. It got hung-up in the Senate for almost three years.

And finally, on the last week of the session before coming out, I went to Senator Orrin Hatch. Senator Hatch is someone who I've gotten to know. We shared a seat on the plane going out to former President Nixon's funeral. I had gone out at one time to play in his golf tournament that raises millions of dollars for Utah charities. And so we have that relationship. And so I called him. And I told him that a hold was on this bill. I needed this bill, that I felt a little bit insulted going back home this year after three years not having it - having gotten it done.

Twenty-four hours later, he called me back and said that he'd consulted with the senator who was holding the bill up and that the bill would be passed that evening. And that's how it happened, the personal relationship that I had developed.

CHIDEYA: Yet that must have made you very joyful. We don't have much time left. I wanted to actually toss something to Mr. Campbell. There was a film called Home Across the Water produced in '92 by a frequent NPR contributor, Ben Shapiro. And it cites Cornelia Bailey, who was raised I guess and born on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Let's listen to what she has to say.

(Soundbite of movie “Home Across the Water”)

Ms. CORNELIA BAILEY (Native Geechee): People come in and said you all need to preserve this just the way it is. But if you preserve it just the way it is, it's sure as heck going to die. You can't stop time. Because if we stop it just the way it is and we want it back just like this. Do no changes. Then, what do we got? Nothing. You stalemate it. So we've got to look toward the future a bit. We can't just do the present. And we can't use the past too much because we done passed that stage.

CHIDEYA: Mr. Campbell, your communities are ones where, you know, we talked about the property tax issue. Representative Clyburn brought up the sweetgrass issue, you know, the traditional crafts being endangered. And what Cornelia Bailey was saying was we can't just turn to the past. So what is the future of the Gullah and Geechee communities?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, the future has to include some of the present and the future, but it also has to include, or it could include, some of the past traditions. No culture is static. We move with time. But all cultures have valuable assets that can move with time, such as the sweetgrass basket. It has changed its use from utilitarian items in the house to now commemorative art. Food ways that we once used and passed traditional food is now making its way into mainstream America, just like the language.

We have words like tote that are now made it into the mainstream of American and European language. So the assets that can be used as the culture moves from one state to the other are the things that we must protect.

CHIDEYA: Rep. Clyburn, very briefly, only a minute left. What would you like to see this bill do in terms of preserving this culture?

Rep. CLYBURN: Emory Campbell has put his thumb right on the throttle on this. That's exactly what this is all about. I just chuckle when you talk about the tote bag. It's interesting to go in stores and see that being marketed. That's Gullah. These baskets, that's Gullah. There's the whole food thing that develops that's so Gullah. The music. I'm really looking forward to that because, you know, I get carried away really when I hear this music (unintelligible). Those songs just - they do something to me.

And so I think that's what we're trying to do here. He's right. Things develop, they moved forward. But just because they moved forward, it does not mean you have to leave anything behind. We carry it with us. We learn to appreciate it. And I mean people then tend to understand who and what we are. These words, words like (unintelligible), I have always been enamored with these words that have so much meaning, and then people hear them and get confused by it. So if we learn these cultures and we learn how things came into being, then we'll have a better appreciation for each other. And so I think it's important for us to do this and…

CHIDEYA: All right.

Rep. CLYBURN: I am just excited about it.

CHIDEYA: Congressman, we're going to have to break off here. Congressman James Clyburn and activist…

Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Emory Campbell, thank you so much.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Thank you for having us.

CHIDEYA: And coming up, two Republican senators call for a new plan in Iraq. And privacy protections: Are Americans really concerned? We'll discuss this on the Roundtable next.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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