Fighting to Preserve Gullah Community Off South Carolina's Sea Coast sits a quiet, unassuming community, rich with the West African Gullah culture. Longtime Gullah community activist Emory Campbell talks about his people's history and the effort to preserve their legacy.
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Fighting to Preserve Gullah Community

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Fighting to Preserve Gullah Community

Fighting to Preserve Gullah Community

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Away from South Carolina's frantic politicking, they're like quiet communities on the seaside of the state. It's an area where some roads remain unpaved. Women sell their hand-woven baskets and people have a language of their own. These people are the Gullah, descendants of slaves who have developed their own distinct culture.

Here to tell us more about the history, traditions, and language of the Gullah people is Emory Campbell. He's a fourth generation Gullah family member and runs Gullah Heritage Trail Tours in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Thanks for coming on.

Mr. EMORY CAMPBELL (Fourth Generation Gullah Family Member; Head, Gullah Heritage Trail Tours): Thank you, Farai. Nice to be here.

CHIDEYA: So, Emery, let's find out a little bit more about where you started and your family. You grew up in Hilton Head. And a lot of folks know it now as a resort town, but I'm sure it's changed a lot. What do you remember from your childhood?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, I remember Hilton Head when they were only about 1,500 people, at most, living here. I grew up here in the '40s and the '50s and I tell folks that I thought everybody in the world was Gullah except Dick and Jane.

CHIDEYA: So what does Gullah mean to you? What does it mean in terms of how you speak, how you dress, how you tell stories? Tell us what it means on the inside to be a part of Gullah culture.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, to be a part of Gullah culture meant that you pretty much knew who you were - we still do know who we are. And by that, I mean, everything that we saw when we grew up, Gullah people produce it - we produce our own food, we produce our own stories because we told them to one another, and made our boats, gather our own food, had our own spiritual life because we have little praise houses in every neighborhood. And the leaders of those praise houses were Gullah family members. And family was very important because families live close together. To us, Gullah was a world to itself.

CHIDEYA: There is a sense that the Gullah people have retained a lot of West African traditions. What do you see in Gullah culture that you identify as having roots in Africa?

Mr. CAMPBELL: I think the closeness of the family is the most visible sign of Africa here now because we live close to the land and we are very, very connected family wise. And the other thing is our food ways. We always like rice. We grew it for a short period of time, but we always bought rice as a staple, and along with the African crops that we grew like okra and sweet potatoes and sugar cane and watermelon. We can relate that to West Africa.

CHIDEYA: A lot of us associate rice with Asian foods. But in fact, some of the cultivation techniques that were used here in America are ones that you can trace to Africa. What do you think people need to know about the ways that Gullah families have kept tradition alive that that's important to all Americans?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, I think people need to know that the Gullah tradition has sustained African-Americans. African-Americans are rooted in the Gullah culture to the spiritual life to family and childrearing, the extended family, where it took a village to raise a child. I think people need to know that all of that is rooted in the Gullah culture. People need to understand that Gullah people have a history of contribution to America, including the development of the rice fields, the labor that was put into the economy here.

At the start of the Civil War, people need to know that the South where most Gullah people have lived and contributed had some 80 percent of the national gross product was, right here in the south, contributed by West Africans.

CHIDEYA: When you think about the things that are going on now that have to do with Gullah families not being able to afford some of the property taxes on their own lands, land being sold to developers and condos or resorts going up, are we seeing the end of the Gullah culture? If not, what will allow the culture to keep on going?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, it's frightening watch how the culture is being overtaken by wealth. And strangely enough, Gullah people have - some Gullah people have the thoughts that, you know, by getting rid of the land, it can become wealthy too. But that has not been the case as we watched over the last 20 years. And so, we have a little hope in the Gullah Heritage Corridor that was established back in 2005, 2006, where we have a commission that's looking at how we can preserve those aspects of the Gullah culture that can contribute to the sustenance of the culture. We haven't had a meeting yet, but the 15-member commission is going to be meeting soon and hopefully on a regular basis to work with local governments on how we could save or preserve the Gullah culture.

CHIDEYA: So what do you do when you take people on your heritage tours? If I were to come over to you and ask to take one of your tours, what would you show me?

Mr. CAMPBELL: First, I'll be delighted if you did. And - but what we do, we go through 10 neighborhoods that - we're the only neighborhood here before development. And so we have a good view of what was before we sought development and we can explain life, as I just explained to you how Gullah people lived before, as we said, before the bridge. But these neighborhoods are actual witnesses to history and the history of the culture. So we point out all of these intricacies of these neighborhoods to the - to our visitors and give them a lesson on the Gullah culture.

CHIDEYA: Now, I understand that there was translation of the New Testament into Gullah. Were you involved with that?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes. We got involved and that's 25 years ago. And it took us about 25 years to get it done. We met monthly. And - well, actually, we met like biweekly and just phonetically translate it - every word in the New Testament to Gullah.

CHIDEYA: Can you read something for us, a short passage?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, why don't I read just the first few verses of the Lord's Prayer that most people are familiar with?

CHIDEYA: That would be wonderful.

Mr. CAMPBELL: We say a prayer like this, I'll say. We Fada wa dey een heaben, leh ebrybody hona ya name. We pray dat soon ya gwine rule oba de wol. Wasoneba ting ya wahn, leh um be so een dis wol same like dey een heaben. Gii we de food wa we need dis day yah an ebry day. Fagib we fa we sin, same like we da fagib dem people wa do bad ta we. Leh we dohn hab haad test wen Satan try we. Keep we fom ebil.

CHIDEYA: Well, Emory Campbell, it's been a delight to talk to you. Take care.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Same here. Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with longtime fellow community activist Emory Campbell.

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NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Tomorrow, I-95. It's a major highway with decrepit rural schools alongside the path. We take a walk down South Carolina's corridor of shame.

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I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & Notes.

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