I would love to take this tour. So many fascinating (albeit horrifying) pieces of our nation’s history are highlighted. Underground railroad, black slave owners, paved over cemeteries, middle passage “reception,” color hierarchy. I’m elated by the notion of forsaking shame and guilt in favor of honest discussion to ensure that this never happens again. I’d like to think that “it” happening again is an impossibility, and that now our ultimate goal is to get rid of the vestiges of slavery. Clearly we’re making progress.
Taking a Gullah tour of Charleston
BY SARAH STAPLES
The biggest hint that Charleston is a very different breed of Southern Belle — and that I’m on no ordinary city tour — comes as our air-conditioned mini-bus reaches the mainly African-American east side, a warren of economically deprived streets framing what was once an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
I look up to see a most unusual Star Spangled Banner flying bold African colors of red, black and green from a worn-looking flagpole. It’s an expression of indomitable Gullah pride, explains tour guide Alphonso Brown.
Like many living in the east side, Brown himself is Gullah: a descendant of slaves who endured the brutal “middle passage” from West Africa and the Caribbean during the 18th century, landing at Charleston’s bustling port before being sent to toil on plantations across the South.
Brown’s popular Gullah Tour, which marks its 25th anniversary this year, brims with atypical landmarks like this flag, as it excavates vestiges of an uglier time hidden amid the exquisite cobblestone streets and pastel-painted Georgian home fronts.
A multi-million-dollar waterfront estate, for example, looks impressive — until it is revealed to have been built by a rich slave ship proprietor who added slave quarters and a threatening-looking spiked gate to pen in human chattel. Later, we stop and stretch our legs in a parking lot owned by a Catholic church. It turns out to conceal the paved-over graves of freed slaves, for it was once their cemetery.
And the bus rolls on.
It’s potentially uncomfortable subject matter for his mixed-race audience, but Brown manages to keep the atmosphere light, sprinkling his commentary with anecdotes and jokes, and slipping in and out of the sing-songy Creole of his forefathers. “I-eh hab disshuh dreem,” he recites in Gullah. “We hol’ dees trut’ fuh be sef-ebbuhdent, dat all man duh mek equal.”
Plumped with West-African and Elizabethan English influences, Gullah was initially spoken in secret and spread wherever slaves were taken, along the coast and barrier islands as far as Georgia, and down to around Jacksonville, Fla.
Sullivan’s Island, opposite Charleston, became the macabre version of Ellis: a processing station where newly arrived slaves were kept in preventive isolation before their auction at The Old Slave Mart downtown, which today is a museum.
When the Civil War ended, emancipated blacks stayed on the barrier islands, renting rooms from former masters or squatting on abandoned plantations. In their isolation — bridges were few — they incubated the distinctive Gullah body of traditions for cooking, planting, fishing, praying and burying that are subtly evident throughout Charleston and the Lowcountry today.
Front porches in the city, we learn, often face southeast for shade, as per the African custom. Charlestonians were early, enthusiastic practitioners of root medicine and witchcraft. In literature, the tales of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox derive from West African oral storytelling. And characteristic dishes, from spicy stone ground grits and shrimp to slippery-smooth okra gumbo, are Gullah to the core.
The inside of Brown’s mini-bus is ringed with pictures of inspiring Gullah throughout history and modern times. Among them is Clarence Thomas, second black appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Philip Simmons, lauded by the Smithsonian Institution as a National Folk Treasure for his ornamental iron gates, which dress many of the city’s architectural landmarks.
Politically, we learn, the Gullah have been determined organizers of abolitionist and Civil Rights movements. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often retreated to St. Helena Island’s Penn Center — where one of America’s first schools for freed slaves was established — and may have begun drafting his 1963 I have a dream speech there.
More recently, in the run-up to the last presidential election, the Gullahs’ organized support for Barack Obama helped him clinch the crucial South Carolina primary.
Brown, who grew up in nearby Rantowles — not far from the site of the failed Stono River Rebellion of 1739, in which runaway slaves killed 20 whites before they were themselves slain — is justifiably proud of his ancestors’ achievements and defiant will.
He doesn’t deliver history in monochrome. Brown’s choice of material portrays a complex view of race relations in Charleston, which even during slavery was never officially segregated. We’re told, for example, that one of the richest freed black families was the DeReefs, whose patriarch, Richard Edward DeReef, owned multiple businesses — and at least 16 slaves.
Color was such a delineator of social status that freed “octoroons,” who had one-eighth black blood, judged themselves superior to “quadroons” with one-quarter slave ancestry. They, in turn, held themselves above mulattos, the children of white fathers who were often referred to, in delicate conversation, as “friends.” The divisions were physically embodied in the city’s many integrated churches, where slaves worshipped from the balconies while freed blacks sat behind whites in the lower pews.
A SENSE OF PRIDE
Two hours speed by on this tour. Brown makes it clear that Gullah traditions thriving in secrecy and isolation for centuries have more recently become a source of civic pride. Efforts to preserve and celebrate the culture are being stepped up, he says. And events, such as the Gullah Festival in Beaufort each May, or the Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration every second weekend in November, draw ever-growing crowds.
“Slavery was always a taboo subject: blacks were ashamed and whites felt guilty,” says Chuma Nwokike, owner of Gallery Chuma, which hosts works depicting traditional activities like crabbing and sweetgrass basket-sewing. The gallery doubles as rendezvous point for Brown’s tour.
“Now, the younger generation wants to acknowledge what went on, so we’re better able to come together and say, ‘how can we make sure it never happens again?’ ”