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CCU Magazine feature, Voices of Gullah by Trisha O'Connor. Image of Anita Singleton-Prather as Aunt Perlie Sue

Soloists Rosa and Joseph Murray in their living room on St. Helena Island
Soloists Rosa and Joseph Murray in their living room on St. Helena Island (photo by Amanda O’Brien).

Student photographers Emily Munn and Amanda O'Brien taking the Murrays' portrait.
Student photographers Emily Munn and Amanda O’Brien taking the Murrays’ portrait (photo by Armon Means).

Soloist James Garfield Smalls during his interview with Eric Crawford on his farm on St. Helena Island
Soloist James Garfield Smalls during his interview with Eric Crawford on his farm on St. Helena Island (photo by Brant Barrett).

Coffin Point Praise House, one of the three remaining praise houses on the island.
Coffin Point Praise House, one of the three remaining praise houses on the island (photo by Lauren Rose).

Soloist Minnie Gracie Gadson in front of her house on St. Helena Island.
Soloist Minnie Gracie Gadson in front of her house on St. Helena Island (photo by Amanda O’Brien).

Chapel of Ease, St. Helena Island.
Chapel of Ease, St. Helena Island

One of the cultural glories of South Carolina is becoming endangered. A group of Coastal Carolina University faculty and students are studying Gullah and preserving its voices in creative ways.

A major creative effort to embrace and preserve Gullah culture, particularly the spirituals sung in the praise houses of St. Helena Island, near Beaufort, S.C., has connected Coastal Carolina University students and faculty from four different departments in a year of study and experience, work that is just beginning.

What began as a project proposal for CCU’s Athenaeum Press is now a CD box set and a digital publication that will secure the music and culture for generations to come. The project, Gullah: The Voice of an Island, involves students and faculty in the departments of music recording, English, history and visual arts and encompasses the music, history, culture and language of the island’s people as part of a multi-year focus on the Gullah culture in the South Carolina Lowcountry. 

‌The students’ task was to understand Gullah origins and to create ways to use the past as a means for culture survival. Gullah people have lived along the South Carolina coast since they were first brought from West Africa as slaves in the early 1800s.  

Due to St. Helena Island’s geographic isolation, many of the Gullah spirituals have remain unchanged for more than 100 years and still retain melodies, song texts and rhythms from West Africa and the early South. The advanced age of the few remaining song leaders and the changing lives of the current generation of Gullah makes the preservation effort an urgent concern. 

CCU senior Tevin Turner’s defining moment for the project came as he sat in Deacon James Garfield’s living room on St. Helena Island while the 93-year-old sang his signature spirituals. Turner was recording the songs and conversation with Garfield which he later edited and mixed in the University’s state-of-the-art recording studio. 

“He gave us a sacred entrée into his life. It’s why I work on the music with such great care,”  Turner said. “You can’t search the internet for this, so preserving it is so important.”

Coastal junior Derek Barthiaume recalled being part of an island praise or pray’s  (short for prayers) service that showed him the uniqueness of Gullah music and culture.

“I wasn’t prepared for the energy that was about to fill that tiny room that day. The performers came in first and then others from the community. And the songs just spontaneously began. One person shouts out the first line, and all join in. Children, young people, everyone knew the words,” Barthiaume said.

 “It was like the entire community came together.”

The project began as an extension of a collaboration between Matt White, CCU assistant professor of music, and Eric Crawford, a music professor at Norfolk State University who has researched the St. Helena Island Gullah community for more than eight years. Gullah music and culture had been the focus of academic research around the turn of the 20th century and during the 1970s, but has been largely ignored, according to White. 

“Gullah music is the missing component if you want to understand American music,” White said. “There is a uniqueness to it, to the songs, to the rhythms. It is why preserving and understanding it is important.”

Four of the island’s aging song leaders are featured on the CD box set—Deacon Garfield, Deacon Joseph and Rosa Murray and Minnie Grace Gadson—and each of them has taken particular songs as their own. During services, these elders lead the congregation’s singing.

The spirituals have become synonymous with song leaders as they have been sung, without instrumentation, for hundreds of years, the words and rhythms passed down through generations.

Minnie Gracie Gadson, who is featured on the CD, has “her” songs that are her favorites to perform, including “Adam in the Garden.” 

 “When she sings it, the power in the words and the voice wash over you,” said Barthiaume, who conducted historical research for the project.

Photography students faced a special challenge as they worked to respect the sacred space inside the island’s praise houses while documenting the services. 

“Respecting the wishes of the community and their traditions was, of course, our first priority,” said Armon Means, assistant professor of visual arts at CCU. “But it became the hard part when your goal is to capture something specific.”

Alli Crandell, digital content manager in the Edwards College, directed the students as they coordinated the multiple parts of the work.

“The goal for both the music and digital components was to provide an emotional connection for the audience,” Crandell said. “It is creating a link to today. This is not a tradition that is passing or dying; it is transitioning as the next generation takes over.”

The digital publication interweaves oral history and song with historical documents to provide context for the spirituals, according to Crandell. A partnership with St. Helena’s Penn Center, the site of one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves and one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence, was important to the work as staff there shared historic photographs and other material with students and faculty.

Because student experiential, “hands-on” learning was central to the preservation effort, faculty members underscored student learning and ownership of the work.

Jen Boyle, associate professor of English who directed the project’s digital publication, described a discussion about preserving and explaining Gullah culture that resulted in insights she believes students could not have reached if the project involved only readings and classroom discussion and not multiple trips to the island.

“One particular student looked up at the group and said, ‘You know, I’m not sure about how we are using the word culture in this; these people are not exotics but members of American society and members of our community.’ 

“He was articulating our deep and complex relationship to those who both live right next to us and a world apart. And guiding students to a point where they understand the delicate choreography of weaving together pieces of a canvas—a text, an image, a scene—with direct and imagined fragments of lived experience is a rare and lovely event and typically takes time. Here, it was in a moment,” Boyle said. 

 The digital publication took the students into work that is only happening at a few universities as they discussed virtual/online artifacts and preservation, and how the organization and maintenance of the artifacts—visual, aural and textual—has tremendous implications for diversifying readership, according to Boyle.

Scott Mann, assistant professor of visual arts who guided the design of the CD set and its accompanying booklet, said the experience of producing a quality, complete body of work as an undergraduate provided countless benefits for students, including the opportunity to work in a “real world” team environment with cross collaboration and decision making. 

Recording music studio student Turner said his participation helped him see his future more clearly.

“Now, I can see myself doing this kind of work forever. Working on the Gullah preservation has opened up a whole lot of opportunities for me that I never thought of,” he said. “This CD is like my baby now. I can see my name on it.”

The St. Helena Island project is the first phase of an expanded study of Gullah music, history, culture and language and is published by the Athenaeum Press, a part of the Edwards College.

Beginning in the fall semester, students will focus the project’s second phase in the Waccamaw Neck and across Georgetown and Horry counties.

Dan Ennis, dean of the Edwards College, said the Gullah project represents a renewed commitment to the study and preservation of Gullah heritage and the continuation of the scholarship begun by Charles Joyner and other Coastal faculty members.

“We are making this a permanent part of our educational offerings at CCU,” Ennis said. 

Trisha O’Connor is Media Executive-in-Residence in CCU’s Department of Communications, Languages and Cultures.

Veronica Gerald
Veronica Gerald
Charles Joyner
Charles Joyner
Jim Michie
Jim Michie

Gullah and CCU

Coastal Carolina University has a long and distinguished academic connection to the study and preservation of Gullah.

Veronica Gerald, who has been on the CCU English faculty since 1980, has spent more than 25 years bringing attention to the importance of recognizing and preserving the history and culture of the Gullah Geechee people. Given a leave of absence by CCU in 2000, she spent two years as director of history and culture at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, the site of one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves. A recipient of the South Carolina Governor’s Award in Humanities, Gerald is a descendant of Gullah Geechee slaves who worked on Brookgreen and Longwood plantations in Georgetown County. Long known for her expertise and commitment to the preservation of Gullah culture, she was appointed Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commissioner by the U.S. Department of Interior in 2005. She is coauthor of The Ultimate Gullah Cookbook: a Taste of Food, History and Culture from the Gullah People and co-owner of Ultimate Gullah, a gift shop that focuses on art and crafts created and/or inspired by the Gullah Geechee people. She has led numerous community outreach projects that promote awareness of Gullah, including her scholarship, lectures and dramatic performances. 

Charles Joyner, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Southern History and Culture at CCU, is an eminent scholar of American slavery. Joyner, who taught at CCU from 1988 to 2006, is best known for his groundbreaking work, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (1984), a chronicle of rice plantations of the Waccamaw Neck that won the National University Press Book Award. The book carefully reconstructs the daily life of this vibrant Gullah community, covering its language, religion, folk traditions and music. His other books include Remember Me: Slave Life in Coastal Georgia and Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture. Joyner was also narrator and principle consultant for the film Gullah Tales (1988), which was nominated for an Academy Award for best short subject. 

Coastal Carolina University has also led archaeological projects that have contributed to the study of Gullah history in South Carolina. The late Jim Michie, who laid the foundation for CCU’s Center for Archaeology and Anthropology, conducted excavations of Mansfield, Wachesaw, Richmond Hill, the Oaks and other area plantations beginning in the 1980s.

Cover Art

Painting "Yellow Boat" by Jonathan Green. Oil on Linen
Yellow Boat” 2000, Oil on Linen
48”x 60” © Jonathan Green

The painting on the cover of this issue of Coastal Carolina University Magazine is by Jonathan Green, an internationally recognized artist who has been profoundly influenced by Gullah. Green received an honorary degree, Doctor of Fine Arts, from Coastal Carolina University in December 2009, and he delivered the commencement address. 

A native of Gardens Corner, S.C., he was one of the first known artists of Gullah heritage to receive formal training at a professional art school, the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1982. While his appeal and perspective are truly modern and cosmopolitan, Green looks to the familiar images of his ancestral home for the subjects of his paintings. 

Green has received numerous awards throughout the United States for his art and his contributions to cultural and educational institutions. His work can be viewed at Jonathan Green Studios on Daniel Island, S.C. or at jonathangreenstudios.com.

Cover of Gullah: The Voice of an Island - a multimedia, multidimensional look at the music, history, culture and language of the Gullah people of South Carolina. In its first year, this two-year project will focus first on the spirituals and praise houses of St. Helena Island.

‌Gullah: The Voice of an Island

‌The CD and accompanying booklet on the St. Helena Island spirituals is available for purchase at theathenaeumpress.com, Amazon.com, and the CCU bookstore. A portion of the proceeds go to preservation of the praise houses on St. Helena Island.