Where Sherman marched, a corridor still connects Africa and America
HARRIS NECK, Ga. — “I have tried white men and they have cheated me,’’ Margaret Harris, for whom this place is named, wrote in 1865, explaining why she willed her property to Robert Delegal, “my slave, now a freed man.’’
As tour guide Wilson Moran maneuvers the rural byways of his ancestor, the moss-draped vistas trigger an outpouring of stories, as if the land in all its centuries is hard-wired to his brain. He conjures the orchards of freed men whose farms were co-opted for an airstrip, then a wildlife refuge. He points — “There’’ — into the woods where his grandfather’s house stood.
How do we give voice to the voiceless? How do we recapture what has almost been erased? In the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor — an area spanning the rice belt from Wilmington, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., once cultivated by West African slaves — the answer could be a praise house (secret house of worship), a plate of fresh-caught whiting, or a language.
“Ah wakuh muh monuh kambay yah lee luh lay tambay,’’ Moran’s mother, Mary, sings in Gullah/Geechee, the African-European admixture that is America’s only Creole. The song recorded in 1933 by linguist Lorenzo Turner was sung by Mary’s mother, handed down the maternal generations from Sierra Leone. It is part of a groundbreaking exhibit of Turner’s work at the Smithsonian’s Community Anacostia Museum.
Of 49 heritage areas managed by the National Park Service, only Gullah/Geechee corridor celebrates the culture linking Africa and the United States. One hundred fifty years after the start of the Civil War, it encompasses the land claimed by Union Army General William T. Sherman at the end of his march from Atlanta to Savannah and the sea:
“The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free,’’ Sherman declared in Special Field Order No. 15. Within the year, some 40,000 free families settled on Sherman lands. Then President Lincoln was assassinated. President Andrew Johnson revoked the order and white ownership resumed.
“But African-Americans were not simply waiting for the government to provide them with 40 acres and a mule,’’ says Karen Cook-Bell, a history professor at Towson University in Baltimore. “They secured land through kinship networks, the good will of white landowners, and savings.’’ Since 2006, communities working with Park Service coordinator Michael Allen have cataloged hundreds of Gullah/Geechee sites and added hundreds of hours of oral history to the record. With offerings such as the Harris Neck Cultural Tour springing up across the corridor, you can touch down almost anywhere and find stories.
NORTH CAROLINA In the heart of Wilmington, Bellamy Mansion is more than a beautiful antebellum town home. Its brick slave quarters are a rare artifact of urban house servant life. In the main house, look to the ceiling for the initials WBG inscribed in the ornate plaster detailing, the handiwork of William Benjamin Gould I, who could read and write when it was illegal for slaves to do so. Before rowing from Orange Street Landing to freedom in Massachusetts, he signed the molding as a parting shot.
On nearby Princess Street, try pan-roasted crab cakes with ginger, an old Geechee recipe, at Keith Rhodes’s restaurant Catch; then head to Route 17 and Poplar Grove. Have you heard of the Civil War song “Eating Goober Peas’’? While other Wilmington plantations grew rice, the crop that saved Poplar Grove after emancipation was the West African peanut. Owner James Foy Jr. freed his slaves in 1835 and they remained with him as tenant farmers, even loaning him tax money after the war. Beyond the property find Foy Town, where descendants still live, and emancipation-era St. Stephens African Methodist Episcopal Church. If you can shuck an oyster, pick up a bushel at Nixon’s Oyster Plant (6955 Market St.). Nixon was the last occupant of the Poplar Grove tenant house.
SOUTH CAROLINA Freed slaves occupied much of Hilton Head after the Union capture of Port Royal. Created by Emory Campbell, Gullah Tours visits 10 neighborhoods where descendants still live on lands their ancestors purchased from their earnings as sharecroppers for about $1.25 an acre. Fuel up here on whole roast fish at Roastfish and Cornbread, or the Lowcountry boil at Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s.
“The Gullah word for real estate is home,’’ says the Penn Center’s Walter Mack on St. Helena Island, a time warp of spartina marshes and u-pick farms that avoided Hilton Head’s fate. Penn Center was one of the first schools for freed slaves, started by Quaker missionaries in 1862 and built by its students. With a museum and important collections, the center today helps people preserve their culture and lands — so much so that “locally grown on St. Helena’’ is gaining countywide buzz. Visit communities named for former plantations whose layouts still resemble those of African villages. See the work of local self-taught artists at Red Piano Too (870 Sea Island Parkway). Order boiled shrimp fresh from the dock at the Shrimp Shack, and shrimp gumbo at Gullah Grub (both on Sea Island Parkway).
From landmarks such as the Old Slave Mart to the artisanry of Antwon Ford, a rising star of Gullah sweetgrass basketry, tour guide Alphonso Brown will show you a Charleston you have never seen. Take the tour extension ($5) or continue on your own to McLeod Plantation on James Island. After its takeover by Union troops, McLeod served as the headquarters of the Freedmen’s Bureau, charged with enacting Field Order 15, while its drawing room became a hospital for black soldiers of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments. For lunch, head to Mount Pleasant, where Charlotte Jenkins does okra gumbo at Gullah Cuisine.
GEORGIA “This is not your mother or father’s tour,’’ says Jamal Touré as he leads Savannah visitors past a restored 18th-century River Street warehouse bearing a remarkable architectural resemblance to West African slave factories. His Gullah/Geechee minibus itinerary explores the roots of Southern cuisine and descends to the basement of the country’s oldest black church, where slaves hid, breathing through air vents in the ceiling en route to freedom. For the ultimate eat-pray-love experience, sing along at a United House of Prayer Sunday service (2301 West Bay St.), then hit the church’s soul food buffet.
For the adventurous, south of Savannah and east of Route 17 is Riceboro, formerly home to over 100 rice plantations, today home to families descended from their slaves. “This whole area was like an African Mende village,’’ says Jim Bacote, who runs Geechee Kunda, a museum and retreat, on lands of the former Joseph Jones Retreat plantation where his grandfather’s grandfather worked. The area aptly named Liberty County was occupied before emancipation by federal troops who enticed slaves to “come and be free.’’ Its isolation preserved their ways to an unusual degree. Geechee Kunda attracts writers, scholars, and the curious for a crash course in Gullah culture. With a few days’ notice it’s possible to experience story-telling, medicine and superstition, the ring shout (a religious circle dance), or a Georgia Geechee fry-up of native shrimp, fresh whiting, fried sweet potatoes and okra ($25; 622 Ways Temple Road).
FLORIDA Dolphins and dazzling white sandbars are reasons to paddle Fort George Island creek with Kayak Amelia (www.kayakamelia.com). The other is Florida’s oldest extant plantation, named for its maverick pre-Civil War owner Zephaniah Kingsley, a planter-slave trader who bought and married 13-year-old Anna Madgigine Jai from Senegal. What they lack in grandeur the wooden main house and grounds make up for in interpretation and evocative beauty, including the rare restored walls of tabby slave huts. Predating emancipation, Kingsley’s marriage, tolerated under Spanish law, made him an outspoken advocate of liberal race relations when Florida became a US territory in 1821 — not for freedom per se, but in the interests of a more harmonious slavery.
“Freedom for blacks came 130 years before the Civil War in St. Augustine,’’ says Derek Hankerson, a local tour guide. In 1733, a Spanish edict offered slaves in British-held South Carolina freedom if they could escape to Florida, convert to Roman Catholicism, and fight for Spain. “The first underground railroad ran south,’’ Hankerson says. So a free black settlement, Fort Mose, was born. With 300 muskets, knives, and spears, the tiny force of blacks and Yamassee Indians turned back British forces, eventually forcing England to the bargaining table to gain Florida.
Beyond the interpretive center, a hint of a path leads to the original site beside the river. Like many sites in the heritage corridor, the physical remains are lost. Wind soughs in the pine trees. Oyster shells cover the ground.
In Savannah, Touré tells tour guests, “You can see Africa all around you, all the time. You just have to open your mind’s eye.’’
Patricia Borns can be reached at email@example.com.