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Descendants of African Slaves in Rural South Carolina

Aired February 17, 2002 - 07:32   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: African-Americans, in its most common usage, the term describes blacks in America. But in rural area of South Carolina, there's a group of people that arguably are the most authentic African community in the United States.

Here's Shelley Walcott of CNN student news.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHELLEY WALCOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): St. Helena Island, a rural isolated spot, just off the coast of South Carolina. It is one of several tiny tidewater communities, as draped in moss, as it is in history.

You don't have to go far on St. Helena to hear echoes of this small island's past. Most of the more than 9,000 people who live here are Gullah. They are the descendants of African slaves. West Africans imported in North America during the slave trade.

Arquetta Goodwine, known to locals as Queen Quet, is a community leader.

QUEEN QUET, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: Well, the main difference between Gullah gichi (ph) people and national African-Americans is (INAUDIBLE).

So many times you don't hear other people speak like we do, which is the Gullah language.

WALCOTT: And it is that language, along with the traditional storytelling, cooking and crafts that continue to intrigue visitors to the Barrier Island, many of whom have never even heard of Gullah, a centuries' old culture.

QUET: From the time that our ancestors were enslaved here, most of us still live in that exact same location. And so, we can go to a graveyard burial area, a sacred area, and put our hands on generations and generations of history.

WALCOTT: The story of the Gullah can be traced back to the year 1520. That's when a Spanish explorer named Vasques De Leon, found a cluster of islands off the coast of South Carolina. He named the island group Santa Helene. De Leon realized the marshes, climate and textures of the soil in Santa Helena, were very similar to conditions in West Africa.

This meant it would be possible to grow, among other things, rice, cotton, and spices in the Sea Islands. Goods, which brought a high price on the European market. The De Leon knew people from the West African country of Sierra Leone and surrounding nations, who are experienced in growing these crops.

In 1526, West Africans were brought to the Sea Islands against their will, a move that signalled the start of 335 years of slavery in the low country. The Gullah people, also referred to as "Gichi (ph)" in some parts of the South, are the descendants of various African ethnic groups. Ashantes, Santes, Mandigos, Yorubas and many more.

Some scholars even believe the term "Gullah" comes from Angola because so many slaves came from that country. The Africans were torn from their own flourishing cultures and forced to live together on plantations in the New World.

QUET: As our elders always tell us, them that made them for evil, for God made them for good. So when they put us on the islands, they thought it would break us apart and only force us to assimilate into whatever the Europeans wanted us to do. But instead, we joined together and put together all those languages, all the spiritual practices, all that knowledge. And then evolve the Gullah Gichi (ph) culture.

WALCOTT: A modern culture earmarked with African traditions. It is seen in Gullah arts and crafts. You don't have to go far in the low country to find someone weaving sweet grass baskets, a 1,000-year- old sifting tool first used in the cultivation of rice.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I learned from my grand aunt at the...

WALCOTT: Walcott coil the baskets from bull rush, or sweet grass and strips of palmetto leaves. Using nothing more than a spoon handle or sometimes even a piece of bone. Then there is the Gullah food. Like most Southern fare, it is African influenced, including such staples as seafood, okrah, peanuts, hot peppers and rice.

ELIZABETH SANTAGATI, GULLAH OROB RESTAURANT: One of the things that I found interesting when I went to visit with the Sierra Leone embassy in Washington, D.C. was the fact that rice, red rice, very similar or very much the same as we eat, is one of the staples that they eat in Sierra Leone all the time.

WALCOTT: And there is the Gullah storytelling. Tales of lazy elephants, smart monkeys and cruel masters, an oral tradition making a comeback, as the Gullah people feel renewed pride in speaking the language. But perhaps most striking of all is the Gullah language. It is the only surviving English-based Creole in North America. It is spoken very quickly and very rhythmically. Difficult to understand, even for people who grew up around it.

No one knows exactly how many African Americans around the country can trace the roots to the Gullah culture. But those who remain in the low country say their roots are firmly planted and that Gullah (ph) culture will always be a part of life in the low country.

QUET: We have no intention of going anywhere. We intend to be right here on the Sea Islands forever and ever, just like our ancestors wanted us to do.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WALCOTT: And the story of the Gullah people is uniquely American one. It's a culture nearly 400 years in the making.

MESERVE: And it must be a real struggle, Shelley, in this world to preserve that culture.

WALCOTT: It absolutely is, Jeanne. There are actually two threats to the Gullah culture right now. The first of those is encroachment. There's a lot of resorts in the area where the Gullah people live, areas like Hilton Head, Charleston, a lot of high priced resorts coming into that area. And with the high priced resorts come higher taxes. And the Gullah people don't make a lot of money. A lot of them just can't afford to live in the area anymore. So they're forced to sell of their land and move off of land that has been in their family for generations.

MESERVE: And if people want to learn more, Shelley, where can they learn more?

WALCOTT: They can turn to CNN studentnews.com. Or you can also tune into CNN Student News. That's on Monday to Friday from 4:30 to 5:00 a.m. This and so much more. If there's anything in the news, Gullah or anything else, you can tune to our show and we have a way of just kind of breaking it down for people that like to tune in.

MESERVE: Great, Shelley Walcott. Thanks so much for joining us.

WALCOTT: Thank you.

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