Mary Ann Chastain  /  AP
Alphonso Brown, who operates Gullah Tours, discusses tourists' increased interest in learning about Gullah culture in Charleston, S.C.
updated 4/24/2007 5:05:22 PM ET 2007-04-24T21:05:22

For decades here, there was little mention of the rich culture of the descendants of black slaves, many of whom lived as farmers and fisherfolk on the nearby sea islands.

Euphemisms used by whites helped obscure their history. The Civil War was sometimes referred to as "the recent unpleasantness." Slaves became servants; slave quarters became carriage houses.

Despite rewriting reality and the lack of recognition from outsiders, the culture of West African slaves was nourished by their descendants. The isolation of the sea islands where they lived helped keep their language, arts and traditions largely intact.

But now this culture - known as Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Florida and Georgia - is being noticed and sought out. Government officials and cultural institutions are taking measures to preserve and promote the uniqueness of Gullah culture.

And bus tours, restaurants, museums and galleries are attracting a growing number of tourists searching for the full history of the region.

"It's like the hidden secret that no one ever talked about," said Alphonso Brown, who grew up Gullah on a farm without running water and now runs Gullah Tours. "Of course if there is something that is hidden and then revealed, everyone is talking about it."

Gullah communities were established on the sea islands by freed slaves after the Civil War. Most made their livings as fisherfolk or as farmers tending fields of vegetables and row crops.

Brown, a retired school teacher and band director, has been giving his tours for more than two decades. When he started, the busiest times were in the spring and fall, the top tourism seasons in Charleston. Now he's booked year-round, except for January when the winter slows business. Even then, he gives tours for corporate groups.

His tours provide a glimpse of things one might miss on a more traditional tour of the city's pastel buildings and historic sites.

Slideshow: Southern comforts There's the Old Slave Mart; a house lived in by Denmark Vesey, who planned an 1822 slave insurrection; and Catfish Row, which inspired the George Gershwin opera "Porgy and Bess."

"There are slave quarters all over the place," says Brown, who navigates the narrow city streets in a small white bus. "The house guides and the Realtors and other people don't say 'slave quarters,' they say 'carriage houses' or 'servants' quarters' or 'dependencies.'"

Brown's tours depart near the Charleston Visitors Center just down the street from Gallery Chuma, which does a brisk business in Gullah art. Artists include the noted Jonathan Green as well as John Jones, whose bright paintings "Confederate Currency: The Color of Money," reproduced scenes of slavery from Confederate bills and Southern bank notes.

"There's definitely a lot of interest in the Gullah culture," said gallery owner Chuma Nwokike, a native of Nigeria who graduated from The Citadel. "People come in and say they want to go to Gullah, Gullah Island and I say it's nothing like that."

Bruce Smith  /  AP
The Old Slave Mart in Charleston, S.C. is believed to be the only known building still in existence that was used for slave auctions in South Carolina. The building is currently being renovated with exhibits that will show the history of the slave trade in Charleston.
While there was a children's TV show called "Gullah, Gullah Island" in the mid-90s, there is no real place with that name. But tourists can visit Gullah communities at Wadmalaw Island and St. Helena Island - where some segments for the show were filmed.

Still, the culture is experienced with more than simple sightseeing. It's about food, listening to the Gullah language, and learning about the culture at museums like that at the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture at the College of Charleston.

Gullah is a Creole language - a language that develops when people who can't understand each other remain in long contact, as the slaves did with their captors. Linguists say there are structural differences between Gullah and English that justify it being considered a separate language.

A New Testament in Gullah was published two years ago, to the delight of people like Carolyn Jabulile White, who grew up Gullah and now entertains by telling stories in Gullah to groups and visitors.

"It's nice to see it in a Bible because when you go to the funerals and to the weddings and the gatherings on the islands, you heard it all the time," White said. "I'm glad it's done, because when I'm gone, my children, my grandchildren, those behind will know we certainly had a very rich heritage and culture as a people."

Amanda Manning, of Carolina Food Pros, helps tourists learn about Gullah through some of her culinary tours that stop at restaurants that offer Gullah cuisine.

"Okra, eggplant, peanuts and watermelon were all brought here during the slave trade," she said. "The African slaves grew these things and were very familiar with them."

Indeed, she said, much of what we know as Southern cooking really comes from the slaves.

"The Africans were the cooks," Manning said. "They cooked in their own slave cabins and they cooked in the big houses. The truth is most of them taught most of us how to cook."

About an hour's drive south of Charleston, nestled amid oaks shrouded by Spanish moss on St. Helena is the Penn Center with its museum, site of one of the first schools in the nation for freed slaves. A National Historic Landmark, the center's mission is to preserve the Gullah culture.

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A Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor running from North Carolina to Florida was designated by Congress last year. It is the only one of 37 heritage corridors in the nation to focus on the experience of blacks. An International African-American History Museum is also planned in Charleston.

Back on Brown's bus, Ron McMahon, an engineer from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and his wife were taking the Gullah Tour with their friends, Linda and Gary Davis, of The Villages, Fla.

"When we travel, we like to find out a little bit about the history and the people," said Linda Davis, taking the tour for the first time.

"It's a very different perspective. It's not the history book stuff you learn about Charleston," said Ron McMahon, who also took Brown's tour two years ago. "It's not talked about. It's not written about. You hardly know anything about it until you get here and talk to people."

Part of that is because the Gullah themselves, for decades, tried not to draw attention to their background.

"There was never an intent to speak Gullah. There was never an attempt to preserve the culture and tradition," Brown said.

"I was born and raised on my grandparents' farm," he added. "We had our horse but, hey, don't you know we'd rather have a tractor? We had no running water, we had a pump. So what some people call culture and heritage and tradition, that was hard work."

Now, though, the work is not as hard and Brown is doing what he loves.

"Pay me at the end of the tour," he tells a lady getting on the bus. "If you don't enjoy it, you don't pay."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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