The bus pulls out of the parking lot at Tractor Supply at 6:00 a.m., heading through light fog for 1-26. It’s May 25. Destination? Beaufort and the annual Gullah Festival. Fifty-one passengers gathered together by Barbara Chapman, executive director of the Newberry County Literacy Council. The idea for the road trip came out of the Weekly Reader book club, sponsored by the Literacy Council. Ms. Chapman said “We read ‘The Water is Wide’ by Pat Conroy, about his teaching Gullah children on Daufuskie Island back in the 1960s. We learned a lot about Gullah history and customs so we decided to organize a road trip to this festival.”
The trip was an excellent adventure. After making a stop in Orangeburg for refreshments, the bus was back on I-26 when the driver pulled off to the side. “We’re running hot,” he said. Opening up the back to look at the engine, he found that two belts had snapped and that we were leaking anti-freeze. Quickly on the phone to his company and the mechanics in Columbia, they pondered options. One was to send a replacement bus which they began to ready. But the driver was also told there were spare belts and anti-freeze on the bus and he could attempt to replace the belts. With fifty-one passengers on board, perhaps it was not surprising that several had extensive automotive experience that they put to work to assist the driver. And a good thing, for this was no easy task. Pushing, stretching, just missing, then pushing and stretching again, the group wrestled the belts into place. A passing semi driver stopped to help and had anti-freeze to contribute. Some passengers stayed on the bus and chatted and relaxed, others walked around outside or watched the repair. When the job was finished, the driver restarted the bus to test the result. Finding that the belts worked and the engine was running cool, the group was soon back on the road with thanks to those who had worked their magic and the good samaritan who had stopped to help.
Before taking in the sights and sounds of the Gullah festival, the group had decided to visit the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, just down the road from Beaufort. The Center began in 1862 as the Penn School, created for the former enslaved people who had recently been freed as Union troops seized the Island. Two women, Quakers from Pennsylvania, had traveled to St. Helena to organize and operate this school to help the students with the skills and tools they would now need to construct a new life. Most of them had come from West Africa and brought a valuable skill – expertise in rice cultivation. Since the plantation owners and their staffs were often gone from the coast because of “fever season” that ran from April through November, the Africans lived in relative isolation and were able to create a unique language and culture that retained influences from Africa combined with influences from their new home. This new language and culture came to be called Gullah (and sometimes Geechee).
In the 20th century, the Penn School became a cultural and historic Center to preserve the Gullah history and educate others about it. Groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference held training workshops during the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is thought to have written part of his “I Have a Dream Speech” there. The group toured the museum and watched a twenty-minute video about the Center and then walked the grounds to see the old buildings that had been part of the school. Some in the group bought books and other items from the gift shop.
Then on to Beaufort and the festival. There were vendors selling Gullah related items such as brightly colored clothing, sweet grass baskets, and jewelry as well as Gullah inspired food and music, all on the scenic waterfront of the City. The group strolled around, sometimes sittings on the benches overlooking the water, watching boats go by and enjoying the breeze. It was a great group and a great experience. We saw and heard things we had read about and we deepened our appreciation of the history and culture of the Gullah people. We are already talking about future road trips! We will keep you posted and maybe next time you can join us.
Until then, happy reading!
Joseph McDonald is a retired sociology professor from Newberry College and has worked with the Newberry County Literacy Council for more than 20 years as a tutor and board member. The Literacy Council is located at 1208 Main Street. Visit newberryread.com, call 803-276-8086 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.