Coastal residents aim to preserve rich African culture

One can’t wander far in this coastal community that calls itself America’s oldest seaside resort town without hearing people speaking a mysterious, rapid-fire language that somehow echoes the West Indies and Africa.

The speakers aren’t tourists, but members of the Gullah-Geechee culture. Theirs is a rich, uniquely American quilt: So wide it stretches from the saltwater creek that has fed generations here all the way to the White House and the nation’s first African-American first lady. So deep it encompasses a boat builder who learned the craft from his uncle and works without written plans.

They are descendants of African slaves who worked the rice plantations that made South Carolina one of the wealthiest of the 13 original American colonies. Their language is a stew of African dialects, English and Creole that slaves devised for secret communication. An estimated 250,000 Gullah-Geechee people live along a coastal swath in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
Today, as they prepare for their annual rice festival here Saturday, many are trying to hold on to the language and traditions that have endured for centuries. They are attempting to pass on crafts that were handed down to them through the years — basketmaking, boat building, hammock weaving, storytelling — to a modern generation that’s much harder to engage.

“This is history,” says Vera Manigault, 63, who makes baskets from sweetgrass, palmetto leaves and palmetto thorns and sells them at a roadside stand. “We’re still doing it the old way. We’re still using the same materials. Once you learn how to do it, you don’t forget.”
Yet too few here are learning. “This culture is dying out,” says Richard Gibbs, 46, whose father built boats and taught him to fish, shrimp and clam in Pawleys Island creek. “This is more of the older people’s traditions. The young generation doesn’t do it, and there’s no one to teach them.”
In a way, the boat builder illustrates their dilemma.