Charleston, S.C. - At Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens in Mount Pleasant, S.C., a Charleston suburb, Jackie Mickel stands barefoot in front of an old slave cabin, her black hair tucked beneath a white turban, perhaps like her great-great-grandmother did when she was enslaved in Dorchester County approximately 25 miles inland.
But Mickel is here by choice, eager to reveal the mysteries of the Gullah or Geechee people, descendants of West African slaves that toiled on Lowcountry rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. Because they were isolated on the South Carolina Sea Islands for generations after the Civil War, the Gullah retained much of their culture and language– far more than any other group of African Americans.
The Gullah dialect, an English-based Creole language with a strong African influence, is incomprehensible to most Americans, so Mickel gives a brief Gullah vocabulary lesson before she tells the story of Brer Rabbit (Brother Rabbit), a witty character that often pops up in Gullah folklore to outsmart stronger, more powerful characters, like Brer Wolf and Brer Alligator. When these tales were told by slaves, white plantations owners were often the brunt of the joke, the character duped by a weaker but wiser one.
Mickel explains that a “very soon man” is a wise man, and “before day clean” means early in the morning.
Mickel is a gifted storyteller, captivating the audience with her animated facial expressions and powerful voice. Her listeners are as spellbound as nursery school kids as she takes them along on Brer Rabbit’s adventures.
Boone Plantation dates back to 1681 and has passed through several owners. Tour guides in antebellum costumes lead visitors through the Georgian-style mansion that was built in 1936, (several houses have been on the site) but for some, the nine remaining slave cabins beneath towering Spanish moss-draped oak trees are more intriguing than the grand house with its elaborate antique furnishings.
Each cabin depicts a different aspect of slave life, such as musical and culinary traditions, and a knowledge of indigenous herbs used to make medicine and treat wounds.
In one cabin, a Gullah woman in a wide-brimmed hat patiently sews the sweetgrass baskets for which the area is famous. A centuries-old basket making tradition flourishes in the Lowcountry, a craft that can be traced to West Africa.
Once made by slaves for agricultural purposes, today the beautiful coiled baskets are much sought after by tourists as souvenirs.
Roadside basket stands dot U.S. Hwy. 17, a portion of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that runs along the southeastern coast from Pender County, N.C., to the southern border of St. Johns County, Florida.
There’s no shortage of plantation tours in the South, but few offer such an unflinching look at the injustices of slavery, while also celebrating the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those forced to endure it.
Go beyond Charleston’s antebellum mansions, bustling markets, and gleaming monuments and view the city from an African American perspective. Just hop on a bus with Alphonso Brown, owner and operator of Gullah Tours.
He delights in pointing out the wonders of the city that were “built, designed or created by blacks, but for whom credit was never given.”
Brown was raised by his grandparents in a rural community outside of Charleston, and he grew up with their Gullah language and traditions. At that time, the 1950s and ‘60s, Gullah were often ostracized as primitive and uneducated because they spoke “broken English,” now recognized as a separate language.
“In my case, I’m no longer ashamed of my past or those from my past who shaped my future,” says Brown.
By the 1980s, Brown had embraced his heritage to such an extent he started a tour company to share it with others.
On the tour, Brown introduces tourists to Cabbage Row, the section of Church Street that inspired the fictional Catfish Row in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” Next he drives to the east side of town that was a crucial link in the Underground Railroad, a portal to freedom for slaves.
At a small frame house on Bull Street, Brown explains that the National Historic Landmark was the residence of Denmark Vessey, a freed slave who organized a failed slave uprising. Authorities discovered the plot and Vessey was hanged along with more than 30 co-conspirators.
A tour highlight is the home and workshop of Phillip Simmons, (1912-2009) a renowned Charleston blacksmith whose decorative wrought iron gates and balconies adorn the city. Unlike talented black artists and craftsmen in prior generations, Simmon’s work was widely recognized. He quite literally forged a name for himself in Charleston and beyond, winning numerous awards, including the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship.
Once marginalized and deprived of their rightful place in Charleston history, Gullah are celebrated today for their unique heritage that has helped shape the city.
If You Go:
Where to Stay:
The HarbourView Inn is a boutique hotel on the Charleston Harbor that is within walking distance of many of the city’s top attractions and restaurants. Breakfast is included and guests have a choice of enjoying their meal on the rooftop terrace or having it delivered to their room at no charge. 2 Vendue Range, Charleston, 888-853-8439,www.harbourviewcharleston.com
Where to Eat:
Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens is one of America’s oldest working, living plantations. Live presentations on Gullah culture are offered daily. 1235 Long Point Rd., Mt. Pleasant, 843-884-4371, www.boonehallplantation.com Admission: $20 adults, $18 seniors, $10 children 6-12, Free children 5 and under.
Gullah Tours leave from the bus shed at the Charleston Visitor Center. 375 Meeting St., Charleston, 843-763-7551, www.gullahtours.com Tours are Mon. - Fri. at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sat. at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. All seats are $18.