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When I moved my family from New York City to Charleston 23 years ago, we were struck by the beauty of the Lowcountry. Its sparkling waterways, majestic antebellum homes and delightful food ways wove marvelous texture into our new life.
We were captivated too by the way people everywhere embraced history. We learned early on that Faulkner was right about the South: The past is not dead. It’s not even past.
And yet, for all the embrace of heritage, there was a yawning gap in the way we were presented a key part of Charleston’s history: there was little talk of the people who carved sparkling rice fields from the swamps, who built by hand those stunning mansions and who skillfully crafted the singular cuisine.
In fact, for generations, visitors to the South could go days without hearing much about the enslaved people who helped create many of the very places they were visiting.
Fortunately this is no longer the case. I was pleased recently to return to Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens and be reminded that this was among the first truth tellers in our local visitor economy. The plantation has helped lead a welcome trend toward interpreting the richly textured lives, loves and enduring contributions that enslaved Africans made to our modern South.
"This was among the first truth tellers in our local visitor economy."
I can imagine nobody better equipped to tell the story than Veronica Gaillard, a resident storyteller whose gorgeous voice turns from deeply resonant as she introduces guests to “The Blues” to soaring angelically as she croons a hymn. Gaillard is one of a handful of storytellers who daily describe the lives, loves and lore of their people to Boone Hall’s guests.
Gaillard is a gifted presenter of “trute” (truth). She descends from the Gullah people, a community formed of multiple West African tribes imprisoned and shipped to the American shores (80% of West African slaves were transported to and through the Charleston area). Living together as slaves on plantations and in cities—or in freedmen’s communities after emancipation—the Gullah people developed a unique language and customs.
Let me pause for a moment to say that as a “come’yuh” (that’s Gullah for “come here”—meaning my people weren’t original settlers—vs. “bin’yah,” which stands for “been heres” who go back generations), I have heard many stories of enslavement. Many are heartbreaking and harrowing, and all deserve our reverent respect.
My experience on a beautiful spring morning at Boone Hall was just as important, but more nuanced. Performing from the porch of an ages-old slave cabin, Gaillard addressed a diverse audience that included numerous African American students, who’d traveled to the plantation to experience their familial history of strength and perseverance.
Offering a Gullah-laced intro in a fast patter, her tales focused on joy and ingenuity. Gaillard explained that Gullah people invented the first rap. Indeed, the patois of Gullah allowed slaves to speak freely without tipping off their masters.
Other accommodations aided their survival. Hymns sung in the fields doubled as “code songs,” sharing life or death information amongst community members. “Wade in the Water” advised escapees to travel in streams where dogs could not pick up a scent. “Swing Low” signaled that the Underground Railroad was operating and the time was right to flee. References to “Moses” were to Harriet Tubman: hymns about him were really about her.
"The Gullah people developed a unique language and customs."
For many, it was a revelation to learn that the vast wealth of the South was not only dependent upon slave labor, but upon enslaved people’s intellect. Many Africans enslaved in America arrived as artisans, craftspeople, skilled farmers…even cowboys. Their contributions not only enabled, but led to, landowners becoming wealthy cultivating rice (“Carolina Gold”), indigo and cotton.
During the 30-minute session, Gaillard shared other tidbits of Gullah life. It was a “pribbidge” to learn about the sweetgrass basket tradition, born in West Africa, and still weaving generations together today. And I’ll take it on faith that a spider web wetted with tobacco juice, when applied to a deep wound, will prevent scarring.
We found that the best way to experience “Exploring the Gullah Culture" was at the end of our visit to the necklace of nine brick structures that housed enslaved people and their descendants for over a century. Today, they showcase frank explanations of the lives lived within and beyond their walls.
Admission to Boone Hall, a continuously working plantation from which everything from bricks to peaches have been coaxed over the centuries, includes the live performance plus tours of the slave cabins, the main house, ancillary structures, and a wagon ride across the entire property. A cafe on the property offers a place to refuel and relax.
Am I “gwine” back to Boone Hall sometime soon? Yes, I gwine.Get more details about the Gullah people and Boone Hall’s Black History in America experience.