Schooled by the Elders:

                               Things They Don't Tell Just Anybody

  Growing Up Gullah

    . . . and Other Southern Tales


                                                                               READ. . .

Coosawhatchie Community Center
Photograph by Althea Sumpter
Elders in the activity room of the Center.
Photograph by Althea Sumpter
Leila Smith (L)  and Lois Chapman (R) showing the finished quilt.
Photograph by Althea Sumpter

   Meeting the Coosawhatchie Elders
                                                                                               In September 2005 I first entered the Coosawhatchie
                                                                                               (coo-sa-HAT-chee) Community Center in Jasper County,
                                                                                               South Carolina. The 1950s one-story beige brick
                                                                                               building was reminiscent of the schools built in the era
                                                                                               after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by
                                                                                               the US Supreme Court that ruled separate schools for
                                                                                               blacks were unconstitutional. Southern states
                                                                                               responded by spending millions of dollars on building 
               Equalization Schools , a move by whites to avoid desegregating school systems. The cafeteria    
              and kitchen -- on one side of the concrete painted hallway from the community room for
              creative activities -- were just large enough for nearly 30 elders who met three days a week in
              the school converted for their use. A conjoining hallway housed a head start program for young
              children of the area. 
              The community center looked and felt familiar from my own desegregation experience in1965.
              The previous year, blacks could volunteer to bus from a St. Helena Island equalization school
              built in the early 1950s to the Beaufort City school system across the bridge. Six one-room  
              school houses along with Penn School, (Penn Center) which started in 1862 as the first school
              for the newly-freed in the South, served to educate the St. Helena Island population. The
              attempt by Beaufort County to prove a "separate but equal" school system shuttered the island
              schools, as the county took over education with the building of the island equalization school.
              The two-story red-brick Beaufort Elementary school building was much larger than the
              building on the island that had housed all grade levels. There was even a separate building of
              equal size for junior high students and yet another building for high school students. My first
              day making the crossing into desegregation flashed in my memory as I entered the doors of
              this equalization school to meet the elders.
                                                                                                Those seniors were expecting me. They had already
                                                                                                been told about someone coming to the center who
                                                                                                was interested in meeting them. My role was to tell
                                                                                                the story of why their lives were important as links to
                                                                                                West African ethnic groups, and of my wish to interview
                                                                                                them to collect their life stories. I began by asking if
                                                                                                they knew anything about Gullah or Geechee. Their
                                                                                                response was the same one I had heard growing up --
                                                                                                not wanting to be called Geechee because it was a
                                                                                               named used in derision. Fights were known to break
                                                                                               out over such name-calling.
              As some of the elders continued making a quilt and others sat and gauged my storytelling
             skills, I told them about West Africa and rice. I mentioned how plantation owners generated
             wealth along the southeast coast of the United States by transplanting rice indigenous to West
             Africa while enslaving the ethnic groups knowledgeable about growing the rice from their own
             home. These enslaved ethnic groups expanded the inland rivers into the Intercoastal Waterway
             and built a massive cash crop on the Southern coast. Heads nodded because these elders
             constituted the last generation to work those rice fields. The Coosawhatchie region was where
             rice production was the king crop of the former Beaufort County territory.
            When I was done with my storytelling, I sat down and
            waited. I learned at an early age how to sit and wait as
            a show of respect when talking to the elders. My time
            was on their time. Before anything else was said, the
            women working on the quilt stood up and showed me
            that they had finished their most recent effort. After
            the showing, they were ready to ask me questions
            about what I had to say.
            I felt I was auditioning for permission to be in their presence. That feeling was accurate,  since
            many elders before this day in my own Gullah Geechee community had told me they were tired
            of outsiders coming to their homes and placing microphones in their faces. I was asking to do
            the same thing, but I was asking as an insider, a binyah (born into the culture on the islands)
            who knew the ways of our culture and the language we spoke in our homes. I answered the
            questions. I gave the elders my time, and I gave them the respect deserved by those who
            survived their own Southern story. One elder mentioned, "I wasn't there in slavery time, but
            I was there in hard time." That seemed a fitting title for a book to tell their stories.
            Days later I learned that twelve elders gave me permission to sit with them in their homes to
            hear the stories of how they grew up Gullah Geechee in the rice-growing region of
            This journal shares the insights I have gained in writing The Ghosts Are Dying: Stories from
            the Gullah Geechee Elders.
            By Althea Sumpter