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
the US Supreme Court that ruled separate schools for
blacks were unconstitutional. Southern states
responded by spending millions of dollars on building
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
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
and built a massive cash crop on the Southern coast. Heads nodded because these elders
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