2017 Sweetgrass Festival a Dedication to the Past, Present and Future of Gullah Geechee

Sweetgrass baskets handwoven by William “Danny” Rouse

By Damion Smalls

The Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Association’s annual late spring commemoration of Gullah Geechee’s rich legacy was a sunny day filled with kindred spirits, joy and the spread of knowledge guided by the ancestors. Once again held at Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park, the event engrossed attendees by putting the spotlight squarely on the storied African-descended civilization that continues to play a vital role in Charleston’s identity.

Running concurrently with the festival on June 3, the East Cooper Civic Club presented the 2017 Gullah Geechee Seminar on the same grounds, in the Cooper River Room. The seminar served as an empowerment series that sought to educate anyone interested on issues most important to the Gullah Geechee populace. Barbara Collier moderated the informative gathering that featured topics such as land ownership, both physical and mental health, education and family. Focus: Med Pharmacy & Wellness owner Dr. Krisalyn Gleaton, clinical psychologist Dr. Khalia Fordham and Dr. Chanda Brown were among the healthcare professionals leading conversations through engaging lectures in the Cooper River Room. Attorney Willie Heyward of the Heirs Property Law Center advised the seated audience on land taxes, local gentrification and preserving Gullah Geechee heritage.

Barbara Collier (standing) speaking at the Gullah Geechee seminar

The assembly of vendors at the festival extended a myriad of products to intrigued consumers that represented numerous facets of the Gullah Geechee culture. Artist Corey Alston showed off his unique talents with his combination of eye-catching photography and sweetgrass basket weaving. Among the dozens of authentic sweetgrass basket makers at the festival, Marilyn Dingle’s handwoven classics were prominently displayed. Handmade ceramic offerings courtesy of Charleynes Artisans varied from animals to the famed robot R2-D2 from the Star Wars franchise. Gullah Dolls of Charleston by Genya and Sew Exquisite both fashioned their own cotton versions of miniature brown girls in luxuriously bold dresses, though Sew Exquisite’s dolls also serve as air fresheners. Other Gullah themed products, such as books, jewelry, dashikis and home decor items were for sale as well.

Sew Exquisite’s air freshener dolls

Storytelling, dancing and gospel singing were highlights of the festival’s schedule of live performances.  Inside the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Pavilion, basket-making sessions and the Flower Goddess Workshop helped to keep attendees of all ages occupied. The park’s popular playground, Lego building stations and jump castles provided energy-abundant children with plentiful choices of mirth.

Local organizations on hand offering their support and worthy profiles included the Charleston County Public Library, the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and the SC Aquarium.

The impact that the Gullah Geechee people have had on local cuisine refuses to go unnoticed. Their influence and ingredients can be easily distinguished on most Charleston-based menus. There were no shortage of options as the Lowcountry’s renowned culinary staples were well represented at the festival. Chucktown Seafood Cafe’s Kevin ‘Frydaddie’ Greene of North Charleston, ‘James Brown’s Famous Boiled Peanuts’ of Summerville and “We Island” Gumbo architect Chef Rowland Washington of St. Helena Island added their specialities the impressively Carolinian lineup of Gullah rice, fried crabs, grilled meats, bread pudding, alligator bites and much more.

This free event attracted a diverse crowd to Mount Pleasant. Families, comprising of several different races, beliefs and backgrounds matriculated throughout the park from 9am to 4pm on the first Saturday of June with similar hopes to take part in one of the area’s more seminal events. The day served its purpose to raise positive awareness towards the Gullah Geechee people with respect.

Though ubiquitous to much of the area’s Black population, the culture is currently gaining mainstream acceptance nationwide while being slowly destroyed at the same time. While Charleston County teachers will be trained to understand the language in time for the 2017-2018 school year, once predominately Black-owned lands are steadily being developed and taken away from its citizens up and down the Southeastern coast. For more information on Gullah Geechee and the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Association, visit www.sweetgrass.org or email: [email protected].

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