By Barney Blakeney
Like a lot of people who move to the Charleston area from other parts of the nation, Sharon Cooper-Murray is fascinated by the rich cultural history that is Gullah. A New Jersey native whose southern roots are in Lake City, drinking the Charleston water addicted her to the locale. That addiction has manifested itself as her alter ego, “The Gullah Lady”.
Cooper-Murray, a Knoxville College graduate with a B.S. Degree in English, Speech and Drama, came to Wadmalaw Island after finishing college to visit relatives having been lured by descriptions she misperceived as an island getaway surrounded by sandy beaches. What she found was rural isolated farmland inhabited by people whose language and speech she could barely understand. Unemployed, her plan was to spend some time vacationing on the beaches before returning to her father in Lake City and then heading off to New Jersey to find a job.
But while here she applied for a job with Charleston County School District. She returned to Lake City, but before she left for New Jersey, she got a call for an interview at Burke High. She started work the day after her interview. Her plan to stay in Charleston one year evolved into a decade-long career with the school district.
Cooper-Murray’s conservative upbringing kept her close to her Wadmalaw relatives. The community that intrigued her, the language spoken with a West African rhythm and grammatical structure, the crafts and food captivated her. She got certified as a teacher, worked with migrants through Rural Missions, Inc. and the S.C. Migrant and Seasonal Farm Workers Organization. She was fascinated by the local culture and by 1997 she was certified in traditional folk art as well.
“I immersed myself in learning about the culture and people and began researching the history of this unique Black culture,” Cooper-Murray said. “Though initially I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, I didn’t care. It made me feel as if I was in the deepest part of Africa and I loved every minute of just sitting and listening to them talk with one another. But there was one factor that was quite disturbing to me, that was the poverty that existed among the Gullah people.
“Though they had a rich vibrant culture, there were many factors that were encroaching on their continued existence. The most potentially damaging was development. The interest of developers posed the threat of displacement to this group of people. I wanted to help to increase awareness of the Gullah people and to facilitate a greater understanding of their rich culture.” A respect for the people and their culture demanded she become an advocate for preservation of the Gullah Culture, Cooper-Murray says. “I realized how I could help through preservation, conservation and economic development activities.”
Her intrigue was transformed into research and resulted in a job as Black History Coordinator at Middleton Place. The experience at Middleton Place taught Cooper-Murray how important marketing was to preserving Gullah Culture. She ventured into the world of entrepreneurship, selling the culture. She developed lectures, storytelling, artists-in-residence programs, folk art education workshops, excursions, tours and other displays of the culture including the most popular, her interpretative enactments.
“Today my major focus is on the preservation of the language and folk art traditions. I’ve traveled throughout the eastern United States with the stories, songs, crafts and workshops based on folkways of the Gullah culture,” Cooper-Murray said. Her audiences have included national and international companies, federal, state and local municipalities, historic and cultural sites, colleges and schools, conferences, churches and variety of other venues.
Cooper-Murray hopes local Black artists and historians eventually will develop a sustained outlet for the presentation of Gullah as an economic entity beyond annual festivals and Black History Month presentations just as other ethnic groups are marketing the culture. Her goal, through her presentations of the culture, is to bring Black folks into that economy.