At the Original Gullah Festival this Memorial Day Weekend in Beaufort, South Carolina visitors can discover the real Wakanda as portrayed in the hit movie The Black Panther. However, where Hollywood attempted to depict an important moment in history, Beaufort experienced this authentically for centuries.
The music, performances, art, food and friendly people of the Original Gullah Festival have attracted visitors to the historic city of Beaufort every year since 1986 and this year’s event will be no exception. The 2018 festival focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction Era.
Beaufort is known as the “Queen of the Sea Islands” and is home to descendants of freed people who cherish their cultural bonds and shared history. Beaufort’s enslaved Africans were among the first to be emancipated on November 7, 1861, during the Battle of Port Royal near Hilton Head Island in southern Beaufort County. It was known locally as “the day when big-gun done shoot.”
Beaufort came under Union control just seven months after the Civil War began. Soon thousands of newly emancipated Africans and African Americans were integrated into established social, political, educational and economic systems to a degree that many other black communities across the South were not.
Beaufort native Robert Smalls was one of the first heroes of the Civil War. He confiscated a Confederate gunboat in which he sailed his family and black crew members to freedom across dangerous waters to a Union blockade. He was a real life King T’Challa.
Smalls, who was born in Beaufort on April 5, 1839. A true hero he is revered in history as a champion for human rights. By commandeering the same boat on which he was a enslaved, he became the iconic symbol of Reconstruction. General Smalls was later elected to congress, became an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln and authored the Compulsory Education Act that gave access to free public education to all people. He also helped establish the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island and accomplished much for the betterment of all Americans.
Beaufort County and South Carolina boasted of wealth and advancements for black people during Reconstruction. Penn School, Mather School and Beaufort County Normal Training Schools were established to educate the newly emancipated people. A black Lieutenant Governor was elected in the state.
The Sea Island communities of the South Carolina coast saw many historic moments marking the rise to freedom. They included the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, the mustering of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), the Combahee River Raid led by Harriet Tubman, who was known as “the Little General.” The raid emancipated more than 700 enslaved Africans in June of 1863. Also, the first Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was established and celebrated by USCT and freedmen on May 1, 1865.
“Reconstruction…The Untold Story” is, the latest musical of the Circle Unbroken Gullah Journey from Africa to America Series by Anita Singleton Prather. It is the true story of the newly emancipated Gullah Geechee, a people determined to persevere out of the bondage of slavery to self-governing and full citizenship from the ashes of the Civil War. Award-winning master storyteller, Aunt Pearlie Sue and The Gullah Kinfolk, bring alive this profound era of American history, birthed on the Sea Islands of Beaufort County. Visitors can step back in time with this nationally-acclaimed ensemble’s full-stage musical and experience America’s real life Wakanda, i.e., the Reconstruction Era Monument that is Beaufort, South Carolina.
Other productions include “Decoration Day…An Old Fashioned Memorial Day,” which is set shortly after the end of the Civil War. It tells the story of the first how Memorial Day began in the South. When the United States Colored Troops were passing through Charleston they honored some of their fallen comrades who had died in a Confederate prison once known as the Washington Race. They were buried in a mass grave without proper burial rites. Thus, the USCT dug up those 200 plus bodies and buried them in individual graves decorated with flags, flowers, shells and wooden crosses. This first celebration took place on May 1, 1865 with a parade that boasted more than 10,000 participants, speeches, picnics and more. The event was later moved to Beaufort, home of the first National Cemetery in South Carolina which had been established by an executive order of President Lincoln as a final resting place “for those who fought to preserve the Union.” People flocked to Beaufort in their best attire to honor the soldiers who had paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The celebration was held May 30th and would be highlighted by carnivals, baseball games, dancing at the local juke joints, parades, food vendors along Boundary and Bladen Streets, a procession from the Grand Army Hall of the Republic and memorial services at the National Cemetery and at the waterfront. Beaufort’s Decoration Day was one of the largest Memorial Day celebrations in the Nation.
“Gullah Kinfolk Christmas Wish…Freedom Coming” is another production that brings to life the excitement of that last Christmas before the Civil War in December of 1860. South Carolina had recently seceded from the Union. Slave owners were talking in the big house about war coming and enslaved people were in their quarters talking about freedom coming. Reconstruction was on the way! This musical is a part of historic Beaufort’s Sea Island Christmas Celebration that kicks off the yuletide season annually (the first Friday in December).
Aunt Pearlie Sue wants people of all backgrounds to come to the utopia that is beautiful Beaufort, South Carolina–the real Wakanda–and learn about Gullah Geechee history and culture. “Know Yo Gullah, Know Yo Roots,” she said.
For more information visit www.originalgullahfestival.org.