Coastal Carolina University scholars win $270,327 grant to digitize historic materials from Gullah Geechee communities

Eric Crawford

The terms “Gullah” and “Geechee” may be vaguely familiar to the general public, but a Coastal Carolina University institute is on a mission to make sure they become widespread cultural knowledge. Two scholars have won a sizeable grant to make Gullah historical records accessible and engaging to the public.

Eric Crawford, musicologist, director of CCU’s Charles Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies, and associate professor in the Department of Music; and Alli Crandell, director of the Athenaeum Press and digital initiatives for the Edwards College, have been awarded a grant of $270,327 from the National Archives and Records Administration to support the work of “The Gullah Geechee Digital Project (GDDP).”

The purpose of the two-year project is to create online digital access to archival collections including Negro spirituals, film, oral histories, and historic documents from three prominent Gullah Geechee areas in South Carolina, each of which made remarkable achievements during the Jim Crow era in civil rights, education and voting representation: Sandy Island, Johns Island and St. Helena Island. Open access to records from these communities will increase visibility of the significant political, cultural and economic contributions of Gullah Geechee communities and situate them within the proper historic context.

The award is one of 31 grants totaling more than $3.5 million from the National Archives for historical records projects throughout the United States. The project allows for “Coastal Carolina University to digitize 6,900 pages of text, 90 hours of audio, and six hours of films from Gullah Geechee collections from the descendants of West and Central African people brought to the Sea Islands and coastal plains of the American South,” according to a press release from the National Archives.

CCU will partner with the Library of Congress, the South Carolina Historical Society and the Association for Cultural Equity in the project, serving as the hub in facilitating digitalization.

The project will involve CCU faculty members as well as graduate and undergraduate students, including those who have completed projects on Sandy Island in recent semesters through the Athenaeum Press, CCU’s student-driven publishing lab.

“This project is unique because we are not only digitizing but providing a singular digital website – a finding guide for all sorts of Gullah Geechee digital materials. Currently there is not a singular resource for these materials across institutions,” said Crandell.

Alli Crandell

In addition to compiling and digitizing the material, the project provides for interpretation and contextualization of the information.

“Plantation owners on these islands kept records of their slaves/employees, crops, planting, medical records that track important information on slave families, on health, on planting techniques, on many elements of their lives,” said Crawford. “So we’re going to have all that information. After we digitize it, we’ll be asking, ‘What does that mean? What does it tell us about this culture, and how does it fit in to the bigger story?’”

By attaching metadata keywords to different materials, the project will make connections between artifacts from different time periods, allowing researchers, students and the public to understand one in the context of the other.

For example, said Crandell, “Plantation records will be able to ‘talk to’ records from the 1920s, all the way up to field work that students with the Athenaeum Press have been doing in the last few years. We’ll be able to connect a contemporary interview with a plantation artifact.”

The public will be introduced to the collection via virtual exhibits that provide a 360-immersive experience into the Gullah Geechee culture.

The Joyner Institute’s first International Gullah Geechee and African Diaspora Conference, taking place at CCU in March 2019, will offer an opportunity to not only showcase the research and the project, but also recruit scholars and specialists.

Goals for the digitized materials include engagement with university students and cultural experts; introduction to the public and K-12 school curriculum; and repatriation to their Gullah Geechee communities of origin. Ultimately, the project is designed to advance current efforts to preserve a way of life that is quickly disappearing.

“With the Charles Joyner Institute for Gullah and African American Diaspora Studies, CCU is seen as being a leader in this push for scholarship,” said Crawford. “With the support of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, it’s important that we can join together the scholarship with the practical aspects of the culture. One of the exciting parts is that we want to highlight these communities and their contributions and their heroes, which we know very little about. It’s been important for Alli and for me as we’re working toward scholarship for Gullah Geechee to help these communities. Our hope is that by showing how important it is, then when we are losing a Gullah community, there’s a bigger push now to save that culture.”

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