Emory Campbell: Coming Home
Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: photography by anne
“The military movements connected with the Civil War are well known. But the great mass of American people know but little, and so think less, of that other great event—the greatest in the history of the world—the emancipation of four million human beings held in bondage… A new race was born into freedom…”—??First Days of Amongst the Contrabands??, by Elizabeth Hyde Botume, Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1893
Emory Campbell got the “history bug” in Boston, Massachusetts. But when he was a young boy on Hilton Head Island, history was not part of his curriculum vitae. “I remember my teacher would hike us down to the old fort [Fort Walker] in Port Royal every spring, to that old steam gun mounted down there. He tried to teach us about Civil War history, about the sound,” Campbell recalled. Then he laughed and said, at least for him, the teacher did not succeed.
“I had grown up here in the 1940s and ’50s and had no idea of the history of the Sea Islands and the importance of them,” Campbell said. On his mother’s side, Campbell’s family goes back five generations on Hilton Head Island. “I was in biology and chemistry, so I didn’t really buckle down to learn about history.” This from the man who, in 2005, would receive the National Education Association’s (NEA) Carter G. Woodson Memorial Award: “In recognition of 30 years as an activist for preserving the Gullah heritage, protecting the environment, and improving his community’s living conditions,” the NEA statement reads.
But that is getting ahead of the story. In 1965, when Campbell graduated from Savannah State College with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, he left his history behind, or so he thought. He got a research job in microbiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Of his journey to the north, he said, “I had thought I wanted to accomplish a few things.”
He spent about 6 years in Boston to get those things accomplished. He wanted to help his parents build a house. The house was built. He had a brother who was a paraplegic. “I had seen all this miracle work that doctors had done around Children’s Hospital where I worked during the summer while going to college. I was watching these kids get better. I thought it would be nice if I could bring my brother up there, and I did,” Campbell said.
He also wanted an advanced degree. Tufts University, in Boston, gave him a fellowship. He earned a master’s degree in a very new field, environmental engineering. “I was one of the first Earth Day people,” Campbell said with a smile. The first Earth Day was in 1970, the same year Campbell got his master’s.
Boston also offered Campbell the opportunity to feed his seemingly unquenchable curiosity. “I loved to hear lectures. Harvard would have a lecture every night. My wife and I, even when we were dating, on weekends, would go to museums, lectures. We heard lectures on African history, on African-American history. One weekend we went to the Charles Street Meeting House. There was an exhibit on the Sea Islands of South Carolina,” Campbell said. The Charles Street Meeting House was a citadel for Northern abolitionists prior to the Civil War.
“I began to think to myself, ‘These islands are really important.’ I started doing some research. I went to libraries and looked for books on the Sea Islands. One of the books that really caught my attention was First Days Amongst the Contrabands. It piqued my interest. From then on, I got very interested in the history of the Sea Islands. That’s when I started planning my way back home,” Campbell said.
What Campbell began “discovering” was what was really important to him, was a culture and heritage that began to develop when the first West African slaves landed on the shores of South Carolina in the 1700s. In a sense, what developed was a kind of parallel universe. Slaves who ended up on the plantations of the Sea Islands, from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, were totally isolated from the mainland, but not from each other. This isolation and common heritage created a unique culture on these islands. That culture was Gullah. And it was to that culture Campbell was born and raised.
Campbell knew he was headed back to the Lowcountry, he just didn’t know what he was going to do there. “Sure enough, about that time, Tom Barnwell and others had started a rural health center (Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health Services). Tom called me and said, ‘We need somebody down here to deal with the environment at the health center,’” Campbell said. He was going home—to a job.
With his growing interest in his own roots and desire to help others, the health center was perfect. “It allowed me to go into communities and deal with water, sewage, and housing. It allowed me then to really recapture and reconnect to the culture, visiting all those far away islands,” Campbell said.
The needs of the Lowcountry’s poor, Campbell knew, went well beyond health services. “We were stretching healthcare. We built the general store on Daufuskie Island as a cooperative. We were dealing with housing, rural development. Folks would tell us, hey, that’s not health. We wanted to do something with education because the kids were not doing well in school. We wanted to solve all the problems of poor people on the back of health care,” said Campbell. At the time, he was also trying to preserve traditional Gullah communities that were being threatened by seemingly endless resort development on the Sea Islands, especially Hilton Head.
He had been working in healthcare for ten years when another opportunity arose. Campbell called it a “natural progression” in the way his life was evolving. He accepted the job of executive director of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. Now a non-profit organization designed to promote and preserve Sea Island history and Gullah culture, it began in 1862 as Penn School, an experimental program to educate Sea Island slaves freed at the beginning of the Civil War. Over the years, it served many functions within the community. In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King often met there with members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1974, it was designated a National Historic Landmark District.
“When that opportunity came about, I said there’s my opportunity to do something beyond health. Penn was an independent, free-standing institution. No government guidelines—or funding. So why not go over there and make a go of it, not knowing that I’d be starving,” Campbell laughed.
“I always admired the school. My older brothers and sisters went to Penn School. In those days, when there were no bridges, they would go from here on a boat to Savannah. It took about a day to get there. Then they’d get a bus over to St. Helena. They’d stay there ’til Christmas. It was a boarding school. You’d get a letter, four or five days later, saying they’d reached the Penn Center,” Campbell remembered.
“I had no money. We had to start off fresh. Folks had warned me about that. But we went, and slowly but surely gathered support—enough to get at least the physical place back and put some programs together, outside of health care, like after school programs and education. We did something with small farms, new crops, the ‘you pick’ is still going on St. Helena Island. We engaged Clemson University—we would brainstorm with them. We brought in broccoli, strawberries, sweet potatoes. We got the farmers inspired again, at least for a time,” said Campbell.
“The first question I had was, ‘How do we get people to know and recognize Penn Center and its value?’ Nobody really saw it as being a significant place. My wife and I were there one weekend [at the beginning of Campbell’s tenure] and I asked, ‘How do you bring attention to Penn Center; how do you do that?’ We thought of a celebration of the culture and the center. That’s when we came up with the Heritage Celebration. That’s brought a lot of attention over the last 25 years,” Campbell said. Today, every second weekend in November, over 15,000 visitors from across the nation make the trip to St. Helena and Penn Center for three days of joyful immersion in the culture, art, and food ways of the Gullah people.
Campbell spent 22 years at Penn Center, revitalizing and helping direct the goals of the organization. One extraordinary project he was involved in was the translation of the Bible into Gullah, a feat accomplished in cooperation with the American Bible Society, and Wycliffe Bible Translators.
In the 1980s, Campbell helped reestablish the family connection between the Gullah people of the Sea Islands with the West African nation of Sierra Leone, where many slaves were imported by the British to coastal South Carolina. In 1988 the center hosted Sierra Leone’s president, Joseph Saidu Momoh, for a “Gullah reunion.” In 1989, Campbell, along with representatives of the Gullah people visited Sierra Leone. Campbell describes the emotional impact this “homecoming” had on him in his book, Gullah Cultural Legacies. The visit was also chronicled in the documentary, “Family Across the Sea,” a SCETV production aired in 1990.
During his time at Penn Center, Campbell appeared in the national media on programs like “60 Minutes,” “the Today Show,” NPR, and PBS. On one PBS show, “NOW,” the producers succinctly defined part of Campbell’s mission. “Recently, historians, anthropologists, and preservationists have come together to realize that preserving a culture is akin to preserving an ecosystem. There are many interlocking parts to the whole. The Gullah Culture of the Lowcountry is such a system. It has a language, history, economic system and artistic vision found nowhere else. It is indeed, a heritage so rich no price tag can measure its value.”
When Campbell retired from Penn Center, that just presented another opportunity for him. He and family members formed Gullah Heritage Consulting Services, which provides various organizations with services, products and programs, about the history, culture and preservation of Gullah heritage. Along with consulting, the Campbell family started Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, a narrated ride through the Gullah communities still identifiable on Hilton Head Island.
As Campbell became Executive Director Emeritus of Penn Center, another one of his “natural progressions” took place. In 2006, the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor was designated by Congress. The corridor is a strip of land and Sea Islands that extends from Wilmington, NC in the north to Jacksonville, FL in the south. In 2007, the National Park Service named the corridor’s first 15 commissioners. Not surprisingly, Campbell was one of the two from South Carolina. In May, 2008, Campbell was selected as chairperson of the group by his fellow commissioners. “Our task around the corridor now is to do an inventory of what is left of the culture that people want to preserve. Hopefully we can come out with a consensus over the next two to three years. We’ll take an inventory and come up with a management plan for the corridor,” Campbell explained.
What is important to Campbell about the establishment of the corridor is that recognition has finally been given to a way of life he has fought for so long and so hard to preserve. “First of all, it [the Gullah culture] is now recognized. Its uniqueness can now be elevated,” Campbell said.
“The environment has always been so important to our culture. And our own environment made it better because we controlled it. I’m glad there are others interested in it, because it helps us to continue the culture, helps us to protect the culture. By that, I mean there are certain things that conflict now with the new development. The culture has always been able to sustain itself because we have consecutiveness among families. We live on the land a certain way,” Campbell explained.
“Now, with the new development standards, where you have to have so much setback and roads that must be approved, even though it’s your sister or brother living next door, you have to come under the same kind of scrutiny as anybody else. That causes the culture to become disrupted. And I think that if people admire the culture itself, and the traditions, we have a chance of getting more support from outsiders,” said Campbell.
“We are always told ‘there should be no discrimination.’ I sat on the Beaufort County Planning Board for eight years, and that has always been the sticky point. How do you preserve this culture and treat somebody else differently? So now we have to agree on the diversity of cultures. Most governments have not come to terms with that yet. But how do you make policies to address diversity?” Campbell wondered.
That will be one thing the commission will face. “It’s a tough road,” Campbell admitted. But there was hope in his voice.
For more on the Cultural Heritage Corridor, visit: www.nps.gov/guge/