Gullah Heritage Tour
Author: Debbie Szpanka | Photographer: Photography by Anne
To tell the history of Hilton Head Island is to tell the story of the Gullah people. For the Campbell family and their Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, it all starts with five generations of their own family, and the story expands from there. Family members have told that story for more than 15 years to thousands of people in hopes that the story is preserved and honored as the island walks into its future.
Dr. Emory Campbell, owner of the Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, served as executive director of the Penn Center for more than 20 years. (Penn Center, a historic landmark, museum and a gathering place of Gullah culture, sits opposite of Hilton Head Island on St. Helena Island in Beaufort County.) He was shocked when he repeatedly heard visitors to the first school in the United States for freed slaves say that they didn’t realize African Americans lived on Hilton Head Island. “People couldn’t believe black people lived on an island known for its affluent resorts and retirement communities,” Campbell said. “They had no idea black people settled the island. The island, as a resort, was born about 56 years ago, yet Gullah history has been alive on this island for more than 150 years.”
The Gullah and the Campbell family story started when a handful of freed slaves and their families settled on Hilton Head Island after the Civil War, because it was such an undesirable place to be. “It was isolated. The heat, the mosquitoes and the inconvenience of getting on an island with no bridge kept the Gullah people in their own separate society,” Campbell said. “I didn’t know white people existed until I saw a ‘Dick and Jane’ book in school.
“We retained what we call the African-isms more so than any other group in the country. We were often called ‘Little Africa,’ because the traditions and customs of food, family, language and crafts were a way of life here,” he continued.
The Gullah people, also known in some parts as the Geechee people, are descendants of Western African slaves, known for their ability to grow rice. Slave traders sought them out because of their honed farming skills. Plantation owners in coastal areas between North Carolina and Florida bought many of them because the subtropical climate of the Atlantic Coast was conducive to successful rice production. Gullah people have preserved their language, derived from African linguistics and grammar, and some still speak it at family gatherings. The Gullah culture also gives the region specific food dishes, craft-making, storytelling, folk beliefs, farming and fishing traditions.
Campbell, age 70, is a walking encyclopedia of Gullah history, because his human experience was a personal walk through the better part of the last century. “We were our own society. We had families who fished, families who built homes. I grew up in a black world where black people were in charge. Now, it is rare to see a black carpenter or a black teacher,” he said.
In 1956, the state built a swing bridge that connected the island to the mainland, and cultural changes came as frequently as the tides. “Really, until then, Hilton Head Island was a place no one wanted to be,” Campbell said. “Now, we have 23 golf courses, nearly 200 restaurants, and about 40,000 people live here.”
Instead of rice and cotton, the new crop became timeshares. The world, as the Gullah people knew it, was now drastically different. The bridge brought people who went to the beach for fun.
Prior to that time, the beach was a place to work: to fish, crab or catch shrimp, Campbell said. “Yet, in the ’50s, we were told to go to Driessen Beach Park because that was the ‘colored beach.’” Funny thing, he didn’t know he and his friends and family were ‘colored,’ until someone told them they were. “It was so gradual, it wasn’t so shocking. A lot of little changes add up, and you wake up one day and say, ‘Wow, why isn’t it more like it used to be?’”
Campbell peppers his tours with humorous yet, historical tidbits. When he was growing up, shrimp and grits was the “poor person’s breakfast,” he said. Now it is a more than $20 entrée, and you eat it for dinner.
Just as he cast his net to catch shrimp for his family, he now captures the stories of his past and shares them in a two-hour tour, traveling through the island’s neighborhoods, which, back in the day, were strictly rural and romantically rustic.
Now, those neighborhoods are mixed in with expensive homes, manicured gardens and coastal amenities that have earned Hilton Head a reputation as a world-class resort.
Campbell didn’t want the island’s past to be washed away with the new waves of developments. In 1996, he decided to rent a van and take people around to the neighborhoods whose street signs and landmarks tell the story of the Gullah people. The van went out once on Saturday and once on Sunday from the former Gullah Market, across from Squire Pope Road.
Today, Campbell and his family members have their own 25-passenger buses and guide thousands of people through Gullah neighborhoods 11 times a week, Tuesday through Sunday, from the Coastal Discovery Museum, located at Honey Horn Plantation.
“It’s mostly tourists who take the tour, and many of them can’t grasp that a separate culture has evolved in the United States and they are just hearing about it now,” Campbell said.
The Gullah Heritage Trail Tour gives guests a ride through 10 Gullah neighborhoods and describes how each one was known for a specific good or service. For instance, the Squire Pope neighborhood was the place to buy shrimp and fish; the midwife lived in the Stoney section; and if someone needed the services of a blacksmith, he or she would travel to the Jonesville neighborhood.
“I remember when I grew up, we kept up with our 14th cousin, because you never knew when you might need a shrimp net or boat or something that his neighborhood or family could loan you,” Campbell said. The eldest member of the family supervised the neighborhood, and it was a place where people lived, worked, played and died, he explained.
The tour shows visitors where the one-room schoolhouses were and how cemeteries were near water so “the spirits could float back to Africa.” Campbell laughs as he shares personal stories of the landmark such as the Simmons Fishing Camp, which still stands near Marshland Road. That was the place where he learned how to fish by day and dance by night since it doubled as a club afterhours.
Once development came to the island, the land and lifestyle of the Gullah people was hard to hold, Campbell said. He remembers when land on the island was first bought for $60 an acre. Compare that to the late 1990s when the Town of Hilton Head bought the 68-acre Honey Horn Plantation for $10 million dollars.
Throughout the world, people are learning about the island’s history and crucial role of the Gullah people. It’s a good feeling to know that his family plays a crucial role in keeping history alive, Campbell said. “I just hope those with the power to plan the future of the island will not erase the history, the neighborhoods and the places which symbolize the contributions of the Gullah people. If one day nothing is left except historical markers, we haven’t done much. If the island preserves the Gullah families and their assets into the future, then I will be satisfied with my legacy.”
For more information, visit gullahheritage.com or call (843) 681-7066.