Alphonso Brown introduces Charleston visitors to all things Gullah during his guided bus tours. A favorite stop is the home of Philip Simmons, a world-renowned 89-year-old Gullah blacksmith and gate maker. Scores of elegant gated homes in Charleston showcase his work, which can also be found at the Smithsonian.
During the excursion, visitors not only see significant sights, but they also hear stories told in the Gullah language--a combination of some 32 different African languages and bits of English. The language developed as a way that Africans of various tribes could communicate with one another so that their owners could not understand. "You can hear Gullah in its purest form from Georgetown, South Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia," Alphonso says. The tour starts at the Gallery Chuma, which features Gullah crafts and artwork by notable artists such as Jonathan Greene and Cassandra Gillens.
A few miles up the road along U.S. 17, another art is being made--sweetgrass baskets. At a stand in front of Mount Pleasant's Heritage Presbyterian Church, sweetgrass basket maker Vera Manigault skillfully continues the handed-down art form, one that is still practiced in Senegal. Vera works alongside her mother, Ethel, who has continued the craft in the same spot for more than 50 years. "I put myself into each basket," Vera says, wrapping a piece of bulrush around her right hand. "Baby Moses' basket was made out of bulrush," she adds sweetly.
Those baskets speak of the beauty and strength of Gullah culture--a culture as tightly interwoven into the Deep South as the palmetto used to tie Vera's sweetgrass. Threatened by increasing land development on the Sea Islands, the Gullah remain undaunted. They cling fast to their traditions, and their sacred connection to the shore gives them a resilience that awes us all.
This article is from the March 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.