LOWCOUNTRY GULLAH FOUNDATION HELPS PROMOTE GULLAH CULTURE
The Gullah community on Hilton Head Island has endured decades of obstacles to achieve its rightful place as landowners, stewards of a West African culture, advocates of an improved quality of life on the island and voices of its people and for the people.
There have been commissions, task forces, organizations, a staff position and a lengthy independent report over the past years assigned the task of assisting and promoting the Gullah life to keep it vibrant and preserved as a historical treasure.
“Right now, the culture is at a critical state for a lot of reasons,” said Luana Graves Sellars, author, speaker and founder of the Lowcountry Gullah Foundation. “The sustainability of the Gullah culture has taken the hit for people not understanding the richness of what it really was.
(Before the bridge was built in 1956)
It was a very simple life and based on community.
“Before the bridge, the lifestyle was living off the land and sea depending on your skill set. The Gullah culture is really the epitome of southern hospitality. It’ a different kind of warmth and kindness. It’s a tradition of the culture — to give of oneself.”
To help preserve and promote the Gullah culture, Sellars decided to found the Lowcountry Gullah Foundation in 2019.
Its goal is to promote, document, preserve and sustain the culture, and preserve the land, Sellars said. That means saving each of the 700 remaining acres through education and by offering solutions.
The Lowcountry Gullah Foundation believes there is a need to educate.
Sellars’ newsletter and website help keep the spotlight on the Gullah community. The resources spread vital news that affects the community and has a large loyal following. The website (lowcountrygullah.com) offers articles, images and collaborates with the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, the Gullah Museum and the Gullah Heritage Tours.
The home page is populated with a mix of stories; recently articles ranged from understanding heirs property to a profile on native islander Chef David, and a look at the island’s “first families.”
An article written by Sellars is titled, ‘Who Are You Really?: A Guide to Researching Your Roots.’
The informative article offers tips to research family history, including searching Census records and death certificates. There are also links to websites such as Ancestry.com and Genealogy Junkie (one stop site for anything related to DNA.).
If one is looking for military records, Graves suggests Fold3.com, which offers service records. Sometimes family information is listed on draft cards.
The purpose of the Lowcountry Gullah Foundation is to “give back to the community” and offer a consistent voice.
Preserving the history is important to the mission.
The history includes an understanding of the close-knit communal environment and how developers eventually bought Gullah land, and other acreage was lost at county auction.
The Gullah started to lose their land, culture and language. Basic residential and infrastructure needs were ignored, sustainability threatened and voices for change relegated to a background murmur.
“Several reports done over the years were put on the back shelf by the town,” Sellars said.
But the Lowcountry Gullah Foundation, which has a board of directors, aims to keep the spotlight on the Gullah community.
The most recent property tax auction in October had a profound outcome. For the first time ever, not a single acre of Gullah property was sold because of homeowner failure to pay property taxes. Education, teamwork, coordination and indefatigable effort combined to make the difference.
The Heritage Library assisted in helping families find their ancestral roots and land ownership as heirs.
“The end goal is we want to make sure we’re still here,” said Sheryse DuBose, Historic Neighborhoods Preservation administrator for the Town of Hilton Head. “We’re a unique aspect of Hilton Head that needs to be preserved.”
DuBose is “optimistic” that the town is headed in the right direction in addressing the Gullah’s needs.
In July the town council approved family compound and family subdivision amendments that “basically honors the communal living traditions of the native islanders.”
“Being Gullah is as American as America is,” Sellars said.