Hidden in Plain Sight

In 1980, I began my journey at Fort Sumter National Monument. I quickly learned how some aspects of history were hidden in plain sight. Armed with this knowledge and my own life experience, I embarked on a journey to connect the park with my Gullah roots. It was my belief that Gullah Geechee culture was not hidden, but that opportunities were needed to reach out to this important and vibrant community.

The Gullah people, also known as Geechee in some areas, are the descendants of enslaved Africans brought from West Africa to work on rice plantations from St. Johns River in Florida to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. They combined the language, food and religion of their native Africa together with the experiences forced upon them in North America to form a distinct culture rich in language, art and music.

The journey to uncover what had been hidden in plain sight began in the basement of Mother Emanuel Church on May 9, 2000.
Courtesy of the Avery Institute
The journey to uncover what had been hidden in plain sight began in the basement of Mother Emanuel Church on May 9, 2000.
Mother Emanuel AME Church

The contributions of Gullah culture are still evident in modern American culture. The Park Service began to address this oversight in 1992. Prior to this initiative, the culture was largely ignored or neglected in interpretation.

This newly found relationship faced many challenges, mistrust and suspicion. This was mainly due to the Gullah Geechee people seeing their history presented in a manner that was not accurate.

Efforts in Charleston served as a tremendous source of motivation for this shift in interpretation. Through careful planning, the Gullah community in the Charleston area – and eventually in other places as well – began to connect and partner with historic sites.

The new partnership laid the groundwork for the exploration of Gullah Geechee culture through a special resource study conducted by the NPS. This groundbreaking effort, Exploring the Soul of Gullah Geechee Culture, served as a portal to carefully examine the national significance of Gullah culture in our American History.

The journey to uncover what had been hidden in plain sight began in the basement of Mother Emanuel Church on May 9, 2000. This joint research mission between the NPS and the Gullah Geechee communities was seen as a hallmark effort to bring the communities and the culture the recognition that historians had overlooked for three centuries. The five-year journey of public meetings took place along the Fertile Crescent from Wilmington, North Carolina to St. Augustine, Florida. It was both fruitful and rewarding.

The National Park Service was at the forefront of support for the creation of a National Heritage Area.Through U.S. Rep. James Clyburn’s leadership and tireless efforts, the creation of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor occurred in October 2006.

With the creation of the corridor, the Gullah communities had a voice and a vehicle to preserve their culture. This achievement also spurred other sites to begin to connect with their local Gullah Geechee communities. Today Gullah Geechee culture is widely recognized and shared across the nation. In addition, the International African American Museum will foster opportunities to link Gullah Geechee communities in America with West African nations from which Gullah ancestors came, thus ensuring an ongoing global discussion of Gullah Geechee culture and heritage.

Contributor

Michael Allen

Michael A. Allen graduated from South Carolina State University with a degree in history education. He began his career as a cooperative education student with the National Park Service in 1980, and served as a national park ranger, an education specialist, and community partnership specialist for Fort Sumter National Monument, Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, and Reconstruction Era National Monument. He retired in December 2017 after a 37½-year career of public service. In April 2019 he was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the state's highest civilian honor, for lifetime achievement in the preservation and interpretation of South Carolina's history.