Float in inaugural parade to highlight unique Gullah Geechee culture

Fri Jan 18, 2013 6:23pm EST
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By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A unique culture maintained by African slave descendants along the U.S. southeastern Atlantic coast will be featured with a float in the presidential inaugural parade on Monday, a proud moment for a group once reticent to promote its heritage.

To nab a spot in the festivities for President Barack Obama along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, those working to preserve the Gullah Geechee culture highlighted its ties to First Lady Michelle Obama's family roots.

Her great-great-grandfather Jim Robinson, who was born around 1850 - and likely into slavery - lived and worked at a rice plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina, said Michael Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Park Service in South Carolina.

That area falls within the park service's Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a federally-funded project looking to protect the culture and its people along more than 12,000 square miles of barrier islands and coastal areas that span North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Allen, coordinator for the project, said the National Park Service has identified about 1,000 sites connected to Gullah history and way of life that could be included in the corridor and spotlighted for tourists with signs, maps and brochures.

It is the only one of the country's 49 National Heritage Areas dedicated to the living culture of an African-American population, said Ron Daise, chairman of the commission that completed the corridor management plan last fall.

The Gullah Geechee heritage, which includes a distinctive language, has not always been acknowledged or embraced by some of the surviving slave descendants.

"As I was growing up and even until very recently, 'Gullah' and 'Geechee' were fighting words," said Daise, who was raised in a Gullah community on St. Helena Island, South Carolina.   Continued...

Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission Chairman Ronald Daise, a Gullah Geechee storyteller and historian, poses for a picture in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Daise said racial prejudice from outsiders, as well as a desire by Gullah parents for their children to speak standard English in order to succeed, drastically reduced the number of Gullah speakers. But over the last few decades, shame has been replaced by a building pride as Gullah culture has become more widely known and appreciated, he said. Picture taken January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Randall Hill