The official U.S. National Park Service’s Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor runs from the North Carolina coast all the way south to Fernandina Beach, Florida, and its often unheralded impact on southern and American life has been vast.
But that influence on Richmond Hill has tended to get buried, until recently.
That’s why an event like Saturday’s first-ever Pre-Juneteenth Geechee-Gullah Festival can help bring people together, according to Dr. Karen Boles, a retired educator and Richmond Hill native who felt so strongly about preserving local history she founded the nonprofit David Boles Foundation, with its mission to “enhance the religious, recreational and educational needs of the community.”
There’s so much division in America,” said Boles, who organized the Festival to share her Geechee ancestors contribution to Richmond Hill. “If people understand each other, how we think, we walk, talk, how we do, what we do, then it brings union instead of division, and unity in this community we all love and call home.”
The event, which was moved at the last minute from Boles Park due to forecasts of rain, included everything from Geechee Gullah food, art, storying telling, environmental testimonials and music. Among the participants were Savannah artist Patricia Elaine Sabree, who has a gallery in Savannah, and Hermina Glass-Hill, Susie Taylor King Institute historian and environmental activist from Midway. Dr. Lizzie King from the University of Georgia’s Tree Life Story also spoke. Food included traditional Geechee Gullah fare prepared by locals such as Daniel Siding native Donald Singleton. And while it may’ve looked like good old southern country cooking, the ingredients and the seasonings originated across the Atlantic.
“Slaves brought the seeds from Africa for okra, lima beans, butter beans, rice, and yams,” Boles said. “Slaves knew how to cook them, how to cultivate them, and they brought that with them. Watermelons came from Africa, peanuts too.
Slaves were the ones who brought that here.”
Boles ancestors were brought to Georgia from West Africa to work the rice fields, and after the Civil War became leaders in the local Black community. She said she structured Saturday’s event like a story, beginning with slavery and continuing into the 1960s and integration.
Among those to attend Saturday was Christy Sherman, who heads up Richmond Hill’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
She said the event is a welcome addition to the city calendar. “This event broadens our understanding of the richness of the Geechee-Gullah culture. Arts and culture are essential to keeping our community vibrant.
Celebrating this history through food, music, art, and storytelling brings people together and gives us a sense of place and pride.” While Georgians may use Geechee-Gullah or Geechee Gullah to describe the descendants of the West Africans who were brought to the slaves, South Carolinians and others use Gullah- Geechee, or Gullah Geechee, without the hyphen. Gullah is used ot describe descendants in South Carolina and further north, and Geechee means those in Georgia.
Geechee is derived from the Ogeechee River, according to Boles.
Regardless of how you label it, she said the Pre-Juneteenth festival will be back next year, and the next.
“It’ll grow by word of mouth,” she said.