Early Gullah culture embedded in island history

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Charles Simmons Jr. at the Spanish Wells Road site where his father, Charles Simmons Sr., operated his ferry. This photo was taken in 2014. Simmons died in 2016. DEAN ROWLAND

Editors note: This is the first in a series of articles about the rich Gullah history on Hilton Head Island.

The Gullah history in the Lowcountry is a long one, crossing from one century into the next since the late 1600s.

Enslaved Africans from Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia and other locations brought different ethnic social groups and languages along with them to the sea islands and coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia.

The struggle to cultivate rice on plantations in the Lowcountry spurred the slave trade, because the skilled West Africans had been tending to that plant in their home countries for centuries. It's believed that rice, not native to America, was introduced from the Caribbean in Charles Town (Charleston) shortly after it was founded in 1670.

The Lowcountry's wet, humid and hot climate was ideal for planting, growing and packaging rice, and it soon became an extremely profitable staple in the South Carolina economy. Slavery was encouraged and promoted by loyalists to the English crown, and by 1683, the black population in the Palmetto state equaled that of whites. Census records from 1708 showed a population of 3,000 African slaves, which jumped to 40,000 by 1729.

Slaves were abundant in South Carolina's coastal river deltas where they would clear swampland to form a watery "Carolina Gold" rice plain. Then came sea island cotton fields, another boon to the local economy.

Not much changed on plantations until the Civil War in 1861.

The massive Union Navy crushed the smaller Confederate fleet in Port Royal Sound in the Battle of Port Royal in November; Southern soldiers, plantation owners and residents on Hilton Head fled.

Fort Walker on the island and Fort Beauregard on Philips Island to the north were now occupied by Union forces. The accompanying Union army now had the task of what to do with 10,000 newly freed men, women and children slaves.

Maj. Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, headquartered on the island, decided to develop a town for them on a cotton field on the former Drayton Plantation in 1862. The former slaves were self-governed on quarter-acre lots, built homes, roads, stores and made education compulsory for children.

The First African Baptist Church built at Mitchelville is one of the few tangible remnants from the town today and is the island's oldest church. By 1875, 1,500 freed families called Mitchelville home.

It represented freedom in a new world and it was the first of its kind in the country.

The ensuing years dealt hardships for the Gullah people, but they persevered as a communal community despite the diversity of their African backgrounds. They developed the creole Gullah language - called "Geechee" in Georgia - and preserved customs in arts, crafts, cuisine, storytelling, rituals and music.

In 1890, about 3,000 African Americans were living on Hilton Head, a number that dwindled to 300 by 1930. A decade later, the island's population was 1,100, most of whom were descendants of freedmen.

The fourth Gullah generation since Mitchelville's establishment had firmly rooted its heritage on Hilton Head's north end soil.

In the 1930s, Charles Simmons Sr., "Mr. Transportation," began operating a mechanized ferry from the island twice a week to Savannah to transport people, goods and produce.

The main crop he loaded and unloaded were butter beans and watermelons, said his son, Charles Simmons Jr., in an interview with this writer in 2014.

Simmons Jr. said he grew up in a loving home in the Spanish Wells area that had no running water or electricity in the '30s. At that time, he said, Hilton Head was about 98 percent black but they got along well with the few white folk.

He was born in 1928 amid poverty, but said he didn't know it because there was always food on the table. His neighbors were fisherman and farmers.

After his higher learning education and a stint in the army, he returned to Hilton Head and vowed to never leave. He got married, raised four children with his wife, worked, got involved in civic and academic organizations, and lived a good Gullah life. He died at 87 in 2016.

Dr. Emory Campbell, 77, a pre-eminent Gullah community leader, grew up here in the 1940s and '50s and has said that about 1,500 residents called Hilton Head home then. They formed about 10 distinct neighborhoods, each self-sustaining with extended families.

But in the early 1950s, change started rolling in with the Lowcountry tides.

Then the bridge to the mainland was built in 1956.

Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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