Lifestyle Of The Mende People Of
South Carolina

circa 1900

Aunt Sophie Daise
An Aristocratic Lady of St. Helena Island

Children On Their Way To School

Before the end of the Civil War, Penn School was founded on the Oaks Plantation. The newly freed slaves were eager to get a Education. Due to the isolation of the Island pior to the building of the first bridge in 1927, and the County not providing transportation, many children were forced to travel by Bateua or walk as much as 9 miles to attend school

"Michael Heard Rowing Across Beaufort River"
Taken from the Beaufort Gazette, May 19, 1998

The writer Mr. Gerhard Spieler is a writer on Black History for the Gazette

       The Hallelujah Singers were seen last week on the Good Morning program on ABC-TV. The program included a portion of a spiritual known around the world "Michael Row the Boat Ashore", sung in Beaufort's Tabernacle Baptist Church.

       This well-known African-American spiritual had its beginning on the Sea Islands of Beaufort District. Northern teachers and missionaries came here during the Confederate War. They heard it sung by the black men who rowed the ferry from the landing at the foot of Carteret Street across the Port Royal (Beaufort) River to the opposite shore of Lady's Island, now known as Whitehall Landing.

       Some of the Northerners wrote down the words of the song, as well as the musical notation. Gilbert Chase, in his book, America's Music From the Pilgrims to the Present, wrote: As a result of the activities of the United States Educational Mission to the Port Royal Islands, the first collection of American spirituals was published in 1867 under the title Slave Songs of he United States, edited by in Francis Allen, Charles Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison. Though this collection contains many errors and bears slight evidence of musical scholarship, it yet retains its importance as a primary source.

       In a lengthy introduction, Allen wrote, The same songs are used for rowing as for shouting. I know only one pure boat-song, the fine lyric "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" and it being the archangel Michael that is addressed ... On the passenger boat at the (Beaufort) ferry, they rowed from sixteen to thirty strokes a minute twenty-four was the average. Col. Higginson commanded a regiment of black troops stationed on Port Royal Island. He also wrote about the songs he heard sung around the camp fires. As to the composition of these songs, I always wondered whether they had always a conscious and definite origin in some leading mind, or whether they grew by gradual secretion, in an almost unconscious way.

       On this point I could get no information, though I asked many questions, until at last, one day when I was being rowed across from Beaufort to Ladies' Island, I found myself, with delight, on the actual trail of a song. One of the oarsmen, a brisk young fellow, not a soldier, on being asked for his theory of the matter, dropped out a coy confession. "Some good spirituals," he said, "are start jess ou o curiosity. I been a-raise a sing myself, one".

       Gilbert Chase concluded that the folklorist should be our guide in any folk tradition. It is to the folklorists of the twentieth century that we owe the rediscovery of the negro spirituals, and indeed of virtually the whole body of Negro music, including the remarkable wealth of secular songs of which very little was known previously. The transition from unison to part singing in the Negro spirituals evidently took place in the decades following the Civil War ... The question remains: what were the sources of this tradition? Did it originate with the Negro or did he adopt, it from the white man? ...

       Some investigators, notably George Pullen Jackson, Guy B. Johnson, and Newman white, maintain that the Negro spirituals were copies from the white spirituals, that is the religious folk sons of the rural white population.

       The opposite theory, upheld by Krehbiel, by Kolinski, by Herzog, and by Waterman, is that the negro spirituals and all Afro-American music in general, embodies traits that are fundamentally of African origin, though blended with Anglo-American elements....... Sterling Brown, in The Spirituals... The Book of Negro Folklore, wrote: A give-and-take seems logical to expect. Correspondence between white and Negro melodies have been established. The complete Africanism of the spirituals was never tenable. The spirituals are obviously not in an African musical idiom, not even so much as the music of Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil. But all of this does not establish the Negro spiritual ... as imitative of white music, or as unoriginal, or as devoid of traces of the African idiom.

       The obstinate fact of a great difference between Negro folk-songs and the white camp-meeting hymns exists. Even the strongest adherents of the view that the , origin of the Negro music is in white music, agree that now the spiritual is definitely the Negro's own and, regardless of birthplace, is stamped with originality.

       J. McKim, of the Port Royal Relief Society, stated in August 1862 that slave songs were "related to contemporary occurrences". Lucy, his daughter, had come with him to the Sea Islands and complied a "No. 1 collection of Songs of the Freedmen of Port Royal" which was published in November. Eventually, there followed the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States.

       In 1979, the Beaufort Council for the Arts received a state grant for presentation of An Evening of Sea Island Music at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. The Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir sang, with Cleadus Ferguson as director; Rosalie Pazant as accompanist and Alice Wright as narrator. They were assisted by the Ebenezer and St. Joseph choir and the RFP singers. One of their spirituals was Michael Row Boat Ashore


       The newly Freedmen were eager to become self-sufficient, but lacked the two main ingredients of a free person, education and land. Ms. Laura M. Towne was sent to St. Helena Island in April, 1862 to establish a school to educate the Freedmen of St. Helena and surrounding Island. Shortly afterwards Ms. Elen Murray joined Ms. Towne, together they founded Penn Normal School. It began as an agriculture school, later Industrial courses were added and Penn Normal School underwent a name change. The new name was Penn Normal Industrial and Agriculture School.

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Basket Weaving

       The trades taught were carpentry, black smithing, wheel wrighting, harness making, cobbling, and mechanics. Basket weaving was also taught as a part of the curriculum. Although basket weaving has almost become extinct on St. Helena it is very much a part of the GULLAH scene in Charleston, particularly along US Highway 17. Ms. Jeri Taylor pictured at the 1998 Heritage Festival is one of the few basket weavers practicing the art today on St. Helena Island.

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Net Making

       Net making is a part of the culture that was brought with them from the Motherland that's been retained. It is an important part of the Fabric that has enabled this community to survive and retain its uniqueness. Because of its isolation from main stream America, the residents of this island have been able too retained their identity and their unique culture. Since being Discovered by developers, the increasing taxes and the lost of land, has made it increasingly difficult to hold on to the things of the past that has kept this culture and community intact. Mr. Luke Smalls while serving with the Tuskegee Airman was able to retained his skill of net weaving which was passed down to him from his parents and grandparents. Today he still practice the skillful art net weaving. Mr. Smalls demonstrated his skill of net weaving at the 1998 Heritage Festival held at Penn Center.

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Grinding Corn

       Mrs. Rebecca Green grinding corn in preparation for her midday meal in 1909. Mrs. Green and her family lived on Dathaw Island, nearby Penn School. Dathaw Island today is one of the many Islands that have been developed as a gated community. It is unaccessible to the people that not too long ago was able to fish from its banks, farm the land, harvest the crops and grind the corn. Dathaw, a part of the culture that has been lost and can never be recovered

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A Family Reunion

       Family reunions are a vital element of the Gullah Culture. Throughout the summer months bus loads of relatives from New York and other cities across the United States gather for a weekend to rekindle family ties. Developers will argue that the gated communities that are being developed on land that formerly belonged to the indigenous people bring employment, yet young people that graduate from High School are forced to leave their birth place to seek meaningful employment. Community leaders argue that the jobs brought by tourism and gated communities create menial dead end jobs. Instead of providing jobs that enhance the quality of life, the results are negligible, this has divided families rather than keeping them together.

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A Sea Island Sunset

       Be still, sad heart! Behind the clouds is the sun still shining. Never once, since the world began has the sun ever stopped shining. Behind the cloud the starlight lurks. For God, who loveth all has left His hope with all: Be still sad heart.
Longfellow, The Rainy Day
       0, it is pleasant, with a heart at ease, just after sunset, or by moonlight skies, to make the shifting clouds be what you please, Or let the easily persuaded eyes..... The sun will shine tomorrow.
S.T. Coleridge, Fancy in Nubibus

       During the summer months when the moon is full and the tides are just right, a sunset seen over the marshes of St. Helena Island warm waters is a remarkable sight. Being buried near the ocean is a part of the Gullah culture. The believe was, if you were buried near the water your soul would float back to the motherland

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Boat Building

                            Sea Islanders have always depended on the land to sustain themselves. Before Hilton Head was developed into a tourist community and menial jobs were available, fishing, oyster gathering, and shrimping was a means of sustaining life on the Sea Islands. Until the first bridge was built in 1927 many of the tools used to work the land was built by skilled craftsman, boat building was included. Pictured here building a boat at the 1998 Gullah Heritage Festival is Mr. Sammy Moultrie a master boat builder. Mr. Moultrie was taught the art of boat building at a very young age. Today he is proficient enough to build a boat without a blueprint, the measurements are committed to memory. Although the art is being passed on to his son and grandson, due to uncontrolled growth it is a dying art along with the culture.

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       During slavery, most slaves were not allowed to Praise the Lord with their "holders" (often referred to as slave masters). Their were exceptions, those that allowed the slaves to attend had balconies. The slaves were allowed to "Praise the Lord" in their own communities, in houses that were appropriately named, "Praise House". At the turn of the century each community had its own Praise house. Religious services were mostly conducted by "leaders". Leaders were the "Elders", or the "Wise" men of the community. In addition to Religious services, community meetings were held to keep the community informed. Many of the Praise houses have disappeared from the landscape, those that remain are either on, or are eligible for the Historic register. Religious Services are now being held in our own houses of Worship. Pictured here is a picturesque, Historical Praise House where services are still being held, it's located on Eddings Point Road. Also pictured is Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ebenezer has one of the largest congregations on St. Helena Island. Ebenezer is located on Martin L. King Jr. Drive.

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