CHARLESTON — The Gullah-Geechee culture of slave descendants living on the sea islands along the nation’s Southeast coast is being honored this month with a float in President Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade.
“We no longer have to be ashamed of our language, our ways, our history,” said Ron Daise, the chairman of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission established by Congress.
As recently as 20 years ago, many who grew up in the culture were ashamed of their roots and tried to hide them. This will be the first time a float commemorating the culture has appeared in an inaugural parade and it’s expected to draw new attention to the Gullah-Geechee people.
The commission last year finished a management plan for preserving the culture known as Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Georgia and Florida. It’s based on farming, fishing, its own creole language, history, cooking and crafts such weaving sweetgrass baskets. But rapid coastal development is threatening the culture.
The plan for the corridor reaching from southeastern North Carolina to past St. Augustine, Fla., was a dozen years in the making. If approved by the secretary of the interior, the plan would clear the way for federal money to be used to educate people about the culture, put signs at locations of importance and create an inventory of Gullah and Geechee sites. It focuses on education, documentation and preservation and developing economic opportunities.
Daise, a vice president at Brookgreen Gardens near Murrells Inlet, is perhaps best known with his wife, Natalie, as host of the of the children’s television show “Gullah Gullah Island” in the 1990s. He said that including a Gullah float in the Jan. 21 parade means the Gullah-Geechee people can take pride in helping shape America.
Michael Allen, the Gullah-Geechee coordinator for the National Park Service, will be one of the 15 people from the four corridor states riding on the float.
“What we want to do is convey the essence of Gullah-Geechee culture and history,” he said.
The float will include the sweetgrass that grows along the coast as well as the baskets woven from it in traditional ways. It will also include the cast nets Gullah-Geechee folk use to catch shrimp in tidal waters as well as a sound system playing recordings of music of the culture.
“I see this as a recognition of the culture and I see this as an opportunity to highlight the existence of the corridor not just to the people watching in this country but to a worldwide audience,” Allen said.
Donations, not federal money, are being used for the float.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the first black to represent South Carolina in Congress since Reconstruction and who played a key role in forming the corridor, said inclusion in the parade will draw increased attention to the culture.
The application to appear in the parade was selected from more than 2,800 nationwide.
Four years ago, about 130 groups with 15,000 participants appeared in the inaugural parade. This year’s parade is expected to be smaller, in keeping with plans to keep inaugural activities smaller. In 2009, an estimated 1.8 million people turned out on the National Mall in Washington.