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Festival offers AB as site of Gullah center

Amid the traditional sweetgrass baskets and multi-colored garb at this year's Gullah Geechee Festival, a new sense of purpose energized the caretakers of this centuries-old Lowcountry culture.

"We're going the whole nine yards," said Sondra Ward, chairwoman of the festival committee. "We intend to put the word in for a Gullah/Geechee historical site to be here in Atlantic Beach."

The Gullah culture, a fusion of various West African cultures created when slaves reached the American coast has seen growing interest in recent years. In late 2007, a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn dedicated $10 million over 10 years to create the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which may include four interpretative centers along the coast.

One of those centers, Ward and others argue, should be in Atlantic Beach. Though the Sea Islands near Charleston and Beaufort are typically considered the epicenter of Gullah culture in South Carolina, Atlantic Beach was the only beach destination that blacks could use for years, making it perhaps more familiar to many Gullah descendants than many more traditional, but more remote locations, they say.

"There was no place up and down the coast that had that many people using one place," said Vermella "Bunny" Rodrigues, operator of the Gullah museum in Pawleys Island. "We had an awful lot of people coming right here."

Their pitch Saturday found fertile ground, as one of the fledgling corridor's commissioners was master of ceremonies, and four other members stood in attendance.

Mayor Eulis Willis of Navassa, N.C., who serves as vice chairman of the Gullah corridor commission, spoke fondly before a small crowd of his younger days vacationing in Atlantic Beach. After his speech, Willis said Atlantic Beach will figure strongly into the commissioners' conversations, but cautioned the three-year process is in far too early a stage to begin predicting what will be built where.

"I think it's an excellent idea," Willis said. "Everyone has been touched in one way or another by Atlantic Beach. We grew up in Atlantic Beach."

For those who grew up Gullah, the culture was just the way life was, and many did not realize its significance, said Althea Sumpter, who was born on St. Helena Island but now lives in Georgia and represents that state on the commission.

"Growing up on an island on the coast, we didn't know anything about no Gullah, and don't call anybody Geechee or you'll start a fight," Sumpter said. "Our job is not only to help people understand who we are outside the heritage area, but also inside this area."

Creation of the corridor is a turning point, said Veronica Gerald, a Coastal Carolina University professor of English and alternate commissioner who was master of ceremonies for Saturday's festival.

"The government has realized that the Gulllah/Geechee culture is in danger," Gerald said. "We need to stop at this point and make some corrections, so this culture survives."

In addition to the speeches from the commissioners, the festival also featured a short parade and a handful of tent-covered booths near the Atlantic Beach oceanfront, some promoting Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, Congressional candidate Linda Ketner and state Sen. Dick Elliott, and others selling handmade Gullah wares and books.

Dressed in bright orange, Mary Ravenell of Rowesville agreed that Atlantic Beach held a special place for descendants of Gullah culture. Part of the team that translated the New Testament into Gullah in 2005 and now the Gullah Bible's spokesperson, she held a copy in hand as she walked from booth-to-booth and read from it on request.

"Dey bless fa true, dem wa da wok haad fa hep people lib peaceable wid one noda," she read from Christ's Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, "cause God gwine call um e chillun."