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Georgia Southern’s Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Center opens, bridges connections between past and present

The works of a Gullah blacksmith in Savannah.

The collective cultural memory of the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of enslaved West Africans who inhabited the barrier islands of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and northern Florida, has survived through oral histories and distinctive arts, music, dance, foodways and language. 

However, few within the Gullah Geechee community today, which is estimated to be a population of 1 million, can speak the African Creole language or tell the stories of their ancestors who are credited with influencing southern and American culture.

In response, Georgia Southern University has established the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Center to aid in the preservation of this fluctuating culture, honor the myriad contributions made by Gullah Geechee people and provide educational resources for faculty, students and the surrounding community. 

“The purpose is twofold,” said Maxine Bryant, Ph.D, director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Center. “We want to increase awareness about the Gullah Geechee culture and to celebrate it. We want to allow a space for the Gullah Geechee community to come together and problem-solve.” 

Approached by the Office of the Provost about opening the Center on the University’s campus in Savannah, Bryant jumped at the chance. 

“I’m delighted to have Dr. Bryant serve as the founding director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Center,” said Carl L. Reiber, Ph.D., Georgia Southern’s Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. “Her expertise, enthusiasm, and strong community connections will be tremendous assets as she establishes the Center and Georgia Southern University as leaders in the preservation, education and promotion of Gullah Geechee culture and heritage.”

Bryant’s interest in Gullah Geechee culture piqued after going on several local tours with Georgia Southern professor and cultural historian Amir Jamal Touré, J.D., who is also the resident scholar for Geechee Kunda Cultural Center and Museum in Riceboro, Georgia.

Bryant asked Touré to join forces and together they helm the Center with assistance from a nine-person advisory council that includes master storyteller and Gullah Geechee advocate Pat Gunn, as well as various University members. 

As a community anchor that connects the past and present through interaction and outreach across generations, education is key.

Beginning this fall, the Center will host monthly community meetings to allow the Gullah Geechee community to discuss pertinent topics, such as land inheritance and preservation of public space that is at risk as sacred ground. 

Bryant is also excited about a collaboration with history professor Michelle Haberland, Ph.D., and her students, who are collecting local Gullah Geechee oral histories this semester.

“We have identified about 14 elders in the Gullah Geechee community who have agreed to be interviewed,” said Bryant. “The students will edit and archive all of their interviews. It’s a way of preserving the stories, educating and increasing awareness.”

One interview already conducted features 96-year-old Sgt. John White, the last living member of the original nine Black police officers sworn in the Savannah Police Department in 1947.

“He knew George Washington Carver,” Bryant shared. “He used to take him and his siblings around Alabama and was a good friend of the family. So we capture so many stories like that. It’s been awesome.”

The Center also has a presence on the Statesboro Campus within the Department of Africana Studies. Bryant and her team are also designing a curriculum with the College of Education that is centered in Gullah Geechee culture for teacher training. There will be opportunities for professional development for public school teachers, employers and other entities with similar curriculum. 

The Center is designated as part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which stretches across 27 counties in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida and was established by the U.S. Congress to recognize the unique culture of the Gullah Geechee people.

Georgia Southern University, a public Carnegie Doctoral/R2 institution founded in 1906, offers approximately 140 different degree programs serving almost 27,000 students through 10 colleges on three campuses in Statesboro, Savannah, Hinesville and online instruction. A leader in higher education in southeast Georgia, the University provides a diverse student population with expert faculty, world-class scholarship and hands-on learning opportunities. Georgia Southern creates lifelong learners who serve as responsible scholars, leaders and stewards in their communities. Visit GeorgiaSouthern.edu.

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