Videos broaden Maritime Museum’s Gullah exhibit

23 Sep

Videos broaden Maritime Museum’s Gullah exhibit

In the spirit of learning our nation’s true history and broadening narratives, the South Carolina Maritime Museum in Georgetown has added new videos featuring local oral histories to an ongoing exhibit titled “Across Time and Many Waters: South Carolina’s Afro-Carolinian Maritime World.”

The museum, which is a popular attraction on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®, held a reception to introduce the new videos on Sept. 17, 2022. The videos can be viewed as part of the exhibit on the second floor of the museum, or online here.

Ron Daise, vice president of creative education at Brookgreen Gardens, sings African spirituals and water songs during a reception at the South Carolina Maritime Museum. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

The exhibit shares rarely known facts about the transatlantic slave trade, including the fact that the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to the new world through Winyah Bay, near what is now Georgetown, in 1526. It also shows through newspaper ads that the term “Gullah” was a used to describe enslaved people brought over from West Africa as early as the 1700s.

The oral history videos include in-depth interviews with local residents of the Hammock Coast and cover a variety of topics related to the maritime history and culture of Afro-Carolinian’s throughout the centuries. Participants were Jodi Barnes, Dedric Bonds, Aliska Brown, Ron Daise, Vanessa Greene, Laura Herriott, Vennie Deas Moore, John Henry Smalls, Johnny Weaver and Steve Williams.

Topics include:

  • The transatlantic slave trade to South Carolina
  • Gullah and what it means
  • Spirituals and water songs
  • Bethel AME Church
  • Gullah culture and Sea Islands
  • Archaeology at South Island’s Fisherman’s Village site
  • Life on Sandy Island
  • Fishing and growing up in Georgetown
  • The life of Joseph Rainey, the first Black U.S. congressman

Georgetown Mayor Carol Jayroe, who attended the reception for the new videos, said the exhibit and videos are an important addition to the museum and the city.

“I just think it is heartwarming that we are bringing history to life and it’s something that we can share for generations to come,” Jayroe said. “What a great thing that it started right here in our city of Georgetown.”

The exhibit was made possible through a grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation with its first-ever “Broadening Narratives” initiative. That initiative funds specific collections projects that bring forward underrepresented stories.

The grant awarded to the Harbor Historical Association and the South Carolina Maritime Museum was for a “collection of oral histories and displays illuminating the role of African Americans in South Carolina maritime history, including the transatlantic stave trade to South Carolina; using water as a means to escape enslavement; and the post-Civil War transition from enslaved labor to work in the lumber and shipping industries.”

From left are Jim Clements, Susan Davis, Jesse Morgan, Justin McIntyre, Carol Jayroe, Ron Daise, Hope McFaddin, Steve Williams, Aliska Brown and Jonathan Angner. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

Davis said that in prior years, the South Carolina Maritime Museum exhibits haven’t fit the Donnelley’s criteria, but this time, the “Broadening Narratives” approach was in line with the museum’s focus.

“What we felt we could do in that regard is talk about the African-American experience from Africa to South Carolina and South Carolina specifically,” Davis said. “Then we will focus on the transition from the plantations to the economy and the maritime contributions of African-Americans to Georgetown and the surrounding areas.”

Justin McIntyre, curator and historian at the museum, was in charge of research and development of the first phase.

“For some time, we had an interest in the transatlantic slave trade, and finally with this grant we were able to expand on that story where normally we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” McIntyre said.

Susan Davis, vice president of the Harbor Historical Association, a nonprofit group that funds the museum, said the Donnelley Foundation challenged the different groups and institutions to come up with new ideas to include a part of the community that hadn’t been showcased before.

“We decided that we really wanted to get the African-American community in here,” Davis said. “They were such a part of Georgetown’s maritime history, and they should be included.”

Located on the second floor of the museum, this in-depth exhibit includes many panels sharing newspaper advertisements for slave sales, photographs, data, maps, and graphs from a variety of sources that tell a disturbing, yet important story of the transatlantic slave trade as it relates to the South Carolina coast.

McIntyre said it was very interesting research.

“Historians, we pride ourselves on what we know, but a lot of this … I didn’t know as much as I thought I did,” McIntyre said. “That is the great thing about this, taking all this information and presenting it to the public.”

Dedric Bonds of Georgetown talks about what Gullah means to him in one of the videos in the exhibit. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

This summer, Jesse Morgan, a Coastal Carolina University student who participated in the Georgetown RISE internship program, was brought in as videographer. He said he is thankful to be part of this project.

“It was eight months in the making, working on these videos every day,” Morgan said. “After today, if you want to see the videos at the museum or online, they will be available to the public.”

Future of the exhibit

Davis said the exhibit will be ongoing at the museum and will be made available to the wider public in various ways.

“We intend this (exhibit) to be up year-round, and the videos will be available,” Davis said. “We are going to have it on kiosks where we can keep it in the museum.”

She added that the museum has plans for sharing the exhibits with other museums and inviting schools and other groups to experience them.

“We want to reach out to the schools to make sure the teachers know we have this available to use as reference or discussion in the classroom,” Davis said. “We also want to reach out to other museums in South Carolina to offer this as a traveling exhibit, so they can use it in their museums, and we can get some more exposure to this.”

Comments about the exhibit

Two of the people featured in the videos, Laura Herriott of Sandy Island and Steve Williams of Georgetown, encourage anyone interested in learning about South Carolina maritime history to view the exhibit and videos.

“I think it will encourage people and give them a chance to learn more about how we came from what we came from to what we are today,” Herriott said. “It will show the impact of how life changes, but in some ways, it still is the same.”

Williams said he thinks it is important for people to know the links between African Americans and maritime history. He said since the waterways in this area were crucial for travel and transport, African Americans were certainly a big part of that history.

Steve Williams of Georgetown talks about his grandfather who worked as a riverboat pilot in one of the videos. (Photo by Clayton Stairs/Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce)

He added that his own grandfather worked as a riverboat pilot, a respectable position in the early 1900s.

“He traveled all the way from Georgetown up to Boston, I guess, moving cargo and that was a big deal back at the turn of the century,” Williams said. “The big ships, the schooners could not navigate the tributaries and waterways.”

He said he is glad that this exhibit focuses on the important role that Black people have had in the area’s maritime history. And, he said, the videos add another dimension to the exhibit.

“It is educational, it is inspiring, it is uplifting, but more importantly, it is inclusive.,” Williams said. “I am all for inclusion, and all races and all cultures have contributed to this country’s history.”

The South Carolina Maritime Museum is located at 729 Front St. in Georgetown, South Carolina. Admission is free. For more information about the South Carolina Maritime Museum, visit the website, or call 843-520-0111.

By Clayton Stairs / tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®

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