By Luana M. Graves Sellars
I like puzzles. Like a good mystery, puzzles, curiosity and a search for who I am has become my life’s journey. I like looking for just the right piece and watching the scattered broken picture begin to take form. Loving puzzles is probably why I enjoy genealogy. To me, it’s another puzzle, just a personal one. Discovering my lineage has been my frustrating, yet intriguing puzzle for over a decade.
I grew up on red rice and okra hearing my aunts identify themselves as Geechee every once and in a while. Only recently, have I understood what a Gullah Geechee is.
As a child, I hated International Day in school; that day when each child would proudly say that they were of Italian or Chinese or German descent. Why? Because even though I’d say that I was Black or African American, it didn’t mean anything to me. Black what? Or Africa where? Identifying as an African American said to me that I was from the largest continent in the world; not a country and certainly not a specific culture.
It’s interesting how life can lead you on unexpected paths. I’ve been on the journey to discover my genealogical and cultural roots for quite some time now, but I never thought that moving to South Carolina would take me deeper into who I am, traveling from Ravenel, SC to Hilton Head and now to Georgetown; a trip that I shared with my mother and youngest daughter, Jayda. And strangely enough, during the drive towards Georgetown, for some reason, I felt like I was going to a familiar place, like home.
Research reveals that close to 80% of Black Americans who descended from the enslaved, have Gullah Geechee roots. The majority can trace their roots back to the federally designated Gullah Geechee Corridor, which runs from North Carolina to Florida along the sea island coastline. Records show that Gadsdon Wharf in Charleston, was the largest slave port, making South Carolina’s slave population significant. Charleston, however, was not the only incredibly active port along the coastline. The substantial amount of rice that was being exported out of the Port of Georgetown made it the largest and most active for the crop.
My family puzzle has been taking shape for years. And that 80% statistic is becoming more significant to me. My family, on my maternal side, was probably one of the many who came through Charleston.
Our patriarch is Caesar Ravenel Sr., whose birth information is unknown. His son, Caesar, for years was only just a grainy picture. Eventually, I found his birth in 1847, census records, US Colored Troop service, and death certificate. Only recently, did the discovery of the Ravenel Plantation and his birth in Black River, SC, both of which are within Georgetown County, come to light.
Not only have I been able to come closer to connecting to my lineage, but more importantly, my origins in America. My time in Historic Georgetown was the beginning of an exciting discovery that I’ve been waiting for all of my life.
Georgetown County is full of an incredibly rich Gullah Geechee history and cultural attractions that I was very excited about exploring to fill in the gaps to my story.
My first stop was to the Brookgreen Gardens, a sculpture garden and former plantation, which includes the Lowcountry Trail and Gullah Gaardin (not a typo, that’s Gullah for Garden). The trail began with an exhibit, details about the plantation and the process of rice cultivation. An amazing room-sized aerial map, brought the County and its geographic and environmental proclivity for rice production into focus. It wasn’t until I reached the final panel, that I found out that the former owner of Brookgreen Plantation, Joshua Ward, was the slave owner of my maternal line!
In my first few hours in Georgetown, my mother’s entire lineage was found! Not only did I uncover a deeper connection to my Gullah roots, but I discovered where both my maternal matriarch (Ward) and patriarch (Ravenel) came from. Ward was the largest slave owner in the country and who, owned Brookgreen Plantation and over 1,100 enslaved people.
As we walked past the sculptures along the Lowcountry Trail, images of each of role within the plantation are represented, Ward the owner, a caretaker, and a male and female slave. Each one was solid, yet transparent; like they were there at one time, yet no longer there.
The slave images made me pause. This land is where my ancestors were enslaved and survived. It’s where they most likely planted and cultivated rice. It was also where, listed among the roster of slaves, that I saw the names Catherine and then George, probably my Ward ancestors from 1850, side by side among at least a hundred other names.
Suddenly, the stunning beauty of the gardens and the massive live oaks made me wonder if they were also seen by my ancestors. Was the expanse of the rice field, one that they worked? I couldn’t help but wonder about all of the incredible stories of survival that the very ground that I stood upon could tell.
Brookgreen was suddenly a sacred place, one that I was saddened to realize that my 96 year-old grandmother and our family of 5 generations should have been experiencing with us. As we walked, the story of George and Catherine became clearer and my connection became that much stronger. My knowledge of my culture became more prominent; in the gaardin, looking out across the rice field, I understood now, why I had felt drawn towards this incredible place.
Brookgreen wasn’t the only place where I felt connected. I learned where Caesar was born enslaved in Black River, which was at one time a Winyah Indian settlement and trading post. Today, it doesn’t have a name, nor does the Ravenel Plantation where he was enslaved, exist any more. None of that mattered anymore. What was important was that Georgetown County is where my American story began and now I wanted to know more about their experiences.
So from the County Museum to the Rice Museum, I was able to see exactly why and how Georgetown, where five rivers merging into the Winyah Bay, made it the richest city in South Carolina and home to 150 plantations. Each river was lined with dense swamps with deep rooted Cypress trees that enslaved men cleared by hand. Ultimately they prepared 45,000 acres of rice fields that produced half of US production and 35 million bushels a year. The importance and value of rice in Georgetown led to the largest slave population in the world, and even though rice slaves were more valuable economically, the work was treacherous with an average lifespan of 2-3 years.
Sea island communities, like Georgetown, due to the climate and terrain, were perfect locations for cultivating rice, especially the high quality seed of Carolina Gold. With that in mind, it’s easy to assume that both Caesar’s, Catherine and George were rice laborers of some sort.
The success of rice in the US was a result of the ingenuity of skilled and enslaved West Africans, who engineered a tidal flow system throughout the rivers with the strength of the Hoover Dam and as structurally incredible as the Egyptian pyramids.
Historic Georgetown is an incredible port town with a strong Gullah Geechee culture. Of course, spending time at the Gullah Museum listening to the curator, Mr. Rodriquez’ powerful, yet softly spoken stories while surrounded by an eclectic collection of Gullah artifacts was another treat.
After being there and taking in some of what Georgetown has to offer, Gullah hospitality and culture was confirmed with (a few) dinners at Aunny’s Country Kitchen on Front Street. It’s where three generations of the Goings family greeted us as if we were eating in their home. We bonded over our Gullah Geechee connection and delicious southern comfort food served by the incredible Diamond. Every meal was more than casual conversation, it was a genuine welcome; a “let me call so and so”; a “how can I help you”, type of cultural hospitality that’s pure and simply Gullah Geechee.
Three days in Georgetown wasn’t enough for us to absorb the entire quaint waterside community, it’s shops, harbor walk, and all of its rich and significant Gullah Geechee history. Historic Georgetown holds my Gullah connection and I know that it probably holds that of countless other Gullah American’s like me who are searching for someplace to connect to. Being there was a soul stirring experience for all of us. We didn’t have time to visit the Maritime Museum, Hopsewee Plantation, Plantersville or Sandy Island, one of the last three remaining active Gullah communities in the US that’s only accessible by boat, but we will.
In the meantime, I’m still working on my puzzle. It’s going to take more time, but the image is becoming clearer, especially when I figure out when I’ll be back in Georgetown.