Gullah Museum
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Photo Credit: LMGS

by Luana M. Graves Sellars

When someone unfamiliar with the island drives down GumTree Road, is not paying attention, they might not notice the tiny bright aqua blue house that sits to the side. It’s at least 85 years old, not in perfect condition and made up of two small rooms. But, when you go inside, that Little Blue House you will discover holds a great wealth of historic knowledge about the Gullah. The Little Blue House is the birthplace of the Gullah Museum where the memory of how life on Hilton Head was for native islanders was like before influences came from across the bridge and how some traditions continue to live on today.

Inside the Little Blue House lives a great mission to preserve and protect artifacts, stories and a culture. When you walk into the Little Blue House, you’re greeted by a voice that sounds like warm maple syrup that envelopes you and takes you on a journey back in time to when Africans on Hilton Head began to adapt to living free in America. If you want to learn about the history of Hilton Head before the bridge, you have three points on your journey. “Honey Horn represents slavery. Mitchelville represents freedom, and the Gullah Museum represents independence,” said Louise Cohen curator of the Gullah Museum. 

Cohen will begin your visit to the museum with an incredible story of courage and determination, the story of her Great Great Grandparents, and how her family originally came to Hilton Head Island is an incredible one. Her family was enslaved and brought through Sullivan Island and eventually to Rose Hill Plantation, where even today, the names of her Great Great Grand Parents, Cesar Kirk Jones and Moriah Jones are listed in a frame on the wall of the plantation among others.

The story has been told that after hearing Cesar and Moriah heard about the freedom that existed in Mitchelville and decided to escape from Rose Hill along with their three children, the youngest being 3 years old. One evening, Cesar, Moriah and the children made their way along the water’s edge and took a bateau that they found. As they were getting into the bateau, the youngest child started crying inconsolably. Fearing that her screams would draw attention to them and impact all of their chances for freedom, Cesar told Moriah that they would be discovered because of the crying and in a heart-wrenching decision, told Moriah to throw the screaming child overboard, so that they could continue to make their way across the water undetected.

Moriah was suddenly faced with the impossible choice of freedom for her family, the consequences of getting caught or the life of her child. Before she was forced to make such a difficult decision, she found a piece of mattress lying by the water’s edge, she rolled the child up into the material, cradled her in her arms, all the while patting the material to reassure the child until they were able to make it across the water. The child was Amy Jones Miller, Louise Cohen’s Great Grandmother. It’s stories like this one that give substance, life and true meaning to the Gullah Museum, and is part of the driving force behind Cohen’s belief in doing the hard work that she does preserving her culture for future generations.

The story of how the Gullah people have been able to survive against all of the various influences that they have come across only strengthens the level of respect that is well deserved. As children, growing up knowing and understanding the language and culture as they did, it was difficult when interacting with outsiders to be proud of how they spoke, because in school, the Gullah language was considered to be broken English and backwards talking. Teachers would discipline them for talking so fast and in a way that was not always understood by everyone.

The Gullah language is a blending of African and English words so that slaves could talk in front of slave owners so that they couldn’t be understood by them. Growing up however, “people laughed at us for how we sounded and as a result of that some people have become ashamed of the Gullah culture,” says Cohen. “We need to stand up as a people and tell our story for who we are. No one else can tell our story better than ourselves. We have to accept who we are, we have to love who God made us into.”

The Gullah Museum
Photo Credit: LMGS

For hundreds of years, the Gullah culture has been able to survive regardless of the obstacles such as slave owners trying to destroy their traditions, but other outside influences that eventually came into play as well. “The museum is here to tell the story of the Gullah. If our children don’t have something tangible to see or hold on to, then they don’t see our culture as real.” Passing down family legacies among the Gullah remains a challenge, even today.

The Gullah’s worked very hard using the resources that the island provided. Growing crops to feed the family and make a living from was common as well as harvesting oysters and fish from the surrounding waters was how most of the families were able to make a living. The inheritance of houses and land on Hilton Head, has been passed down for generations. “Nobody gave the Blacks on the island anything. Families worked hard for what they had and all of the land that we inherited was purchased. There are records of my family buying property for as little as $1 an acre,” says Cohen.

Stories and artifacts that demonstrate determination and perseverance are an important piece of making the culture something to be proud of. For instance, looking back to her childhood, Cohen didn’t realize how hard that her mother worked shucking oysters until she found the oyster knife that she used so much that her mother’s fingerprints are embedded in the handle as a reminder.

The struggle that she has had however, in addition to gathering artifacts and information is also trying to raise funds in order to keep the project alive. An annual gala and other events throughout the year are all part of what she does to raise money so that the museum can grow into the campus that she envisions. The little blue house was the first of several buildings that are to be renovated and ultimately consist of the museum’s compound.  Other buildings that she owns and will be renovating, plus a replica of the house that she was raised in are all part of the goals that she has to house the museum.

The preservation of a culture is important because not only does it represent someone’s life, but it also represents a piece of all of us that is worthy of recognition and should never be denied. The Little Blue House is an amazing walk back in time and a journey that everyone should take.

Click here for more information about the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head.  

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