Penn Center celebrates Gullah-Geechee heritage

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Penn Center celebrates Gullah-Geechee heritage

By ANNE CHRISTNOVICH
achristnovich@beaufortgazette.com
Published Saturday, November 10, 2012   |  456 Words  |  

"Heritage" is about more than a where a person was born.

It's about more than the foods one grows up eating, the songs one learns to sing or the stories passed down to children.

It's about how all of those things create the whole person.

Hundreds came to St. Helena Island on Saturday to enjoy all those things -- frogmore stew, handmade crafts, gospel music and stories -- at the 30th Penn Center Heritage Day Celebration.

The emphasis was on native island culture.

On entering the Penn Center grounds, the first thing a festivalgoer likely saw was native islander Ben C. Johnson Jr. and his family sitting on the tailgates of two trucks parked near the entrance. The family sells bushels of sweet potatoes, freshly picked collared greens and bundles of six-foot-long sugar cane stalks from the truck beds.

"We're here every year in about the same spot," Johnson said.

Customers could be seen strolling through the celebration with the tall stalks of cane sticking up like snorkels from water.

Johnson's sister, Zezalee Smalls, sat near the main stage, about 100 feet away from her brother, under a blue tent with a white and purple banner that said Gullah Church Nurse's Association. She was among the first African American nurses hired at the Naval Hospital, she said, and worked there for 34 years.

The association's founders -- most of whom are native to the island -- knew they were rare liaisons between modern medicine and the holistic Gullah-Geechee approach, according to association member Saundra Renee Smith.

"When we first started, you needed to speak Gullah," she said. "It took a lot of convincing... but trust in some (modern) medicine was established ... ."

Robert Middleton was a baby when his adoptive parents brought him from Philadelphia to live on St. Helena. After attending the Penn Center school as a boy, he became an Army Engineer during the Korean War. After the war, he returned to Philadelphia, where he lived for a number of years.

Later, he came back to St. Helena and wrote a short book that chronicled how his life was shaped by the island .

"One of the greatest things that's happened to this (island) is the school," he said, referring to Penn Center. "I want my kids and my grandkids to know about it."

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