The Garvin House may be the earliest known freedman home on the May River in Bluffton, S.C. | Credit: | Margaret Palmer

The city of Charleston is hosting a series of public information sessions through August to give people around the area a chance to get hands-on with Gullah Geechee heritage preservation. Five sessions, which are held across the area, remain and are in partnership with Charleston County, the town of Mount Pleasant and the Preservation Society of Charleston.

The information sessions are an outgrowth of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Preservation Project, a two-year initiative supporting the documentation and preservation of historic Gullah Geechee communities and stories. The new multi-jurisdictional partnership is funded in part by a $75,000 grant from the National Park Service’s (NPS) Underrepresented Communities Grant program, with matching funds from the city of Charleston and the Preservation Society of Charleston.

Formerly enslaved people contributed to the city of Charleston, some to their deaths, and there was no significant recognition of that.”Adrian Swinton

“When it comes to recognizing and preserving the history of the Gullah Geechee community and other Black and brown communities … formerly enslaved people contributed to the city of Charleston, some to their deaths, and there was no significant recognition of that,” said Adrian Swinton, Charleston’s human affairs and racial conciliation manager. “These information sessions are just to state the importance of preserving all of that history.”

Chloe Stuber, Charleston’s planning and sustainability senior planner, explained the current way that preservation is approached begins with documentation — “Why is this structure, for instance, important?” After documentation is gathered, the significance is proven to an agency or local jurisdiction so it can be added to a list of historically significant places.
“Maybe there’s a monument, maybe more information is provided,” she said. “But what we’ve heard has been pushing us to go further than that and to really think about how land ownership plays such a big role in the history of Black communities in the Lowcountry. The preservation of the land and how people stay on that land — not just to stay but to thrive and be prosperous — that needs to happen at the same time. Otherwise all that’s left is a museum to the past.”

Just the beginning

Eight sessions targeting different communities across the Charleston area were planned from late July through August, three of which have already concluded in Wando, James Island and Mount Pleasant. The remaining sessions are set for:

  • Aug. 7 at J.E. Clyburn Wiltown Community Center, Adams Run
  • Aug. 10 at Cynthia G. Hurd Library,
    West Ashley
  • Aug. 14 at Chicora Cherokee Elementary School, North Charleston
  • Aug. 17 at Johns Island County Library, Johns Island
  • Aug. 21, virtual Zoom session (register online)

Swinton said the conversation is something many communities have become “disinvested” in — essentially giving up the fight to preserve their own history.

“We need to make that right, and the only way to do that is to invest back in these communities,” she said. “We have to put forth that effort.”

And that effort is beginning with these information sessions, Stuber said, as public comment continues to pour in. “This is just the starting line,” she said. “And it’s already evolving just from the sessions we’ve had.”

The original project outlined more than 100 goals, objectives and recommendations for what the city of Charleston could do to be intentional about lifting up Black and brown communities, she added. These informational sessions are meant to tackle a handful of those, such as connecting a cohort of historic Gullah Geechee communities with resources and assistance and facilitating partnerships with a network of organizations to increase sustainability for ongoing preservation efforts.

“That was something that came up in both sessions — emphasizing the sustainability part of it,” Stuber said. “How do we sustain this work long term beyond the grant period? People were really adamant that that needs to be a central focus on this. The grant is just a drop in the bucket. It’s only going to allow us to do so much, and there is so much history right now in danger of being lost.”

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