A Kenyon project is making a final push to preserve an influential but endangered slice of African American life. A research team led by professors Peter D. Rutkoff and William D. Scott has embarked on its fourth summer sojourn to St. Helena Island, S.C., where it will conclude the collection of oral histories of the Gullah, a distinct African American sea-island culture that has survived in the region for hundreds of years.
The team of Cleveland-area public school teachers and several Kenyon students and graduates will have compiled nearly 250 hours of interviews for the Gullah Digital Archive, a high-definition video record of a unique culture on the edge of extinction. To be hosted at Kenyon, the archive “will be the largest and richest Gullah collection in the world,” Scott said.
Rutkoff described St. Helena Island, where about 3,000 residents still speak the distinctive Gullah language, as “the last bastion of Gullah culture.” The researchers have been guided by a Gullah expression—“to know der you gotta go der”—to create their cultural and research treasure for the College. Team members have spent much of their summers on the island visiting residents in their homes, workplaces, and churches. “We couldn’t have done this without local people opening doors closed really tight to outsiders,” Rutkoff said.
Gullah culture derived from the West Africans who came to America as slaves and were sent to the rice lands along the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia, where—due to a unique set of historical circumstances—they were able as freed men and women to gain title to the land they once worked as slaves. They merged diverse languages and traditions of their native Africa to become a culture with their own language, Gullah.
The project has breathed life into a dying culture, further informed scholarship at Kenyon about African American history, and created experts whose participation has nurtured an understanding of and appreciation of all things Gullah.
Though funding for another year of research is pending, there is little question that many of the researchers will return to the island. “The culture and people there get under your skin,” Rutkoff said. “It’s hard to leave.”