By Dr. Emory Campbell
Gullah Food & culture
We are a Gullah food preparation and distribution center that promotes Gullah family small farms and Gullah cultural heritage. Located on St Helena Island, we sit in the center of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
Gullah Geechee people are descendants of Coastal West Africa, from Senegambia to Liberia transported to America against their will and enslaved. From the early 1600s until they were proclaimed free from slavery in 1863, our enslaved ancestors produced crops that had dominated the West African Coast, for plantations primarily in the American South. They used their centuries-old knowledge and experience to grow rice and later long fiber cotton as cash crops for wealthy planters, while growing sweet potatoes, okra, peas and watermelon etc. for food.
After Freedom came at the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, at Fort Saxon, near St Helena Island, our enslaved ancestors of St. Helena and surrounding Sea Islands jubilantly began acquiring land for residences and for growing West African food crops. These crops included rice, watermelon, sweet potatoes, red peas, okra, peanuts, sugar cane, butter beans, and greens.
Land is generally considered to be the most valuable cultural asset of Gullah Geechee people. For many years, since Freedom, small family farms had been the primary source of food for Gullah Geechee families in the Sea Islands. Gullah families mostly use the land communally for residences and for producing food for daily meals some of which have West African origin. For example, Gullah Geechee “Red Rice” is almost the exact replica of West African Jollof Rice. When Sierra Leone President Joseph Momoh visited Penn Center in 1988, he thought he was back home when we served him several rice dishes including our “Red Rice”.
Eventually, as more of the population began working off the farm, our families increased parcels of food crops and transported surpluses via Bateaux with sails and later pick-up trucks to local city markets and parking lots. This practice predated Whole Foods and Fresh Market. It continued for a number of years until the recent increase in the local population and the corresponding increased demand for fresh foods that are locally grown.
We have responded in kind by converting the former, Leroy Browne Health Clinic building to the Gullah Grown Food Center. Leroy Browne was not only the first African American to be elected to Public Office since Reconstruction, but he was an avid and successful farmer of the aforementioned crops that he sold from his backyard to local residents for many years. His seasonal freshly grown vegetables have inspired us to promote the production of food crops with the same quality for preparation and distribution from our Gullah-Grown food and culture center.