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Althea Sumpter Scholarly Research

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Writing The Ghosts are Dying is proving to be a heartfelt endeavor. Not only am I preserving the memories of the Coosawhatchie elders, I am also integrating stories shared with me by my grandmother, who also lived during the same period. My original timeline for completion is being extended by the need for additional research. Encouraged by my writing groups and by my editor, I increasingly realize how much time and effort such vital work actually requires. The Ghosts are Dying brings alive my own Gullah Geechee cultural experience, learned at the feet of my own elders.

This kind of work is not the most lucrative, but it is crucial that it be done. My website ( https://altheasumpter.com/) includes journal entries for "Schooled by the Elders: Things they don't tell just anyone"— where you can follow my progress. A Follow button enables you to receive notification for new uploads. Audio clips from the elders are matched with the images of each elder on the Gullah Geechee Stories page. These new sections of my website are being built as we speak.

In the meantime, I have copied the first journal entry to this message: "Meeting the Coosawhatchie Elders." Thank you for your patience as I complete The Ghosts are Dying — and thank you for your continued investment in my determination to preserve Gullah Geechee culture.

Althea Sumpter
https://altheasumpter.com/

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The Ghosts are Dying:
Stories from Gullah Geechee Elders

Meeting the Coosawhatchie Elders

In September 2005 I first entered the Coosawhatchie (coo-sa-HAT-chee) Community Center in Jasper County, South Carolina. The 1950s one-story beige brick building was reminiscent of the schools built in the era after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the US Supreme Court that ruled separate schools for blacks were unconstitutional. Southern states responded by spending millions of dollars on building Equalization Schools, a move by whites to avoid desegregating school systems. The cafeteria and kitchen -- on one side of the concrete painted hallway from the community room for creative activities -- were just large enough for nearly 30 elders who met three days a week in the school converted for their use. A conjoining hallway housed a head start program for young children of the area.

The community center looked and felt familiar from my own desegregation experience in1965. The previous year, blacks could volunteer to bus from a St. Helena Island equalization school built in the early 1950s to the Beaufort City school system across the bridge. Six one-room school houses along with Penn School, (Penn Center) which started in 1862 as the first school for the newly-freed in the South, served to educate the St. Helena Island population. The attempt by Beaufort County to prove a "separate but equal" school system shuttered the island schools, as the county took over education with the building of the island equalization school. The two-story red-brick Beaufort Elementary school building was much larger than the building on the island that had housed all grade levels. There was even a separate building of equal size for junior high students and yet another building for high school students. My first day making the crossing into desegregation flashed in my memory as I entered the doors of this equalization school to meet the elders.

Those seniors were expecting me. They had already been told about someone coming to the center who was interested in meeting them. My role was to tell the story of why their lives were important as links to West African ethnic groups, and of my wish to interview them to collect their life stories. I began by asking if they knew anything about Gullah or Geechee. Their response was the same one I had heard growing up -- not wanting to be called Geechee because it was a named used in derision. Fights were known to break out over such name-calling.

As some of the elders continued making a quilt and others sat and gauged my storytelling skills, I told them about West Africa and rice. I mentioned how plantation owners generated wealth along the southeast coast of the United States by transplanting rice indigenous to West Africa while enslaving the ethnic groups knowledgeable about growing the rice from their own home. These enslaved ethnic groups expanded the inland rivers into the Intercoastal Waterway and built a massive cash crop on the Southern coast. Heads nodded because these elders constituted the last generation to work those rice fields. The Coosawhatchie region was where rice production was the king crop of the former Beaufort County territory.

When I was done with my storytelling, I sat down and waited. I learned at an early age how to sit and wait as a show of respect when talking to the elders. My time was on their time. Before anything else was said, the women working on the quilt stood up and showed me that they had finished their most recent effort. After the showing, they were ready to ask me questions about what I had to say.

I felt I was auditioning for permission to be in their presence. That feeling was accurate, since many elders before this day in my own Gullah Geechee community had told me they were tired of outsiders coming to their homes and placing microphones in their faces. I was asking to do the same thing, but I was asking as an insider, a binyah (born into the culture on the islands) who knew the ways of our culture and the language we spoke in our homes. I answered the questions. I gave the elders my time, and I gave them the respect deserved by those who survived their own Southern story. One elder mentioned, "I wasn't there in slavery time, but I was there in hard time." That seemed a fitting title for a book to tell their stories.

Days later I learned that twelve elders gave me permission to sit with them in their homes to hear the stories of how they grew up Gullah Geechee in the rice-growing region of Coosawhatchie.

This journal shares the insights I have gained in writing The Ghosts Are Dying: Stories from the Gullah Geechee Elders.

By Althea Sumpter ( https://altheasumpter.com)
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