Section: News

Digital archive features Gullah culture work

The South Carolina Penn Center oral history team, which includes several Cleveland high school teachers, Kenyon graduates and two visiting faculty from Cyprus. | Courtesy of Peter Rutkoff

As of this fall, Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff and Professor Emeritus of History Will Scott have published their extensive research on the Gullah culture. The project, which has developed over the course of two decades, is now publicly available via the Digital Kenyon archive.

Gullah refers to a language, a people and a culture dating back to the middle of the 17th century. Today, only 6,000 Gullah speakers remain, most of whom live on St. Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina.

Over three summers from 2011 through 2013, Rutkoff and Scott led Kenyon students and Cleveland-based high school teachers on trips to St. Helena. There, they took photographs and conducted interviews with locals to compile an oral history. The result was about 250 hours of video recordings.

“We have film of church services, talking to people about the food they cooked, just all kinds of amazing stuff,” said Rutkoff. “This is probably the last generation that will continue to speak the [Gullah] language. So our thought was, let’s try to get as much down as possible before it disappears.”

Historians estimate that as many as 40 percent of West African slaves coming to America passed through St. Helena or other nearby islands. To communicate with one another, the slaves developed a language that combined African syntax with English vocabulary. A lack of bridges from mainland South Carolina to the islands ensured that the Gullah had little contact with white Americans, who might have diluted their culture. After the Civil War, St. Helena became the only place in America where former slaves were granted titles to their land. Their established space, culture and language enabled them to preserve their way of life.

Rutkoff and Scott’s project grew out of their close partnership as colleagues at Kenyon. The duo previously co-taught a seminar on the Great Migration. Over the years, they became more interested in the Gullah culture.

“The more we studied all of this, the more we realized this is such a wonderful, powerful, interesting thing … It’s a very rich component of African American history that’s virtually unknown,” Rutkoff said.

Though the project began as a side interest for Rutkoff and Scott, it quickly grew; funding contributed by various foundations, including the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Gund Gallery added an interdisciplinary element to the project in 2014, when they ran three exhibitions on Gullah culture. Through the Kenyon Academic Partnership that Rutkoff chairs, the professors invited Cleveland public school teachers to join them on trips to St. Helena.

The teachers, who worked in teams, created lesson plans for their students and helped document the oral histories. Kenyon students were responsible for transcribing interviews.

“It took a long time not just to do the histories, but to get them transcribed,” Rutkoff said.

Eight and a half years have passed since Rutkoff wrote the only blog post on the digital archive, published in July of 2011 after a trip to St. Helena. “It is clear to us … that this is an unanticipated start to something with great promise,” he wrote in the post. “There are 8,000 residents of St. Helena — and each has a story to tell.”

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