SAVANNAH, Ga. – Their dinner had just arrived as the two college professors watched their guests, a group of singers from the Georgia coast, unexpectedly turn saying grace into an outburst of song, rhythm and shouted praises that soon had other diners in the restaurant joining in with the impromptu performance.
"Before you know it, they're out of their chairs and the beat is getting played on a table and you had all the children in the restaurant shouting praises with them," said Mary Ellen Junda, a music professor at the University of Connecticut.
The dinner at a restaurant in Richmond, Va., last year with the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters of Darien, Ga., turned into another lesson for Junda and fellow music professor Robert Stephens, who have spent years studying the art and traditions of the Gullah, descendants of slaves who live in coastal communities from North Carolina to northern Florida. Scholars say their culture, long isolated from the mainland, has clung to its African roots and traditions more than any in America.
Now Junda and Stephens are preparing to share their firsthand research next year with 80 classroom teachers from elementary and high schools across the U.S., who will spend a week visiting Gullah communities in coastal Georgia and South Carolina. It's an effort to spread word of a distinct American culture that's rapidly giving way to assimilation as younger generations leave small island communities for life on the mainland.
Last summer, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Junda and Stephens a grant worth $180,000 to develop the teacher workshops, which will take place over two weeks next July.
For Stephens, a Savannah native, introducing school teachers to the Gullah people, their distinctive creole language and rich history is one way to combat the stereotypes he recalls from his childhood in the South.
"It gives voice to the fact that this is a legitimate, viable cultural tradition," Stephens said. "When I was growing up in Savannah attending high school, people sort of pooh-poohed the Gullah. They were not looked upon as being well informed."
It's not surprising two music professors — Stephens specializes in world music while Junda focuses on folk traditions — would end up studying the Gullah. The slave descendants of the Southern sea islands have largely passed down their history and traditions orally, through stories and songs. Prior researchers traced a song sung by Gullah on the Georgia coast to the West African nation of Sierra Leone, where the tune was sung as a funeral dirge.
The Connecticut professors will share not only their findings but also the firsthand sources of their research to the visiting teachers next summer. Teachers selected for the workshop after applying by March 3 will join Stephens and Junda in Savannah for tours of African-American landmarks in Georgia's oldest city.
They'll also take a field trip to St. Helena Island, S.C., to visit the Penn Center, formerly a school established in 1862 that educated freed slaves that's now home to a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Gullah history and traditions. Back in Georgia the group will cross the water from the mainland to Sapelo Island, where about 50 slave descendants still live in the tiny community of Hog Hammock.
Sapelo native Cornelia Bailey, who was born on the island in 1945, has become Hog Hammock's pre-eminent storyteller and keeper of the community's oral history. The professors have tapped her to share that history with the visiting teachers next summer.
"The teaching aspect of it I love because the more you spread the word the more respect there is for a culture that's endangered," Bailey said. "And teachers are the best people to spread the word."
Emory Shaw Campbell of Hilton Head Island, S.C., agrees. He'll be working with the group in South Carolina, where Campbell is a former Penn Center director. He recently headed a commission designated by Congress to study ways to promote and preserve Gullah culture in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
Campbell said he hopes the teachers visiting next summer will take lessons about Gullah history and traditions far beyond the Southeast coast to schools in other regions where children may otherwise never learn of them.
"Not enough grade school and high school teachers know about Gullah culture, which is the root of African-American culture," Campbell said. "People say that unless you know yourself, you really find it difficult to function in this world. I think it's important for kids to know their history, know their origin, know why they look the way they do and speak the way they do."