Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog


GULLAH CULTURE AND THE HISTORY OF HILTON HEAD ISLAND

GULLAH CULTURE AND THE HISTORY OF HILTON HEAD ISLAND 

The following article appears in the Black Pearl Sings! study guide, and is intended to help the audience learn more about the production.

In Black Pearl Sings!, Alberta ‘Pearl’ Johnson is a native of Hilton Head, South Carolina prior to her move to Texas and eventual incarceration. Hilton Head is a very important location in African American history; it was a key launching point for Union military operations during the civil war, as well as a place where African-Americans were recruited to join the Union forces. Hilton Head also is home to members of the Gullah, a group of African Americans who live in South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullah Culture arose on seacoast islands such as Hilton Head, as a result of the slave trade which took West Africans from their homeland (what is now the countries of Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia). The stories and songs of this culture have been well preserved, even in recent times. For instance, the folk song “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” comes from Gullah culture, and Gullah music employs the “call and response” aspect of African music.

The Gullah have been particularly successful in preserving their African heritage in the forms of language, music and folk beliefs, much in the same way Pearl was handed down songs from her ancestors, and intended to pass them on to her granddaughter. Author Frank Higgins was aware of Gullah traditions when he worked on the script. Even though Pearl has been away from the Hilton Head for years, she still retains some Gullah speech patterns. Higgins noted that if Pearl had been written to speak with a heavier Gullah influence, audiences would have had trouble understanding her without sub-titles.

Hilton Head Island - From NASA World Wind Project

The island of Hilton Head was discovered by Spanish explorers in 1526. At the time, the island was home to a population of Native Americans, but they were wiped out by disease and the Spanish settlement that began in the 1560’s. In the 1580’s, the English, led by Sir Francis Drake forced the Spanish out of the area. However, English settlement did not begin until almost 80 years later, when Captain William Hilton “discovered” the island for the English and named it after himself. 

Hilton Head played a pivotal role in the Civil War. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the union, and was the site of early naval battles. In November of 1861, a Union fleet captured the island. 1000 slaves were freed as a result, and the Union held the island until the end of the war, making it a major base of operations. From Hilton Head, the Union forces were successfully able to blockade Charlestown, preventing the Confederacy from exporting goods to Europe. Many of the freed slaves on the island joined the Union forces, and became the first Black troops for the Union army. After the war, the Union left the island, leaving the Gullah culture to grow on its own for at least the next 30 years. 

As Pearl notes in the play, which is set in the 1930’s, people in Hilton Head “don’t got telephones.” Indeed, the island didn’t have electricity until 1951, and the first telephone wasn’t installed until 1960. And the island did eventually get its golf course; it currently hosts a PGA event every year. Today, Hilton Head is a major tourist destination, and home to the Gullah Celebration, which takes place each February and celebrates the culture brought over from West Africa during the slave trade.

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Sunday February 14, 2010, I saw “Black Pearl Sings” at the Merrimack Repertory Theater – it was fabulous!!!!

There is a deep Lowell connection:

At the outset of the Civil War, President Lincoln established the Department of Virginia and North Carolina covering an extended area in Southern Virginia, North and South Carolina around Fortress Monroe, Hampton, VA, including Hilton Head Island, SC. Union troops strengthened the garrison at Fortress Monroe and by the end of May 1861, nearly 4,500 officers and men served under the command of Major General Benjamin F. Butler of Lowell, Massachusetts.

On May 23, 1861, Butler ordered troops from the fort to disrupt local citizens voting on the ratification of the Virginia’s secession ordinance. In the ensuing encounter, three slaves escaped to the Union lines. Butler declared the three freedom seekers “contraband of war” and assigned them to support the Union army at Fortress Monroe.

Butler decision received the support of Congress with the passage of the First Confiscation Act on August 6, 1861, which announced any enslaved person used for a military purpose against the United States could be confiscated. The result was a surge of African American refugees fleeing to “Freedom’s Fortress.” Eventually, the Union army established a policy of providing wages, food, and clothing to former slaves in contraband camps throughout the Confederacy. Thus, General Benjamin F. Butler actions at Fortress Monroe set the stage for the emancipation of southern slaves.

Comment by Martha




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