The annual Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration, held the second weekend in November each year, is a celebration of the unique Gullah-Geechee cultural heritage and the history of the Penn School on St. Helena Island, SC.
The Penn Center Heritage Symposium explores a different aspect of the Gullah-Geechee cultural heritage each year. This year, Lowcountry Africana was honored to choose the focus of the Heritage Symposium.
It didn't take us but a moment to do so – there are many innovative historians and preservationists working to change the way we think about discovering, understanding and preserving the African American heritage of the Lowcountry. We chose to focus on historians and preservationists who are rediscovering African and African American ancestors, honoring their accomplishments and legacies, and preserving the sites of memory where they lived and worked.
We invited, they came, and we were astounded by the work these incredible preservationists are pursuing in the Lowcountry.
Robin Foster presented "Leaving No Stone Unturned," which acknowledged the difficulties African Americans face in documenting ancestors and provided an overview of the basic principles of researching and preserving heritage. The presentation also included an overview of recently released FamilySearch resources currently at FamilySearch.org which link family historians to historical documents and free research assistance. As more historical records are made available along with the knowledge about how to find assistance, many will be able to accomplish in the comfort of their own homes what once required traveling long distances. Robin is an expert at introducing researchers to the world of free resources available at FamilySearch.org.
DJ Tucker, Director of African American History & Interpretation at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, explored the work he and his colleagues have been doing to humbly honor the memory and oft overlooked contributions of enslaved ancestors. Once known for serving in the vanguard of those that perpetuated a disappointingly sanitized narrative of plantation life, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens has made commendable strides toward shedding the romanticized mythologies that once dominated virtually all such southern plantation museum interpretation.
By acknowledging the immense genius of those that came to the Lowcountry from such culturally rich regions in West Africa as the Windward and Rice Coast, Tucker and company have with boldness endeavored to finally afford credit where credit is so justly due. DJ passionately described Magnolia's recent initiative, the Cabin Project, to preserve Magnolia's former slave cabins that serve as a focal point and conduit for this award winning daily interpretive program effort.
Joseph McGill, Program Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Founder of the Company "I" 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment in Charleston, discussed the Slave Cabin Project, his pioneering efforts to preserve historic slave cabins. Over the past year, Joseph McGill has spent his nights in five slave cabins on plantations in South Carolina, in order to call attention to the need to preserve these long-ignored and often overlooked historic structures.
Joe is engaging with the past in an entirely new way by re-peopling the places where enslaved ancestors spent a significant portion of their lives, in order to say "This place matters."
Bill Grimke-Drayton, a native of England and a descendant of the slaveholding Drayton family of South Carolina, discussed how he became involved in reconciliation efforts through Coming to the Table, a program at Eastern Mennonite University which brings together the descendants of slaves and descendants of slaveholders, in order to address the painful legacy of slavery in the United States.
Bill has made frequent trips to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and Drayton Hall Plantation in order to meet both African American and white descendants who share his family's name and history. Bill discussed the history of the Drayton family's Fish Haul Plantation on Hilton Head Island and read poems from his book Freedom Reclaimed, a collection of poems of introspection on his family's connection to American slavery.