Located on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia are communities of people who are the descendants of enslaved Africans. They have a unique culture that is directly linked to West Africa. In South Carolina, this group of African-Americans and the language they speak are referred to as Gullah (Gul-lah). In Georgia, they are called Geechee (Gee-chee). Native Islanders is another term that refers to the Gullah and Geechee people. Many historians believe that the word "Gullah" comes from Angola, a West African country from which many of the slaves came. Another idea is that "Gullah" is from the Gola, a tribe found near the border of Liberia and Sierra Leone, West Africa. Although the exact origin of the word is not known, most historians agree that the Gullah people and their language have African roots.
Sweetgrass Basket History
The following is taken from a brochure produced by The Mount Pleasant Town Council and the S. C. Dept. of Parks, Recreation & Tourism
Sweetgrass basketmaking has been a part of the Mt. Pleasant community for more than three hundred years. Brought to the area by slaves who came from West Africa, it is a traditional art form which has been passed on from generation to generation. Today, it is one of the oldest art forms of African origin in the United States. Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, enjoys the distinction of being the only place where this particular type of basketry is practiced. Here, the descendents of slaves from West Africa continue the tradition.
During the days of slavery, rice cultivation and the flourishing plantations of the Old South, these baskets were in great demand for agricultural purposes. They also brought added income to slave owners, who often sold baskets to other plantation owners.
During this era, large work baskets were popular. For the most part, they were used to collect and store vegetables, staples, etc. Men made these large baskets from marsh grasses called bulrush. A common form to evolve during this era was the winnowing basket (rice basket) called the 'fanner.' Other agricultural baskets were for grain storage, cotton, fish and shellfish.
Functional baskets for everyday living in the home were made by women. Some of these were made for bread, fruits, sewing, clothes storage, etc. They were made from the softer, pliable grass commonly called sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia filipes), because of its pleasant fragrance, which is like the smell of fresh hay from the barn.
With the decline of the plantation system, black families acquired land and started a new way of life. Because they felt that this basketmaking tradition was an important part of their cultural heritage, and that future generations would be able to retain an identity with Africa through the baskets, they kept the tradition alive. This tradition remains very much alive today. For generations, it has been passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter.
Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the Lowcountry nearly lost this valuable art. However, in the 1930s, basketmakers saw a new surge of interest from gift shop owners, museums and hand-craft collectors. The paving of Highway 17 North and the construction of the Cooper River Bridge made the route, through Mt. Pleasant a major north-south artery. Basket makers then started marketing their wares from a new invention, the roadside basket stand, which was directly accessible to tourists.
Today most basket stands are still built along the shoulder of Highway 17 North. Once a small, residential community outside of Charleston, Mt. Pleasant has become the sixth largest city in South Carolina. This, for the most part, is due to large-scale, planned development. With this massive growth, basket stands -- a part of the community for over half a century have dwindled tremendously in number. Within the last ten years, this development has forced many basket stands to relocate farther north. Others have been totally displaced, as there was no other space in which to relocate. This is a grave problem which basketmakers face today.
Another serious problem confronting the basketmakers of Mt. Pleasant is the dramatic decline in sweet grass materials due to private development of our coastal islands and marshlands. Constant search for these materials has taken basketmakers to other areas outside the community from North Carolina to Florida. Mt. Pleasant basketmakers depend on open access to these materials if their art is to continue. Increased public interest is needed to insure the future of this Lowcountry tradition.