Gullah Geeche culture dancing

Plantersville Elementary students performed on the late Roger Johansen’s drums during the Gullah Geeche Community Day at Coastal Carolina University.

A relationship that began with a donated drum collection has expanded to a multi-year, generously funded endeavor to preserve local heritage in the Plantersville community.

Over the past year, Coastal Carolina University’s Athenaeum Press and the Charles Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies have been awarded multiple grants to continue documenting stories and cultural artifacts related to area Gullah Geechee people and culture. Through the work of Eric Crawford, musicologist and director of the Joyner Institute, and Alli Crandell, director of digital initiatives and the Athenaeum Press, those financial resources are being transformed into programming and education.

The Joyner Institute established the International Gullah Geechee and African Diaspora Conference in 2019, which highlights global efforts in scholarship, cultural preservation, performance, education, and legislation. The second annual conference, held on the CCU campus in March 2020, was awarded $10,000 by the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation, while the Gullah Geechee Community Day, held as part of the conference in downtown Conway, was awarded $8,000 by the South Carolina Humanities Council.

Crawford stumbled upon a connection between two academic areas in September 2019 when he learned of a drum collection donated to the University by the family of the late Roger Johansen, a senior lecturer in the Department of English. Crawford had already been corresponding with Plantersville Elementary regarding music education outreach efforts, so he put two and two together, making arrangements to have the collection of 25 African drums donated to the school.

In March 2020, Crawford received a $5,000 grant from the Bunnelle Foundation, and the funds went straight toward Plantersville Elementary. The grant funded Leon Jackson, a master drummer from Georgetown, to conduct a masterclass with the students on the traditions and rhythms of African drumming. It also provided for Plantersville Elementary students, who had taken an immediate interest in the drums, to attend the Gullah Conference’s Community Day event in Conway in early March and perform on Johansen’s drums, demonstrating their months of hard work and preparation.

African drums

Leon Jackson, center, and his little drummers performing at the Gullah Geeche Community Day event.

Crawford said the performance constituted the first phase of the CCU-Plantersville relationship, one that will further instill the community’s Gullah Geechee heritage into the curriculum.

“For [students] to have this world percussion ensemble is very important. Drums are pivotal to Gullah Geechee culture,” Crawford said. “Just seeing how the kids had a great time, how proud they were of themselves ... if kids can find success in one area, then it’s a key boost to transfer to other areas, too.”

In August 2019, the Joyner Institute and Athenaeum Press were awarded $50,000 from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation to establish a two-year partnership to preserve the community’s local Gullah heritage. The funding was dedicated to the expansion of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Conservation Project (GGDP) at the Plantersville Cultural Center, founded in September 2019, and the ongoing endeavor serves as the second phase of the CCU-Plantersville collaboration.

Crandell said that plans to display kiosks of oral histories, entitled will have a special focus on Plantersville, in particular. The town holds a special connection to Conway, Murrells Inlet, and Georgetown, due to its geographical positioning on U.S. 701 – a corridor for travel between these communities.

“One of the main questions when we planned the Gullah Geechee Community Day in Conway was, ‘Why are you doing it in Conway? Why not in Georgetown where Gullah Geechee people are?’” Crandell said. “We wanted to emphasize that we have not only a really strong, amazing African-American heritage and Gullah Geechee heritage in the Conway region, but that African-Americans within these communities, historically, have had to travel up and down 701 to vote and go to high school. It was amazing to rediscover the connection that runs up and down 701 – that Conway inextricably is connected to Plantersville, which is inextricably connected to Georgetown.”

Crandell and Crawford credits Ray Funnye, public services director of Georgetown; Patti Edwards, music educator at Plantersville Elementary; and Johanna Verner, reading and curriculum coach at Plantersville, for their assistance and dedication.

“We’re blessed to have them as collaborators,” said Crandell. “They attended our conference and they helped us plan in terms of Community Day; we’re quickly forming a great partnership.”