February 13, 2013

Giving Gullah/Geechee Culture a Home at "The Little House"

  • By: David Weible

The renovated Little House. Credit: Megan Tyson
The Little House

It’s that time of year again -- awards season -- and though the Grammys and the Oscars are nice, I like to keep an eye on the Richard H. Driehaus National Preservation Awards as well. Last year’s list of winners is packed with worthy recipients, but one in particular stands out to me because of its efforts to preserve a culture I hadn't even known existed.

For a long time, I had thought of Hilton Head Island, which lies off the coast of South Carolina, south of Charleston, as just another resort community in a warmer climate than my own. What I didn't know was that the island is a traditional home of the Gullah/Geechee, an African-American farming and fishing culture that spanned the barrier islands from Florida to North Carolina. Starting in 2010, preservationists led an effort to preserve that culture in the form of "The Little House."

The small, blue house was built for William Simmons, also known as “Bubba Duey,” on land purchased by his formerly-enslaved grandfather with the money he earned by enlisting in the Civil War. The house represents what Gullah culture was like on the island before a bridge was built in 1956, bringing electricity, development, and irreversible change with it.

A young volunteer helps to paint The Little House. Credit: Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island
A young volunteer helps to paint The Little House.

But by the early 2000s, the house had suffered extensive damage to both its interior and exterior from weathering, animal nesting, and general disregard. Thanks to a two-year capital campaign, the restoration of the historic house began in the summer of 2010, led by Louise Miller Cohen, a relative of William Simmons, and founder and director of the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island.

Since then, with the help of donated labor from the Remodeler’s Council of Hilton Head Island, the house’s chimney was stabilized and reinforced; concrete footings were installed; ventilation was improved to avert moisture and termite problems; the porch steps, porch, framing, and roof overhang were removed then restored; wooden siding was replaced; and wooden shutters were handcrafted to match the originals. The house was also repainted in its original shade of blue, known locally as “haint,” which was intended to ward off bad spirits.

But for the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island, the preservation of Gullah culture doesn't end with The Little House. The organization continues to raise funds for additional projects that include adding another building to house interactive exhibits and a community meeting space, creating a garden for indigenous plants, and constructing and preserving numerous other buildings that were used in Gullah culture for anything from settling disputes to housing migrant workers.

Gullah Museum team. Credit: Butch Hirsch
The Gullah Museum team

The museum has also applied for a grant to fund a film project intended to preserve the experience of current Gullah elders by recording their stories of what life was like in this farming and bartering community before development started in the 1960s.

Thanks to the museum, and community organizations like the local Boys and Girls Club that have donated their time and helped them achieve their goals, more people will have the opportunity to discover the vibrant and beautiful culture of the Gullah/Geechee.


Do you have a successful preservation project in your community you think deserves recognition? Nominate it for a National Preservation Award! Applications for this year's awards are due March 8, 2013.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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