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Preserving Slave-Era Culture

By France Griggs Sloat

Several years ago, Antoinette Jackson toured the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast near Hilton Head while enjoying a vacation through the South. Little did she know the chance visit would reverse her life’s direction.

The brief tour of St. Helena Island in June 1995 exposed her to the historic Gullah-Geechee culture that flourished with the growth of black slave colonies on the islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. Because of the relative isolation of the rice plantations they maintained for their owners, the Gullah people retained much of their African cultural heritage much of which survives today including sweetgrass basket-making, African rice dishes, a creole blend of English with West African dialects, spiritual practices and storytelling.

Jackson, who researched cultures as a hobby, was so intrigued by her discovery that she returned a few months later to visit the Jehossee Island rice plantation. At the time, she worked in Chicago for AT&T/Lucent Technologies and had an MBA she earned from Xavier in 1990. But her passion was culture, and she began researching the Gullah-Geechee on her own. That led to six years at the University of Florida, where she won a research fellowship and earned her PhD. Her 2004 dissertation on African Southeast coastal plantation communities explored the development of the region’s rice agriculture.

Jackson’s good fortune, and her research, continued when the University of South Florida in Tampa hired her as an assistant professor of anthropology. Her research has included published works on the Jehossee Island rice plantation, the Snee Farm plantation and the Kingsley plantation. Then, last October, she was one of five commissioners appointed by the National Park Service to serve on the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission representing Florida. The commission, one of 37 established across the country to preserve different elements of America’s culture, will manage and fund preservation efforts in the Gullah-Geechee corridor that stretches along the Atlantic coast from Jacksonville, Fla., to Wilmington, N.C.

“It all came full circle,” she says. “I had no idea that just stopping off on a vacation and getting interested in a culture would lead to getting my PhD and now getting appointed to a commission based on that work. You never know. You go on what seems like a tangent, and it’s all connected.”

Jackson is excited about the appointment. She still enjoys poking around the remains of slave chimneys, the rice mills and other plantation remnants. But as a member of the commission, she has the power now to make sure these and other cultural elements are preserved for discovery by future generations.

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