FEATURE ARCHIVES

Travels With a Geechee Girl

“Verta maintains that the Gullah, who originally spoke a language they called Ngulla, were from Angola and that in prehistory — you know, when the continents were all at­tached — what is now South Carolina was joined to what is now Angola”

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Where is Frogmore?

For years I’d been hearing Vertamae talk about her trips back home to the Sea Island region of South Carolina — particularly Frogmore, on St. Helena Island. Vertamae Grosvenor is a writer and one of the actresses in Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. But she is also a collector of tall tales, so any story she tells always has these wacky little twists like how there really is no Frogmore but people could always send a letter there and have it delivered. People on St. Helena Island still live in areas known by their old plantation names: Fripp, Wallace, Frogmore. That is to say, there is no downtown Frogmore, not even a village of Frogmore. A couple of years ago well-­heeled newcomers to the island decided they liked the name and had the govern­ment set up a Frogmore post office. Nev­er mind that the post office was not in Frogmore. (As we went to press it was announced that the post office was re­named St. Helena,)

Things are never what they seem in the Low Country and folks there will often just say “uh hmmm” when you ask a question because they know the answer may be too complicated for you. You being what some Gullah call a “fa come here.” And because things can get very compli­cated, without a sense of humor you will never find Frogmore, or anything else.

It’s like the Frogmore stew I read about in The New York Times — a wonderful­-sounding jambalaya of shrimp, corn, and sausage. Well, everybody makes a differ­ent stew, but if you ask them is it Frog­more stew you’ll get a “uh hmm” because that’s simpler than explaining. That’s why I went. I wanted to see what I might see, or not see — know what I mean?

My first destination on the way to the Sea Islands was Charleston, where Vertamae invited me to a book party. What could be more Charlestonian than a party for two cookbook authors at a shop that car­ries only books about food? John Taylor, proprietor of Hoppin’ John’s, at 30 Pinckney Street across from the old open-air market, was throwing a party to celebrate the reissue of Vertamae’s Vi­bration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl and Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking. The food alone was worth the ride: Smithfield Ham and biscuits with homemade mustard, pickled okra, south­ern-style Irish soda bread, and Mexican watermelon. Verta informed me that the occasion was probably historic, no doubt Charleston’s first integrated book party. In any case, it was a fitting introduction to South Carolina, everyone at the party being at least an amateur culinary an­thropologist. They knew a lot about what I call “roots food,” dog bread, hoppin’ john, shad roe with hominy, bride’s bis­cuits, and cabbage pudding.

Several hours later the cooks sent me to a nouveau French eatery overlooking the market and the Confederacy muse­um. The food, arranged on ’50s floral upholstery tablecloths, looked like it was designed by a magazine stylist, but it was quite good. The owner, a portly white man with a David Mamet crew cut, asked me where I was headed on my Carolina visit. “The Low Country,” I answered, adding that I like to go to church when I come South, just to hear the music. He pointed to a burly young black man in the kitchen and advised me to go to his cook’s wife’s family’s church on St. John, and warned me that if I didn’t know what I was doing I wouldn’t see the real Gullah people.

“You have to know where to go. I sug­gest you go to Edisto.” It seemed he’d been raised by a woman from nearby Edisto Island. “Edisto is where I go and I can tell you they are not like the Gullah some will take you to meet.” What did he mean? “All I can tell you is they’re real, they’re just very very real.”

A preacher I know from the hill coun­try in South Carolina had already told me that everybody has “their” Gullah people, especially white folks, but I still couldn’t believe my ears, I told Verta about it and she laughed. “You know,” she said, “when I hear white folks say that I al­ways wonder how they got to be experts and I didn’t because you know I was raised by black folks too!”

Gullah folk have by now become part of the tourist promise in South Carolina, right along with house-and-garden tours and the ramparts of Fort Sumter. Gul­lahs, real or otherwise, are a society and culture that have always been remote and mysterious and, ever since the Civil War, threatened with extinction. I suppose it makes people feel better about slavery to be able to point to “real” Gullahs still surviving, but it’s a sign of how bad things really are.

South Carolinians are kind of nutty, especially when it comes to antiquity. And they know people find them weird, so they have developed a self-deprecating humor as a kind of polite apology for their obsessions. Like the black woman in her seventies who told me how much Charleston had changed but laughed and said that that wasn’t really true because the most venerable women’s bridge club still judges members by who their grand­mother was.

Then there was my friend John Taylor, who implored me with a devilish grin to stay in Charleston one more night. “Oh, you have to see this,” he said, “you have to.” It was a concert of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, Taylor told me the society is a group of elderly whites who miss the strains of the old plantation songs, and so took to singing them them­selves. My God, I thought, they must be 115 years old. I didn’t go.

Preservation at that level is a lot hard­er to come by in the Low Country. When you ask folks, for instance, what indigo looked like, and how it was produced, no one can tell you. I couldn’t find a soul who’d ever seen any, yet thousands of people in South Carolina, mostly slaves, once cultivated this member of the pea family that was used to make indigo blue dye. Much of the history of these Ameri­cans has blown off into the Atlantic wa­ters like this curious little Indian plant that wore out so many lives.

Yet the low-lying countryside south of Charleston seems to look very much like a young black woman described it in the 1860s. Charlotte L. Forten, a young abolitionist and teacher, came to South Carolina during the Civil War to teach blacks who had been freed by the Union capture of Port Royal and the Sea Islands. Forten lived on St. Helena and taught at the Penn School, which is still there near Frog­more. She visited the Frogmore and Fripp plantations just after the owners had fled the island. Forten was the first black teacher to come to the area, and her diary of the period became the first journal by an African-American woman ever published. She was enraptured by the lush vegetation of the Sea Islands, the casino berries, magnolia, jasmine, narcis­sus and daffodils, and the “solemn almost funereal” look of live oaks draped in moss.

To get to the islands today the road takes you through Beaufort, on Port Roy­al Island. From there you can cross bridges to Ladies Island, St. Helena, Par­ris Island, or even further south to Hilton Head Island, which is where Verta and I were going. Verta’s navigation style is pure Yamassee. “Yup, this looks like where we turn, lemme see, yeah, turn here. You know, the police in this area are known for terrorizing folks. Oh. You see this up here, the place I was born is back up in there.”

Stopping at a roadside stand I thought I would get some homegrown peanuts. I was handed a soaking wet bag of soaking wet peanuts. Verta laughed. “Chile, ain’t you never had boiled peanuts?” I have now, and I’m here to tell you they taste like crunchy black-eyed peas.

We passed the village where Recon­struction congressman Robert Smalls was born a slave. Forten met him when he was running a little general store in the area and notes that he was giving it up to join the Union army. Once in Beaufort on Port Royal, we detoured through the one street “downtown.” Beaufort seems basi­cally unchanged from how it must have looked 30 or 40 or maybe 100 years ago as you drive along the waterfront and look at the old mansions, some quite decrepit. Signs placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy pay tribute to those lonely confederates defeated by the Union troops who captured the island. Forten ran into Harriet Tubman there. “The General,” as they called her even then, was running an eating house in down­town Beaufort.

After driving around some hairpin turns on roads that had ravines where there should have been shoulders, we crossed the Broad River in late after­noon. Frankly I hoped Hilton Head would come up before darkness did, be­cause the cypress swamps were very close by the road. A sharp burning smell blew through the windows and soon we came upon bonfires burning in a scrubby patch of trees. It was an odor I knew but it woke me up like a sudden change of sea­son. Some 20 black men were throwing heaps of wood on the fires, which had grown as tall as they were. They were clearing ground to build a baseball field for the kids. Sparks flew 20 feet into the air.

I was sort of wondering where we were and noted down the name of the Barn­well Clinic across the road so I could locate the spot again. We had already changed road numbers four times, and I felt a deep need for landmarks. On the blacktop road again, the edges of lush golf courses started to crop up, along with a few resort signs alerting us we were near Hilton Head, golf course to the world.

Another bridge let us onto Hilton Head Island and a post office was our landmark. The turnoff for Spanish Wells was a donut shop, then we were back to “this looks like it.” Spanish Wells is “the 15 per cent,” I heard — the 15 per cent of Hilton Head that is not developed, or where the black folks live. Over shrimp and rice that tasted like cook-up from Trinidad, Verta and Emma Campbell, a teacher in Beaufort, told me a few reasons why so many folks have over the years come down to Beaufort from Washington, Philadelphia, and Harlem, looking for real folk.

Verta: In the ’30s you know, even now if you look in the back of the Amsterdam News, if you check those spiritualists it’ll say “just back from Beaufort, S.C.” I mean, that meant something … Out of state cars be coming here all the time.

Emma: Seriously, they come by here all the time.

Verta: Asking about him, yeah.

Emma: Asking for directions to get to Dr. Buzzard’s house.

“There’s Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow, Dr. Buz­zard.” Verta was talking. “Then there was Dr. Stringleg. He was up there around Yamassee. This is a true story. My grandmother went to Dr. Stringleg when my father was on the chain gang. They called him Dr. Stringleg because he had a funny leg and he put a string on it.” She demonstrated how he walked by pull­ing his leg on the string. She saw I didn’t believe her even if I was laughing. “It’s true.” All Verta’s stories are true­ — mostly.

“OK. Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow. You get your name from the animal from which you get your power. Dr. Buzzard got his name ’cause they say his magic was so-0-0-0 good, so powerful, he could make a pot boil without fire. He used to have the buzzards rowing his boat and a crow for the pilot. That’s how bad he was. And you could be on Hilton Head Island, see him get on a boat and go to St. Helena and when you got to St. Helena, Dr. Buz­zard was there to pull the boat in.”

Back in the ’20s and ’30s, Dr. Buzzard was hounded by Sheriff McTeer. “He in­herited the job from his father,” said Verta. “Being sheriff runs in the family,” said Emma. Poor Mr. McTeer, it seems, grew up on a plantation and became in­trigued with the old black people who were root workers, particularly Dr. Buz­zard, whom he knew to be the greatest root worker. “He tried to get him,” said Verta. “He became obsessed with getting Dr. Buzzard. He wanted to put him in jail. He tried to use a law against pre­scribing people medicine orally.

“So one time Sheriff McTeer had this guy who was a petty burglar in the sta­tion house and something fell out of his pocket. Now each root doctor got their little special gris-gris, you could tell. OK, the thing fell out and he recognized it as belonging to Dr. Buzzard. He said, ‘Buzzy give you that?’ and the guy said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I tell you what I’m a do. I’m a let you off but I’m a go get Buzzy and you got to tell me that Buzzy was the one to give it to you.’ The guy said all right. So they went and brought Dr. Buzzard back down there to the sheriff’s office and he said, ‘Now, I got this guy here and I’m gonna arrest you Buzzy, ’cause you gave him medicine orally.’ And he says to the guy, ‘Where did you get it?’ and the guy went to speak and start foaming at the mouth and passed out.

“Dr. Buzzard and them would go and chew roots in the court. That’s the thing. They’d be in the courtroom. People would pay money to have a root doctor sit and chew the root. And you would know this person is supposed to get 15 years and the judge would say ‘case dis­missed,’ not even knowing what he was doing, ‘six months,’ whatever. Sheriff McTeer tried to keep Dr. Buzzard from comin’ to court but he couldn’t prove nothin’, I mean, what could you prove?”

Dr. Buzzard became the wealthiest man on St. Helena and went down in Sea Island history, partly be­cause of his good friend Sam Doyle. Doyle, who lived all of his life on St. Helena and went to the Penn School, painted the island history. He died several years ago having become one of the best-known folk artists in the country. His work is still sold in New York, as well as in Frogmore, and he has been documented by a number of art historians. Sam Doyle painted Dr. Buzzard and other root doctors, friends like “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Miss Full Back” (she was full in the back), as well as historic events and supernatural occurrences.

“The paintings Sam Doyle did were a history of the island,” said Verta. “When you walked in his yard, that was his gal­lery, all the paintings were out. Like the ‘Hurricane of 1893.’ One of the first pic­tures you saw was a picture of a baby in a tree, under the Spanish moss. All that moss and a little baby. And the story was, after the hurricane people heard this baby crying and the baby was in the tree. And the descendents of that baby are on St. Helena’s. People said it was a miracle.”

Emma told me about when some folks tried to sell “Miss Try Me” at an auction. “We went to it. Nobody would buy it. They were even embarrassed. See, he named his paintings for characters and people on the island. ‘Try Me’ was a lady with big hips like this and she used to walk around the island saying ‘try me.’ ”

“Plus,” said Verta, “he would paint a painting over. That used to upset the art dealers. ‘Cause he’d say, ‘Oh, I sold a lot of “Miss Try Me,”‘ and he’d do another one because his idea was to keep all the paintings so he could tell the history. There’d be a picture of Sherman, the undertaker — Sam said he was the first man to own a car on St. Helena.”

And he painted the local haints too, like Whooping Boy, said to be the spirit of a beheaded slave buried to protect treasure. “Not Whoopin, Woopin’, Woop­in’ boy!” Verta whoops. I still couldn’t say it. “No. Hoopin’. He’s on St. Helena. Sam Doyle heard him make the last whoop, he don’t come out no more, Mr. Doyle said, ‘since the automobile area.’ ”

Verta maintains that all this is part of an Africanness that may have preceded slavery in the region. That is, she likes to tell folk that the Gullah, who originally spoke a language they called Ngulla, were from Angola and that in prehistory — you know, when the continents were all at­tached — what is now South Carolina was joined to what is now Angola. Fascinat­ing, I thought. “But were there people around then?” Verta just shrugged her shoulders.

I checked this out and there’s just this one little problem. It seems that when the continents were attached what is now South Carolina was next to what is now Mauritania, which would mean the Gullahs originally spoke Berber or Tuareg or some such thing. Those Africans too make a beautiful blue dye. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 14, 2020

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