At Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens in Mount Pleasant, S.C., a Charleston suburb, Jackie Mickel stands barefoot in front of an old slave cabin. Her black hair is tucked beneath a white turban, perhaps like her great-great-grandmother’s was when she was enslaved in Dorchester County approximately 25 miles inland.
But Mickel is here by choice, a guide eager to reveal the mysteries of the Gullah or Geechee people, descendants of West African slaves who toiled on Lowcountry rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. Because they were isolated on the South Carolina Sea Islands for generations after the Civil War, the Gullah retained much of their culture and language — far more than any other group of African-Americans.
The Gullah dialect is an English-based Creole language with a strong African influence incomprehensible to most Americans. Therefore, Mickel gives a brief Gullah vocabulary lesson before she tells the story of Brer (Brother) Rabbit, a witty character that often pops up in Gullah folklore to outsmart stronger, more powerful characters like Brer Wolf and Brer Alligator. When these tales were told by slaves, Caucasian plantations owners were the brunt of the joke, often compared to the character duped by a weaker but wiser one.
Mickel is a gifted storyteller, captivating the audience with her animated facial expressions and powerful voice. Her listeners are as spellbound as nursery-school kids as she takes them along on Brer Rabbit’s adventures.
Boone Plantation dates back to 1681 and has passed through several owners. At the plantation, tour guides in antebellum costumes lead visitors through a Georgian-style mansion that was built in 1936; however, to many, the nine remaining slave cabins beneath towering Spanish moss-draped oak trees are more intriguing than the grand house with its elaborate antique furnishings.
Each cabin depicts a different aspect of slave life, from musical and culinary traditions to the vast knowledge of indigenous herbs used to make medicine and treat wounds.
In one cabin, a Gullah woman in a wide-brimmed hat patiently sews sweetgrass baskets, an accessory famous to the area. This centuries-old basket-making tradition flourishes in the Lowcountry, a craft that can be traced all the way to West Africa.
These coiled baskets, once made by slaves for agricultural purposes, are now sought after by tourists as souvenirs.
Roadside basket stands are scattered on the sides of U.S. Hwy. 17, a portion of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that runs along the Southeastern coast from Pender County, N.C., to the southern border of St. Johns County, Fla.
There’s no shortage of plantation tours in the South, but few offer such an unflinching look at the injustices of slavery, while also celebrating the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those forced to endure it.
IF YOU GO
Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens is one of America’s oldest working, living plantations. Live presentations on Gullah culture are offered daily. 1-843-884-4371, www.boonehall plantation.com. Admission: $20 adults, $18 seniors, $10 children ages 6-12. Free for children 5 and under.