My first brush with author Julia Peterkin didn’t come in a literature class, book club or library.
I happened across her wholly by chance a few years back while wandering the South Carolina back country. I was in rural Calhoun County, traveling along seemingly endless miles of blacktop country roads when I came across a picturesque antebellum church surrounded by fields of cotton.
I stopped at St. Matthews Parish Episcopal Church, a structure that dates to the 1850s and, as I later learned, still has a slave balcony, and ambled about. Across the road was a small family cemetery with no more than four dozen graves. As I glanced at each, I came across Peterkin’s marker.
I can’t remember now how I realized that there was something significant about Julia Peterkin, but perhaps that’s not surprising. She had largely slipped from literary consciousness less 75 years after becoming the first Southern writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
In retrospect, Peterkin’s life likely had far more downs than ups, a sad testament given her short-lived but important literary efforts.
Born Julia Mood into a wealthy family in Laurens County, SC, south of Greenville, her mother died before she was two. When her father remarried, Julia was sent to live with her paternal grandparents while her two older sisters remained with her father and his new wife.
Her views on race were likely conflicted by the fact that her grandfather’s ancestors had opposed slavery on religious grounds and had illegally taught slaves to read, while her grandmother was descended from a long line of wealthy slave holders, according to Susan Millar Williams.
It took 26 years to translate the Bible into Gullah, but just six to create an audio version of the Good Book, which was released recently.
“Healin fa de Soul,” is a 5-CD set of readings from the Gullah Bible and includes a dramatized version of the Gospel of John.
It was released in November at the St. Helena Island-based Penn Center, founded in 1862 as one of the nation’s first schools for freedmen after Union troops captured the area during the Civil War.
The readings, which feature 24 local Gullah speakers, are based on the Gullah Bible, “De Nyew Testament.” Translation into Gullah began in 1979 and the full testament was published by the American Bible Society in 2005, according to the Associated Press.
Gullah, also known as Geechee, developed among Africans along the Southeastern coast as a way to communicate with people from other tribes and Europeans.
For years, people thought Gullah was poor English, but during the Great Depression scholar Lorenzo Dow Turner studied Gullah on the Sea Islands and determined that it was made up of English and more than 4,000 words from many different African languages.
The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum is staging the first major exhibit on the work of Lorenzo Dow Turner, the 20th century black linguist whose work was the first to identify Gullah as a distinct language.
“He was the first person that went to listen to Gullah and realized this is not bad English – this is actually a language,” curator Alcione Amos said.
During breaks in his teaching at Howard University in Washington and Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Turner pursued his linguistics research, hauling heavy recording equipment to the isolated Sea Islands off the South Carolina and Georgia coasts that were populated primarily by descendants of African slaves.
His studies were first to show that people of African heritage retained and passed on their cultural identity and language, despite slavery, according to The Associated Press.
The Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission on Thursday unveiled three alternatives for preserving about 1,000 sites along the Southeast coast from encroaching coastal development.
The plans include everything from archiving the history of the culture to preserving natural resources and providing economic opportunities for sea island residents off the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
The culture is known as Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Florida and Georgia. It largely remained intact because of the islands’ isolation along the coast, an isolation that has been challenged in recent decades.
Gullah communities were established by freed slaves after the War Between the States and most people made livings fishing or farming fields of vegetables and row crops.