Edisto’s Sarah Burnell Shares Stories of Growing up Gullah


By Shelley Hill Young

There’s been increased interest recently in Gullah culture – its dishes sprinkled with seafood and its music with catchy rhythms. But there was nothing glamorous about growing up Gullah in the Lowcountry. That stark reality bares down on you hard like the hot sun after listening to 80-year-old Sarah Burnell, who shares her experiences Growing Up Gullah on Edisto Island on a boat tour hosted by Botany Bay Ecotours.

Burnell, who was born in 1938, speaks matter-of-factly about her hard childhood growing up on Edisto before the small coastal town was lined with white and brightly colored beach houses on stilts and the waters were filled with kayakers.

“There was nothing here,” she says, looking back at the houses on the shore.

There was no bridge to Edisto until the 1920s. That isolation allowed the West African traditions of descendants of slaves to endure, as it has on the sea islands along the Eastern coast from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. The isolation also kept modern amenities, such as electricity, from reaching the island.

One of the first parcels of land developed was Edisto Beach State Park, but Sarah was not allowed to go. When state parks were ordered to desegregate in 1963, the park shut down for a time instead of opening up for African Americans.

Sarah recalls walking dirt roads to schools. There was no bus to take the African-American children to school. If the children didn’t arrive by 8 a.m., the doors were shut and they were sent home. She wore the same clothes to school five days a week. But her Mamma and Papa made sure that they were washed and ironed so Sarah could wear them again to church on Sunday.

She mentions one of her grandsons, who has a relatively short drive to school. “I cry sometimes just to see how far I’ve come,” she says.

Sarah attended school until she was about 15 and then began working on the farms that blanketed the rich coastal land. She tells of cutting cabbage and ripping Spanish moss from the trees. Sarah and other laborers put the moss in boiling water, which killed the red bugs and made the moss have a softer, more elastic texture once it dried. The moss was then sold to furniture makers in North Carolina, who used it to stuff chairs and sofas. (According to Gullah tradition, Spanish moss also has a medicinal use: Put it in your shoes to help reduce your blood pressure.) Sarah was paid $3 a day.

Sarah tells of cleaning the house for her Mamma to help prepare for “the company” who would come over after church on Sunday. She and her sisters used a dry grass called broom straw to clean the floor because they didn’t have brooms. Her doll was also dried grass twisted and pulled to form hair and a loose form of a body.

Sarah and her family ate oysters and mullet fish, two Lowcountry staples she says she refuses to eat now.

Sarah has eight children, though two have passed away. When asked how many grandchildren she has, she says, “Oh, Lord, I have a lot.”

Meg Hoyle, the owner of Botany Bay EcoTours, met Sarah when Sarah’s grandson worked for her as an intern at the state Department of Natural Resources. Meg says she had to beg Sarah to join her on the tours and share her life experiences. Sarah eventually agreed and has been a part of Botany Bay Ecotours for about five years.

“Sometimes people ask Sarah to speak Gullah,” Meg says at the beginning of the tour. “But she is Gullah.”

“Her family’s reliance on the natural resources for survival reveal the inextricable link of natural and cultural history on the sea islands,” Meg says when inviting me to take the tour.

Sarah clearly enjoys the opportunity to tell her story. When the women on the boat are distracted by the dolphins jumping near the boat, Sarah gets our attention: “I’ve got more to tell y’all.”

And we, we have more to learn.