Up Close with Louise Miller Cohen and the Gullah Heritage

Established in 2003, the roots of The Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island extend back through the generations who farmed the fertile soil of the Lowcountry—all the way to West Africa.

The direct descendants of African-Americans once enslaved on Southern cotton and rice plantations, the Gullah people lived in relative isolation for hundreds of years on the sea islands and in coastal communities along the Southeastern seaboard. To avoid malaria and other deadly diseases, wealthy plantation owners generally resided further inland or in larger cities and towns, like Beaufort and Charleston.

A major turning point took place on November 7, 1861, when the Battle of Port Royal raged in the waters just off Hilton Head. One of the most important maritime battles of the Civil War, Union forces captured Beaufort and established the Headquarters of the Department of the South on Hilton Head. Thousands of abandoned slaves then made their way to the Island in search of freedom and protection.

Before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Mitchelville, the nation’s first freedman’s municipality, was set up alongside present-day Beach City Road to accommodate these so-called “contrabands of war.” Large-scale occupation of the Island ended after the Civil War and the residents of this self-governed town were once again isolated for another 100 years until a bridge connected Hilton Head to the mainland in the 1950s. Gullah is the name of their distinctively pure West African culture and language.

Louise Miller Cohen: Photo provided by the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island.

Local storyteller, historian and gospel singer Louise Miller Cohen founded the non-profit Gullah Museum of Hilton Head in response to a divine calling demanding she share the history and culture of her people. Able to trace her roots back to one of Mitchelville’s original residents, she has dedicated her life to maintaining Gullah customs, traditions, language, stories, songs and structures, “lest we forget.”

“It’s history all the way back because that is the parcel of land that my great-grandfather, William Simmons, purchased after the Civil War,” explained Cohen. “When he left Mitchelville, that’s where he put his stake.”

Photo provided by the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island.

Open by appointment, the Gullah Museum is located on Gumtree Road in Simmons’ restored “Little House.” Cohen personally meets visitors at the site and shares the history of the Gullah-Geechee people through the language, her family’s story and songs she remembers from “back in the day.” After an hour-long presentation on “the piazza,” visitors then head inside to see authentic artifacts from when the home was built 87 years ago.

The tour almost always includes a recitation of Psalm 23 —scripture personally significant to Cohen—spoken in both the familiar English King James version and in Gullah.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The restoration of the “Little House” was completed in 2010, and Cohen is currently raising funds to restore the other two small structures on the property—a rental home used by migrant workers who lived on Hilton Head Island seasonally to harvest tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, and a silver trailer that was part of the first 18-wheeler to cross the Hilton Head Island bridge when it opened in 1956.

Two museum fundraisers take place in January, during the annual celebration of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. On January 19, “From Bach to Broadway: A Concert of Music for Voice, Piano & Violin” is scheduled at Providence Presbyterian Church. The next day, the Annual Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island Gala “Honoring the Electricians, Painters, Plumbers & Tile Layers” takes place at the Spanish Wells Clubhouse.

“Every year, we just choose a group of people from our community to honor,” said Cohen. Past honorees include fisherman, shrimpers, oystermen, builders, quilters, cast net makers, teachers, midwives, doctors, vegetable stand owners and entrepreneurs.

Artwork by Amari Farris

“We have to do this because if we don’t recognize our people with the service they have provided in the community, who’s going to know anything about it?” she added. “It’s amazing how things happen. We say, ‘Oh, that’s a coincidence.’ I don’t know that it is. I think things happen sometimes according to the leading of The Spirit.”

“I tell you, I have such a passion for what I am doing, but I don’t even understand it myself,” Cohen continued. “It’s like a calling all my life, and I had no choice but to answer the call. If that means giving up my land to make this happen so we’ll have a site that’s designated to the preservation of Gullah-Geechee culture and heritage here on Hilton

Head, then I guess I’ll ask, ‘Why not me?’”

“When you’re talking about the culture and you’re talking about the people—I am the people! I am the culture! This is The Gullah Museum, and you’re talking to the people who actually live the culture. We are it. We are the walking history books here on Hilton Head.”

Article by Allyson Jones

The Gullah Museum of Hilton Head is located at 187 Gumtree Road. Louise Miller Cohen will also be on hand for several Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration events, including the Ol’ Fashioned Gullah Breakfast on February 10 and The Gullah Market & Festival on February 17. For event details or to schedule a museum tour, call (843) 681-3254 or visit gullahmuseumhhi.org.