Off the Grid and Sharing the Blessings
November 2019 Issue
By Vernie Singleton
Photography by Cassidy Dunn
Dirt roads are a part of our lives no matter where we call home.
They are our common ground. Whether they exist as a result of neglect, or a choice by someone to remain off the beaten path, dirt roads depict a state of peace and serenity.
I spent a few of my early years living on a dirt road. I remember the dust taking a long time to settle after an infrequent car passed. Everything seemed to move at a slower pace in Baygall, one of the traditional Gullah communities on the north end of Hilton Head Island. In fact, the road where I spent my preschool years, living with my cousin Mary, remains unpaved.
In the early ‘60s, dirt roads were a given, and so was community spirit. Mr. John Patterson occasionally came in his car to pick up my cousin Martha, who lived next door, to go shopping in Savannah for supplies. Before the first bridge was built in 1956, ferries carried people and cars back and forth to the mainland. Prior to that, homemade sailboats, motor boats and paddlewheelers transported Islanders along the Intracoastal Waterways to Savannah, Beaufort and Daufuskie.
Life was different back then. My brother, Alvin, and sister, Paulette, remember using an outhouse before we had indoor plumbing. I recall getting drinking water from a bucket in the kitchen with a red and white dipper. The bucket had been filled with well water drawn from the hand pump under a big oak tree right before dusk. My parents, Diogenese and Dorothy, encountered more severe living conditions. They didn’t have electricity in their home until 1952.
This lifestyle, coupled with our Gullah culture, created a way of life that was unique. Learning more about it can benefit us all—from herbal remedies and organic gardening to our religious practices. Louise Miller Cohen, founder and director of The Gullah Museum is devoting her life to first-hand Gullah education.
Inspired by her devotion and my heritage, I am still learning about my Gullah culture and history. I started writing about it and photographing our traditions and landmarks in the early 1980s, mostly on Hilton Head. But the digital age has thrown me for a loop. I still write on a traditional typewriter, and I don’t take pictures with a digital camera. Yet, I have become resourceful and made use of a collection that includes shots of my dad and his crew seine net fishing on a Hilton Head beach before this practice was outlawed in 1983 when the island became incorporated.
From this archive of images, I have created a series of cards called “Gullah Wisdom Notecards.” Wisdom because the Gullah culture is imbedded with a way-of-life, treasures and understanding that can benefit today’s world. My mission is to honor and give presence to these treasures. They are inscribed with original sayings that reflect my respect for the land and my Gullah fifth generation heritage. Other than Pond Drive, the dirt road, one of my favorites is of my Mom and Dad planting watermelons in a field where our house is now. This one is special because it shows the family cooperation it took to maintain the Gullah community through the years. It also reminds me of how much my Dad loved and protected the land that God entrusted him to steward.
When I showed the card collection to a friend from the Mid-West, she asked, “What’s Gullah about this washtub? Everybody had one of these.” Her innocent question made me realize that the washtub on my Grandma Bessie’s backporch represents our common experiences and perhaps, struggles, no matter where we come from. The common response to someone seeing that image is that they, or someone they know, had an arm caught in the tub wringer. We all share human experiences. That tub just happened to be on my grandmother’s porch in Old Town Bluffton, a Gullah community. Where was yours? My guess is that we have more in common than the washtub and wringer. The images and reflections are truly universal.
But what does it mean to me to be Gullah, and how do these cards reflect that? I am blessed to have West African roots seasoned here in the South Carolina Lowcountry through language, dialect, craft making, culinary arts, farming techniques and religious practices. It is like having reading glasses to aid failing eyes. Having this heritage helps me to see better, know better and feel better. Knowing that I am from a communal environment showers me with strength and purpose.
By the Gullah timeline, I am an after-the-bridge baby, born in 1959. But how I long to have witnessed life before the bridge—the communal and wholesome way of life that intrigues my contemporary spirit. “We would share what we had, then suffer together with it was all gone,” an elderly neighbor once told me of how Islanders lived together in the old days before there was financial bounty and modern conveniences.
Progress is measured in many ways, and I appreciate the conveniences, but let us not forget what the days gone by really offered: meditative walks on a quiet, oak-canopied dirt road, which helped to clear our heads of the day’s stress; clothes dried on an outdoor clothesline that smelled as fresh as the air we breathed and didn’t run-up the electric bill; delicious produce grown by farmers, who organically honored and protected the land.
I admit, somewhat abashedly, I am slow to accept our rush to embrace all of what modern technology has to offer. Sending handwritten letters and cards in the mail is my preference to rushing an email over cyber lines. I realize there is adventure and immediacy in the modern way, but something deep in my soul warns, beware—and slow it down to really take in the blessings.
Celebrate Gullah Wisdom
To celebrate her Gullah Heritage, Vernie Singleton, a fifth-generation Islander and published writer, has created Gullah Wisdom Notecards. Each card offers delightful original sayings inside such as “Dirt roads take us to special places—always!”
Both card series—Land and Tradition—feature original photos taken by Vernie in the early 1980s. These nostalgic images connect us to a recent Gullah past, showing day-in-a-life depictions of Gullah life, such as Vernie’s mother and father planting watermelons in a field, which is now built up with houses, Pond Drive in it’s heyday—now an abandoned dirt road on the north end of Hilton Head Island, and an old wash tub with wringer sitting on her grandmother’s back porch in Old Town Bluffton.
To launch the line, there are six different cards with original inside sayings that reflect Vernie’s respect for the land and her Gullah culture and pay homage to the Lowcountry.
These notecards can be purchased at the following locations:
Hilton Head: The Greenery, Coastal Discovery Museum,
Heritage Library, Art League of Hilton Head Gallery inside the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina and Serg Restaurant Gift Shops
Bluffton: The Spirited Hand, Back to Nature and Bluffton Cultural Arts Center
Beaufort: BCBCC Art Gallery and Beaufort Bookstore
St Helena Island: Penn Center and Red Piano Too.