West Africans brought to the South Carolina and Georgia coasts as slaves settled on geographically isolated plantations whose owners often were absent. Such conditions allowed lowcountry slaves to retain more of their language, beliefs and customs than was possible in other areas. These African-Americans adapted many traditions to their new circumstances. The resulting culture has come to be known as Gullah. A descendant of these West African slaves, Agnes Brown has lived her entire life in McClellanville, South Carolina.
Born in 1887, Mrs. Brown was a vast storehouse of information pertaining to Gullah folklife. Gullah culture is a vibrant and tangible presence in her everyday life. Her knowledge of traditional foodways and of rites of passage like “jumping the broom” at wedding ceremonies made her a valued member of her community and citizen of this state. According to this tradition, the newlywed who crosses over the broom last outlives his or her spouse.
Mrs. Brown recalled with evident glee how she fixed it so that her husband, Mundy Brown, would be the first to jump the broom. Living well into her hundreds, she was living proof that she who jumps last has the last laugh. Although she never traveled outside of South Carolina, Agnes Brown is known to persons all around the world. It is her voice you hear in a segment of the SCETV production, "Family Across the Seas," a video documenting the cultural connections between the South Carolina Sea Island folk and people in Sierra Leone.
She spoke an English-based Creole language that is strikingly similar to Sierra Leone Krio. Through this video, in interviews with historians of Gullah culture, and in the stories she shares informally with family and friends, tradition bearer Agnes Brown insured that generations to come will learn about and value the strength and richness of this unique community of African-Americans in South Carolina’s lowcountry. Agnes Brown received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in 1995.