Artist On The Cutting Edge: Valerie Fair

Today we’re going to talk about Gullah Culture and it’s contribution as we welcome to this interview Dr. Ade Ofunniyin. 

Thanks for coming Dr. Ofunniyin can you tell us where you’re from and your knowledge of Gullah culture?

Dr. Ade Ofunniyin

Well, I was born in Charleston, South Carolina and I was raised by my grandfather, up until the age of seven.  My grandfather was a true Gullah man.  In fact he is known around here as the legendary Phillip Simmons the blacksmith.  So being born in Charleston and being surrounded by these things that other people call Gullah but as descendant of Africans, in the generation that I was born and the generations proceeding me. being Gullah was not a popular thing.  

People hated to be called or identified as Gullah in the same way that many people in the generations proceeding me, including my grandfather, didn’t want to be identified as African.  So this region from Florida to North Carolina is known as the Gullah Geechee corridor.  We have people extending as far as Augusta Georgia to Wilmington, North Carolina.  Some classify themselves as Gullah Geechee.  Some are still in denial about being Gullah/Geechee because, its as I said, it was something you were made to believe was derogatory and negative.

AOTCE/Valerie

When did you decide Gullah was what you were, and you were going to be proud of that fact and make no apologies?

Dr. Ade Ofunniyin

I guess, I would say, when I was maybe in my 20’s and more so, when I was 31, came back to Charleston and went to work in my grandfather’s blacksmith shop.

AOTCE/Valerie

What was it about the blacksmith shop that prompted you to be an activist and to work with your grandfather?

Dr. Ade Ofinniyin

Working with my grandfather I had the opportunity.  My grandfather was such a preeminent blacksmith and noted for the work he had done around Charleston.  He worked on a lot of historic homes.  He worked with a lot of other artisans and began working on the mansions which were homes of the enslavers.  There was always this disconnect.  Charleston is this tourist city and these homes would be visited by tourist and that’s what they are, they’re tour homes.  A tourist would come into these homes, usually always white, and the docents would begin to tell stories about the homes and about the enslavers that owned those homes, but they never mentioned the enslaved who built those homes, who built those mansions.  Me being who I am, I loved to read so I began my research about who were the people, enslaved people who built those mansions.  I knew that my grandfather and those other artisans that surrounded him were descendants of those artisans that proceeded them.  So, I began my personal research and then reaching into the community just seeing.  In 1985 that there was so many people, particularly the young people were still ashamed of being identified as Gullah.  My generation, many of us were returning back to Charleston, because we wanted to come back home.  We more readily began to identify ourselves as Gullah Geechee people and we begin to have Gullah festivals, celebrating our, what I call Gullahisms.  Then a young woman who also had grew up in New York, she declared herself the Gullah Queen, gathered people around her and began to promote Gullah Geechee culture in a way that had not been promoted before.  TO BE CONTINUED

Ade's father burial site.jpg