Jun 18 2019

Indigo On Johns Island

By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Senior Staff Writer

Indigo dye is used to create vibrant clothing. (Photo by HK PowerStudio).

The United States Congress officially recognized the contributions of the Gullah/Geechee peoples to American history on October 12, 2006. Acting under the authority of the National Heritage Areas Act, the legislature designated 12,000 square miles across 4 states as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Encompassing 30 counties, the GGCHC stretches North-South from Pender County, NC (Wilmington) to St. Johns County Florida (St. Augustine). It is 30 miles wide starting where the Atlantic meets the shore.

Heather Hodges is the Director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, which was established to oversee the GGCHC. The organization has assigned themselves three primary goals; to preserve Gullah/Geechee artifacts and sites, to interpret Gullah/ Geechee folklore for public and private entities, and to preserve the culture, arts and crafts of the Gullah/Geechee people. Their many achievements are undeniable.

One of the many contributions of the Gullah/Geechee to life in colonial South Carolina was the cultivation of indigo. Indigofera suffruticosa, or Guatemalan indigo, was unknown to the colonies until the 1740s. It found its way here from Africa by way of the Caribbean, along with Gullah/Geechee slaves who had the skills necessary to cultivate it. Englishman George Lucas had land in both Antigua and South Carolina, recounts Hodges. His daughter Eliza Lucas Pinckney began experimenting with indigo in the Wappoo area on land not suitable for either rice or cotton. Her marriage to Charles Pinckney expanded the experiment to other plantations and with help of the Gullah/Geechee, a cash crop was born.

Hodges decided to recreate the experiment in the spring 2019 as an installment toward accomplishing the GGCHC Commission’s goals, enlisting help from a variety of sources. She teamed with Michel Hammes from the Johns Island Regional Branch of the Charleston County Public Library who was instrumental, helping  with research and getting the word out. Heather Powers also lent her time as an adjunct of the Indigo Cultural Center (ICC).

Powers has a full time job she describes as a “professional organizer,” and she’s also something of an artist.

She sees an end to straight up “consumerism,” believing that people want to create something that may include growing food, making clothes, etc. They want to see the process through from field to table. It’s an idea that’s consistent with the International Center for Indigo Culture’s mission; “Indigo Cultural Center is committed to the study of culture, the enactment of culture, the celebration of culture, and using the strength in one’s culture to promote social justice and racial equity.”

Asked about taking a tour of the indigo field Powers relied, “The indigo consortium [and a lot of volunteers] are the ones that put in the field on Johns Island. We planted 120 [indigo] plants, or five 50-foot long rows.

It’s private property though, which belongs to Richard “Alan” Garren. I met him last year through one of our board members and he’s been very generous, but I don’t think tours are a good idea.”

However, in keeping with actually making something, Powers intends to make dye when the harvest time comes, and maybe even use it on some clothes. Everyone’s invited to see the “field to table” idea through to the finale.

To participate in the harvest, manufacture the dye, or make something with the dye, reach out to Heather Hodges, Director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission at hhodges@ or Heather Powers, International Center for Indigo Culture at hkpowers@ Both seem eager to hear from you.

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