Gullah Project screens at Heritage Day Celebration

Come preview our documentary film in progress: Gullah Gone: Preserving the Land, Water and Culture of the Sea Islands–directed by Denise McGill this Friday at 4pm.


The film is screening at the 35th Annual Heritage Days Celebration at Penn Center on St. Helena Island, SC. It will be followed by Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of HBCUs–directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson.

Join us for a Q&A with director and cast immediately after, and an oyster roast, fish fry, and live music starting at 7 pm.

Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for students. We hope to see you there!


Producer, editor advances production

Q&A with Gullah Gone Producer, Sherard Duvall.


Since joining the Gullah Gone team in fall 2016, Sherard Duvall has become vital to the progress of the film as producer and editor. He supervises the physical aspects of filmmaking including personnel, project workflow, and scheduling. During filming in St. Helena, Duvall makes sure everything runs smoothly on location. As editor, he created the trailer released on July 20, 2017, and he is building the rough cut for the full-length film. He has experience as producer and editor on both a national stage and locally; currently working as owner and executive producer of OTR Films based in Columbia, S.C.

Duvall’s professional experience make him a valuable asset. He has produced projects for VH1, Discovery Channel, MTV, BET, and the American Cancer Society. He is accomplished in the art of visual storytelling with a strong background in media literacy and marketing communication. He holds a degree from the University of South Carolina in Media Arts. As a USC alumni and Columbia native, Duvall is no stranger to the unique culture and resources of South Carolina.

“Sherard’s the “Get It Done Guy,” says McGill. “He knows everyone and he knows where to get any piece of equipment imaginable. We really picked up on our pace when he joined the team. Plus, he sincerely identifies with our cast, so his passion is infectious.”

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Producer Sherard Duvall films a basket of oysters after they’ve been cleaned at the Atkins Bait Shop. Photo by Denise McGill

GG: How did you first become aware of The Gullah Project? When did you become involved?

SD: I became aware of The Gullah Project in October of 2016. I think it was a buddy of mine, Amy Shumaker of SCETV, that first gave me the heads up that she suggested my name for a project and that a Denise McGill would be reaching out to me. In October, Denise and I met and she discussed the project with me in her office. If I remember correctly, I agreed to be a part of the project on our first meeting.

GG: What drew you to the project? What does it mean to you?

SD: Unbeknownst to Denise at the time of our meeting, I had made a conscious decision in the spring of 2016 to make all of the work that I do focus on minorities, particularly those of the African Diaspora, that experimented with new ways of seeing the human experience. At about the same time I began a personal journey to find my family’s roots and my own genetic connections to West Africa. That was my mindset when I walked into the meeting with Denise in October. That summer of 2016, I began getting all of these projects out of the clear blue sky that fit exactly what I wanted to do, The Gullah Project was one of them. I felt that it was meant to be, honestly.

This project defines freedom for me, that’s what it means to me. As a native South Carolinian and African-American, I understood the importance of that word, because it’s a word, that I feel, descendants of African slaves like me will never know the true meaning of. The descendants don’t really have a home. True freedom, is not just the opportunity to roam, but its the license to live life within your truth. Part of your truth is knowing who and what you are. That’s a void American slave descendants can never fill. That’s what I feel like these residents of St. Helena are fighting for…freedom. The freedom to have a place that is all yours, that is actually connected, through language AND culture, to the history of who and what you are.

GG: Why do you think Gullah Gone should be made?

SD: I think Gullah Gone should be made because of how important the story of freedom is to America. It continues in that same vein of survival stories of American Freedom. The Gullah Story is vitally important to the fabric of America because of how it defines who the African-American person IS. St. Helena island is living history, an actual place where thousand year old West African traditions and language are being passed down to African slave descendants, a world away from Africa, in 2017. It’s unbelievable.

Sherard Duvall on set with OTR Films. 

GG: How did you come to start OTR?

SD: OTR was a dream back in 2012 when I was senior producer at Genesis Studios. I have to credit FatRat Da Czar, OTR’s co-founder, for encouraging me to open a company where I could produce projects where I controlled the creativity. Back then it was just film, but today I make movies, teach media literacy, and help companies with their branding strategies.

GG: Tell me about your day to day with OTR. How will those experiences influence your work with Gullah Gone?

SD: That’s tough to define. As an entrepreneur running a company that really operates in three different worlds, my day to day life varies. One day I could be designing a film education program for a school and the next I could be on set with The Gullah Project or in a meeting to create a messaging campaign or brand for a client. At the end of the day, all we do is help others communicate messages effectively – that is the mindset and the influence that I bring to TGP.

GG: Do you have a favorite experience working with the project so far?

SD: I have so many!! But if I had to pick one, it has to be the first time I met Sara’ Reynolds Green at her home. As the sun was going down, she was showing us around her farm and her home in these leopard print galoshes, blue jeans and a long sleeved tee. The sun was just setting and I remember she told us about the land and how her mother used to work the land. Denise and I walked through her farm and marsh…and then, Sara stood erect, and just looked out over the land…saying a little prayer to God under her breath. In that moment, I got it. I understood what she was fighting to hold on to. I began to understand the importance of the land I was walking on, and the importance of this story to people like me. That idea of having a home and a land that is yours — passed down by your own family who were slaves, who passed down their African traditions to you — and to stand there in the presence of that. It was very moving. That is by far my favorite experience. I remember I went back to my room that night and wrote about that one.


Summer student volunteers advance production

By Kate Chatman

Team Gullah is expanding significantly this summer with our largest group of students in history. Ten students from diverse backgrounds get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Gullah Gone: Preserving the Land, Water and Culture of the Sea Islands. Some students are volunteering to enhance their interest in media careers, while others want a chance to learn about Gullah culture. Ranging from sophomores to graduate students, the group has been trained to log and transcribe video footage at the University of South Carolina. They help sort through the backlog of imagery, sifting through interviews and organizing B-roll while highlighting the most pertinent quotes.

“Students are making a real contribution,” says Denise McGill, director of the film. “Plus, they add a lot of energy over the summer. It’s never dull around here.” The volunteer and work study program is speeding the process up tremendously, allowing the rest of the team to focus on story planning and editing. In addition to logging footage with Adobe Premier software, students share extra duties based on their experience and fields of study.

The volunteers include Alex Wyatt, a second-year student studying visual communications and marketing; Hannah Clingman is a third-year anthropology major; Valencia Abraham is a fourth-year student studying visual communications; Teleshia Toney is a fourth-year student majoring in media arts.

Anthropology major Kate Chatman works as production secretary, keeping the office organized this summer. John “Spud” McCullough, a doctoral student studying sociolinguistics, researches Gullah images in online library archives. Tiffany Jones, a doctoral student in anthropology, is a researcher. She also logs interviews with the most difficult Gullah dialects.

In addition, three student volunteers aren’t even from the University of South Carolina. Ashli White, a second-year student at Queens University of Charlotte studying business administration, is volunteering while at home in Columbia for the summer. Phoebe Johnson is a third-year mass communications major at Benedict College.

Maura Estes, a senior at Bandy’s High School in Catawba, N.C., even came for a few days to help work behind the scenes. She and the director met when they both screened short films at Myrtle Beach International Film Festival in April.

In addition to providing hands-on training, Team Gullah leaders host weekly workshops. These meetings allow volunteers to get to know one another better, and receive further training. Topics have ranged from interview techniques to a discussion of movies by filmmaker Pare Lorentz. “I feel like it provides good anthropological experience and exposure,” says Clingman, who volunteers about 20 hours per week. “You learn so many new things about Gullah culture.”

Volunteers realized their significance to the project when the footage they had logged was used in a trailer for the film. As of August 3rd, the trailer has received over 15,000 views. Several volunteers plan to stay on through the fall, and the team is looking forward to a productive rest of the year. For opportunities with The Gullah Project contact Production Manager Alex Cone at




Gullah music expert joins movie team

By Alex Cone and Denise McGill

Dr. Eric Crawford serves as director of music for our documentary film. In that capacity, he is tasked with finding the right songs for each scene. The Gullah Project’s score will include a mix of traditional music, modern arrangements of existing tunes and Crawford’s original compositions.

In his day job, Crawford is assistant professor of musicology at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. He studies Gullah music and its transformation since the antebellum period. Crawford says that many Gullah songs contain a high degree of musical retention since the antebellum period and carry vestiges of West African culture. He is interested in adapting classic Gullah songs to the hip hop genre so that younger audiences can hold on to their roots.

 Crawford is well qualified to be director of music for The Gullah Project. In April 2014, Coastal Carolina University’s Athenaeum Press released the compact disc, Gullah, the Voice of an Islandwhich features his field recordings on St. Helena Island from 2012-2014. The album involved students and faculty and contains the singing of four song leaders on the island: Gracie Gadson, James Smalls,  and Rosa and Joseph Murray. This project was the culmination of a seven-year study of St. Helena Island spirituals.

 Crawford says he has a natural interest in the culture’s music because it is unique in all of America. “The Gullah Geechee culture forms the root of African American music in this country,” he says. “Due to the fact that so many slaves reached America by way of Charleston ports, and that the Sea Islands presented a natural barrier from outsiders, the West African culture was strongest here.”

 “Our first musical examples, [documented in the book] Slave Songs of the United Statesof Negro spirituals, come from the Sea Islands in the 1860s,” Crawford says. “As a result, this period becomes the starting point for our understanding of the music of slave society, its language, and the emotion of black worship.”

 Crawford’s research examines how Gullah music responded to societal pressures. When slaves were prohibited from using African drums, the Gullah developed other ways to communicate and make music. “It was believed that slaves communicated through the use of drums, thus South Carolina banned the use of drums by slaves,” Crawford said. “In response, slaves relied upon handclapping, foot stamping, or occasionally a stick served to give the needed pulse or accompanying beat for a song. Even today, Gullah singers are able to tap one pattern with their foot, clap another pattern with their hands, and sing all at the same time. And these singers are quite elderly. In the end, the slave’s body became an instrument that could not be taken away.”

For generations, Gullah culture was considered backward. Places like the Penn Center on St. Helena help the community see their distinctions with pride rather than shame. Crawford has worked closely with the Penn Center to preserve songs that were once hidden from the public.

Crawford doesn’t just study music, he’s a performer. He has served as director for numerous African American choirs and ensembles. In 2016, Crawford composed and performed a jazz piano opus to commemorate the Charleston church shootings. His music puts him in touch with talented artists, whom he plans to enlist in performances for the movie score.

 The director of The Gullah Project, Denise McGill, met Crawford at the 2014 Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration. Crawford’s long term investment in Gullah culture and music expertise made him an easy choice for the film’s music chief.

 “I’m excited he’s on our team because he has the perfect blend of scholarly knowledge and musical talent,” McGill said. “He’s going to be able to find songs that are historically accurate that also fit the mood of a given scene.”

 She continued, “When you hear a traditional song, and it builds to a choir singing a modern rendition of that song – that’s the thing he’s going to be able to do with real grace.”


Gullah Project goes to Charleston

2016-chsiff-laurel-filmWe are proud to announce our film has been accepted to the 9th annual Charleston International Film Festival. The Gullah Project will screen Saturday, November 5th in the 2 PM block of short films at Charleston Music Hall. 

The entire film festival takes place November 2 – 6 in downtown Charleston.

It’s an honor to be invited to such a prestigious festival. We hope many of the stars of the film will be able to join us. St. Helena Island is 45 miles down the coastline, but it’s a 78 mile trip by car.

To find a complete list of screenings for this documentary film please visit the Screenings section of our webpage.



Profiles of the Gullah: Brandon and Jordan Johnson

Profiles of the Gullah: Brandon and Jordan Johnson from Denise McGill on Vimeo.

Siblings Brandon, left, and Jordan Johnson have lived on St. Helena Island their whole lives. Each year they work to raise collards, sweet potatoes and sugar cane with their grandfather, Ben Johnson Jr. Then the whole family helps to sell the produce at Heritage Days Celebration in November, and they all share the profits.

SCETV program explains connection between Gullah and African coastlines

I’m expanding my knowledge base by finding films and books about Gullah culture that I’ve previously missed. I’ll share some of them as I make my way through. Many thanks to Amy Shumaker @shu2833, executive producer at #SCETV, for providing links to some of these hard-to-find programs!

Recently I saw Family Across the Sea, a 57-minute documentary film by Tim Carrier that originally ran on South Carolina public television (SCETV) in 1990. Carrier follows a group of Gullah people from the United States as they travel to Sierra Leone to visit the lands of their ancestors. It’s a moving story with some surprising connections between the two cultures.

The film explores the similarities in geography, culture and language between the Sea Islands of the United States and the west coast of Sierra Leone, Africa. The first connections were discovered by Lorenzo Dow Turner, an African-American linguist who made  hundreds of recordings of Gullah speakers and songs in the 1930s. He discovered some of the exact same songs in Sierra Leone.

Gullah delegation experiences highs and lows on their trip. The most  painful event is the visit to Bunce Island, where most of their ancestors were loaded onto boats for America. Another moving scene is an interview with villagers in Sierra Leone. They knew many of their people were kidnapped years ago, but never knew what became of them. The high point is easily the reunion between the Americans and the villagers, who welcome them as long lost relatives.

The plot moves back to South Carolina where Joseph Momoh, President of Sierra Leone, visits the Penn Center in 1988. His visit solidifies recognition of the ties between Gullah and Sierra Leone cultures. As a result Gullah speakers, often ridiculed for their “uneducated” dialect, have a new pride in their heritage. Their language becomes an important link to their motherland that is worthy of preservation and academic study. That pride continues to this day, where Gullah continues to gain appreciation as a rare piece of the American experience.

Family Across the Sea SCETV program,166

Film festival screenings bring awareness to Gullah/Geechee culture

Our team created a seven-minute overview of The Gullah Project to mark our progress. We entered the overview into film festivals as a short documentary. We are excited to report that out of nine entries, The Gullah Project overview was accepted into five festivals. It screened in five cities this spring.

The screenings have raised awareness about Gullah culture for audiences all over North America. There is little knowledge of Gullah history outside of the Southeast United States. At Toronto’s Female Eye Film Festival, few people in the international community had ever heard of the Gullah. Festivals hold a Q&A after each screening so viewers can learn how the film was made. Director/Producer Denise McGill was able to attend four of the festivals.

Film festivals are valuable because they provide feedback. Just to be accepted at so many venues is a very positive sign. Met professionals in the industry who take an interest in our project, offer good advice about further contacts, possible team members, next steps and distribution. Share ideas with other filmmakers and bond. Learn from their previous mistakes and successes. Spread the word about Gullah history and St. Helena Island. Learned what elements of our film are most engaging to the audience. How the film industry works. Set realistic goals. Join network of filmmakers with similar passion and causes.

Currently working on one-hour film with the goal of airing on public television. Since getting feedback, our team has made changes to the script, and continue editing. Nearly all the filming and field work is complete. Now we are fundraising. Funds will allow us to add major talent to our team, top professionals who can polish the visuals, audio, graphics, and soundtrack for the film.

Unfortunately, the overview is not available for the public online while it is at festivals. We’ll let you know when there is a way to see it.



Introducing Jameah and Jamyah Moore

Twins Jameah and Jamyah Moore have lived on St. Helena Island their entire young lives. Their community involvement began when they started volunteering at Sara’ Reynolds Green’s Marshview Community Organic Farm at age 9. At Penn Center Heritage Days Festival in 2014, they performed in the Road of Remembrance play about the history of St. Helena Island. The Gullah Project interviewed them during a rehearsal break. At the time, the twins were in seventh grade at Lady’s Island Middle School.



The Gullah Project accepted to the 14th Annual Female Eye Film Festival

The Gullah Project has been accepted to the 14th Annual Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto, Canada.

The Gullah Project will screen in an International Documentary Program block on Wednesday, June 15th. Among the films in this block are The Nike Chariot Earring directed by Karen Audette and feature film Following Kina directed by Sonia Goldenberg followed by a Filmmaker Q & A session.

Female Eye Film Festival is an international film festival dedicated to women directors uniting film enthusiast, international women directors, celebrities, and industry professionals such as film and television screenwriters and producers. Their goal is to not only support the advancement of women directors but to promote equality and empowerment for women everywhere through cinema.

To learn more about the Female Eye Film Festival please visit their official webpage at

To learn more about future screens of The Gullah Project please visit our Screenings page found in our main menu.