Emory Campbell: Saving his people, Saving a culture

By Amy Pine

A bridge opened up Emory Campbell’s world.

Before the bridge connecting Hilton Head Island to mainland South Carolina was built, Campbell attended school in a one-room schoolhouse in a traditional and isolated Gullah community. The bridge — a two-lane toll swing bridge that opened in 1956 — enabled Campbell to attend Michael C. Riley High School in nearby Bluffton. He thrived, and in 1960, he graduated as the school’s valedictorian.

But bridges only connect two pieces of land. It took determination, dedication and an unwavering work ethic for Campbell to make the journey off the island to earn his degrees, embark on a distinguished career as a public health advocate and become one of the nation’s foremost experts on Gullah culture.

Growing Up Gullah

One of the most unique cultures in the United States, Gullah refers to a group of people living in a coastal corridor that extends from the Carolinas to Florida. Gullah people descended from Africans who were brought to America and enslaved on coastal plantations. Over the years, the group developed a unique Creole-based language known as Gullah and cultural traditions that reflected their African heritage. Gullah communities were isolated because of their geography, and thus, the culture remained strong over the course of several centuries.

Campbell was born and raised in an area of Hilton Head near the bridge that connects the island to the mainland and can trace his roots to the Civil War era when his great-great grandfather was enslaved on the island. Over the years, the community was self-sustaining, with the population relying on fishing, farming and other trades. Campbell’s family was grounded in Gullah culture, and he grew up speaking the dialect.

Education was a priority in the Campbell family. His grandparents and his mother worked as teachers. Campbell’s father attended Hampton University in Virginia, and his mother traveled to Savannah State to take summer courses to maintain her teaching credentials. Campbell was the sixth of 11 children and the first of his siblings to attend college.

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The Journey to Savannah

Campbell left home in 1960 and headed to Savannah, where he matriculated at Savannah State. It was an exciting time in Campbell’s life, though at times he felt like an outsider. His fellow students noticed his unusual accent, many assuming he had come from Africa.

“I was excited to be on a college campus,” explains Campbell, who stood out because of his upbringing. “In 1960, everyone was trying to be urbanized. Rural folks weren’t accepted as up-to-date.”

Campbell eventually made friends with another student who grew up in a Gullah community and became deeply involved in his major, biology. For his first year at Savannah State, Campbell lived with his brother, who had a house in Savannah. When his brother moved, Campbell went back to Hilton Head, commuting to his classes for three years. He would grab a ride to Savannah in the mornings with people heading to work and would often hitchhike home in the evenings.

“We saw education as a roadmap to a better life. It was a ticket to a better world,” says Campbell. “The whole community at Savannah State [felt] the same way.”

In 1965, Campbell graduated from Savannah State with a bachelor of science degree in biology and a desire to learn more.

Boston Bound

After graduating from Savannah State, Campbell headed to Boston, working for the Harvard School of Public Health from 1965-68. While he was there, he met his future wife, Emma, who was also working as a researcher.

Campbell knew that he wanted to continue his education and was subsequently accepted into Harvard Medical School. But he rejected the offer because he thought he would be a more effective public servant if he continued his studies in the field of public health. He enrolled in a progressive program at Tufts University, earning a master of science degree in environmental engineering in 1971.

Campbell enjoyed his time in the Boston area, but the call of home always remained strong. He knew that if he one day returned, he could affect change in his community.

“I wanted to come back to make a difference. That was the reason for our education,” Campbell says. “The question was asked, ‘what are you going to do with your degree?’ [I would respond] ‘I’m going to go back home and help my people.’”

Heading Home

Upon returning to Hilton Head, Campbell took a position as an environmental health engineer at Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health Services (BJCHS) to fulfill his mission of taking care of his community. The position gave him the opportunity to address numerous concerns that faced Hilton Head’s Gullah population and other rural communities in the area

“I was working in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. Poverty was very rampant at the time,” Campbell notes.

Campbell’s efforts to improve the lives of those around him didn’t go unnoticed. When the Penn Center, one of the East Coast’s largest centers for the study of Gullah culture, was in search of an executive director, he was recruited heavily for the job.

The position of executive director of a historical and cultural organization was a bit of a departure for Campbell, who admits he didn’t particularly enjoy his required history courses during his undergraduate days at Savannah State. But taking the reins of the Penn Center — a designated National Historic Site on St. Helena Island that once served as a school for former slaves — required Campbell to delve into the history of the Gullah people. It was nothing like the Western civilization courses he took in college.

“I had to start learning my history all over again. I read and read, redoubled my efforts and relearned Gullah history.” Campbell was hooked.

A Distinguished Career

In Campbell’s 22-year career as executive director of the Penn Center, he helped preserve the former school, restoring 15 of 21 buildings on campus. He also reorganized the board of trustees, developed programs for small farm land use planning, and organized the Penn Center Heritage Days Festival, one of the premier celebrations of Gullah culture in the nation. He retired from the Penn Center in 2002.

In 2007, Campbell was named to the 23-person commission overseeing the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The Corridor, which was designated by an act of Congress in 2006, was created to recognize the important contributions made by the Gullah and Geechee communities and to help preserve sites, historical data, artifacts and objects associated with the culture. Campbell served two terms as chairman of the commission and still serves as a commissioner today.

Campbell has received numerous additional honors throughout his career, including the Governor’s Award for Historical Preservation in 1999 and the Carter G. Woodson Award for Civil Rights by the National Education Association in 2006. He was inducted into the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame in 1999 and was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters by the Bank Street College of Education in New York in 2000 and by the University of South Carolina in 2012.

Campbell hasn’t slowed down in his retirement. He wrote Gullah Cultural Legacies, which was first published in 2002, owns Gullah Heritage Consulting Service and operates Gullah Heritage Trail Tours with his family.

For Campbell, the dedication to preserving Gullah culture has been a labor of love and a cause that he hopes will continue to resonate with future generations.

“There’s a saying in Gullah that if you don’t know where you come from, then you wouldn’t know where you’re going,” Campbell says. “I would tell [young people] to know themselves, learn who they are and [know] the whys as to their character. Find out the reason for their speech, the reason for the way they look. They’ll find that it’s much easier to accept yourself. Once you do that, confidence is there, and you can find that life becomes easier.”

This story first appeared in Impressions, Fall 2015