Reflection on Growing up on St. Helena Island, SC
The isolated barrier islands of South Carolina were slow to be penetrated by the transformational forces of modernization during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As such, the cultural traditions of Central and West Africans who were brought to the Southeastern United States as slaves have survived to this day within the Gullah Geechee community.
One member of South Carolina’s Gullah community is a longtime resident of South Carolina’s St. Helena Island, Robert Middleton, who for the past fourteen years has been the tour guide at the York W. Bailey Museum at the Penn Center where he has introduced many visitors to the island. The Penn Center, founded in 1862, was the first school for freed African American slaves. Middleton spoke with South Writ Large by phone recently to tell us more about his life and the history of the island.
Robert Middleton was born in Philadelphia in 1929 and adopted shortly thereafter by James and Elizabeth Middleton of St. Helena Island. The Middletons had lived there most of their lives with roots reaching as far back as the 1700s. When Robert arrived at St. Helena Island in the 1930s, it was an isolated community with a population that was 90 percent African American. Residents were self-sufficient and relied on farming, fishing, and hunting for subsistence and community activities such as baseball games for entertainment. The Gullah people shared resources with one another; for instance, when the Middletons butchered a hog, neighbors assisted with the process and took home excess meat. Robert also recalls that neighbors allowed one another to farm on their land if it was not being used.
One central source of community life was the church. Residents worshipped in praise houses, which hosted services on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. Additionally, praise houses served as a gathering space where the community would solve problems that arose instead of through the court. Community leaders were pastors and teachers; everyone looked out for another other. As Robert points out, “Everybody was like a family. All those old enough to be your parent would scold you or whip you into shape.”
After World War II, dirt roads were paved and more and more people came to the island, which altered its population demographics. Commercial farmers have replaced individual farmers, who are mostly now retired. Robert says of the changes he’s witnessed, “Younger people do mechanic work, go to school, become electricians, open their own businesses.” St. Helena Island now welcomes visitors from all over the world, giving Robert the opportunity to teach people from Germany, Japan, and Africa, for example, about the history of the island and the Gullah people. Robert declares, “I do my yard work, enjoy life. I’ll work at the museum as long as I can go! I love for people to know the history.”
Robert’s experiences growing up at this particular time on St. Helena Island in this very unique Gullah community are documented in a book written by Rosalyn Browne about Robert’s life, With Open Arms. Following are excerpts from this book:
Young Robert’s adoptive parents were very self-sufficient. James Middleton’s farm was on Seaside Road on St. Helena Island and is still Robert’s home. Chickens, turkeys, hogs, cows, and horses were raised on the farm, in addition to vegetables, tomatoes, watermelon, cotton, rice, sweet potato, and okra. The crops were all organic and fertilized by cow and horse manure. James was respected by everyone and was able to hold business accounts with White and Black merchants to buy seed and feed for his animals. There was even a little country store on the farm which sold sodas, candy, canned goods and other conveniences for the neighbors. Because of Mr. Middleton’s ability with reading and writing he was the secretary at the First African Baptist Church which was the family’s place of worship.
Elizabeth Middleton worked as a domestic worker for a family in Rhode Island who were store owners. “She loved to cook and made a pretty good living working for white families.”Because of her job with this family, Elizabeth was able to provide Robert with some stylish clothes that his friends could not afford. She was also able to send from Rhode Island Black magazines, Jet and Ebony, which were not available from magazine stands in Beaufort County at that time. Early on Bobby grew a sense of style influenced by the entertainers that he saw in these magazines. His greatest inspiration was Billy Eckstein. Robert confesses that he “always had a weakness for clothes, and still has.” He especially liked and bought patent leather shoes from the catalogs his mother sent from Rhode Island. The one time that Robert remembers his father being angry with him was when he ordered alligator-skin shoes that cost $20.00, which was a small fortune to pay for shoes at that time.
While the family she worked for traveled to Florida several months a year, Elizabeth joined her family on St. Helena Island. When she came home, the community would come to visit. She loved cooking for all her family and guests and made sure that each child had something to take home with them. James Middleton especially loved to eat crab with “boiled flour” or “turn flour with milk” as it was sometimes called.
One of Robert’s fondest memories is his adoptive mother sharing stories about her life and her family. He was very touched by a compassionate story Elizabeth told about her favorite singer, Bessie Smith, who died on her way to Alabama because she was refused treatment by an all-white segregated hospital. “I could see the pain on my mother’s face when she thought about how much Bessie must have suffered.” He also recalls his mother telling him stories about his adoptive grandfather, her father, and the things they shared together. “All of these things helped me go through life as I grew up, and what you have to do to be strong. There used to be a big willow tree in the yard I would sit under and talk to myself and I would ask God to help me find somebody who would tell me the truth.” Often after midnight Robert would hear Elizabeth praying for him and praying that she would live until he became a man since she worried that there would be no one to care for him if she died.
Robert grew up sharing a close relationship with his adoptive brothers and sisters. Even though they got along as well as children could be expected, Robert always felt like an “outsider.” “Some of them didn’t ‘adopt’ me so well, but as we grew older and became more as Christians and understood each other, we got along well.”
GROWING UP ON ST. HELENA ISLAND
Bobby was raised on the farm and had lots of fun raising chickens and going fishing. Along with his adoptive father and brother, Jimmy, he worked in the small family garden planted with tomatoes, corn, okra, and cucumbers. Robert fondly remembers how his family spent a week sitting and shelling dry corn kernels into a #2 washtub. On Saturday everyone on the Island would go to the corn mill for their corn to be ground into cornmeal. Bobby also joined his family hunting rabbit and raccoon in the woods of St. Helena Island. Often they would take wagons out to gather Spanish moss for the cows to eat from the plentiful oak trees. In addition to carpentry, James taught Bobby how to cast nets, pick oysters, fish, and crab. The family had its own boat and did lots of crabbing and fishing. At that time fishermen used a light called a “flambo” on their boats to see the fishes’ shadow in the water at night. The flambo would burn all night and was made from a mason jar with a hole in the lid stuffed with a kerosene-drenched rag. It is now realized that so many of the names of everyday items in the lives of the people of St. Helena Island were from the African language spoken by the people before being brought to South Carolina.
Life on the island was not always easy and carefree. As he grew up to become a young man, Bobby learned about hardships and sacrifices in the time of the Great Depression. While Bobby went to school during the day, he also worked along with his father to help buy food and necessities. One of the ways that Bobby helped his family was by selling fish house to house in his neighborhood. He either walked or rode in an ox-driven wagon. Bobby sold eight fish for a quarter. These were hard times for the islanders who often had few material possessions, but considered their lives bountiful in the blessings of God. Robert feels blessed also by the fact that working on the farm helped to strengthen a weakness on his right side that had afflicted him since birth. It is from this farm work that Robert’s love for landscaping was born.
The work week ended on Saturday at 12:00 noon and the afternoon was spent in housecleaning. Sunday dinner was prepared on Saturday evening. Baseball games were a favorite pastime in each community on Saturday afternoon. Teams from each community would travel from one area to another to play and to compete for the prizes of moonshine and soda for the children who played. Bobby loved playing baseball on these afternoons. He learned all the many areas of St. Helena Island because of traveling to play with his team. Robert also recalls that he’d “walk a mile for four Joe Louis cookies which costed a penny then.” One of the other favorites was a candy on a stick called BB Bats. Although Bobby never won, he enjoyed taking part in the “grease the pole” game each July 4. All the competitors tried to climb to the top of a greased pole to win $1.00.
Bobby really liked being around the old folk of the community because he learned so much from them. Families seldom were seen by doctors and treated their afflictions themselves with herbs and practices passed down from the elders. For example, colds were treated with horehound and Knight of Alaska found in the woods, and with pomegranates. Once when Bobby’s brother, Jimmy, had a snake bite, a frog was cut in half and tied to his leg. The frog’s blood drew out the infection and Jimmy’s leg was healed in no time. One of the ways parents used to tell if a child was lying was to watch to see if a palm leaf would tighten up. This practice always frightened Bobby. All the babies on St. Helena Island were delivered at home by midwives. In the winter, mothers had to stay in the house for a month with their babies. Another tradition in the community was that when someone in the family died, a close relative would wear something black for almost a year.
“When I was a child, religion was an important part of my life. I used to watch the people go in the prayer house and the churches. On Sundays, everybody dressed up in their finest clothes and set off for church.” The Sea Island religious tradition of worshipping in prayer or “praise” houses, as they were often called, grew out of the plantation system when the masses of slaves were restricted from leaving the plantation, but strongly encouraged to participate in the religious practices of their owners. Islanders attended Sunday School on Sunday and went to the praise houses on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday night. Before being baptized it was necessary to go to a leader who had to have dreams about the applicant becoming a member of the church. Unfortunately, over several generations, islanders moved away from the praise houses to larger, more established churches that sprang up on St. Helena Island.
EDUCATION AND WORK
Robert’s education began at the Lee Rosenwald School on Seaside Road. After graduating from primary school he attended Penn Normal and Industrial School on St. Helena Island, one of the first schools opened in 1862 for recently freed slaves in the Southeastern United States. In 1948 he dropped out of school in the 10th grade and took a job at Parris Island to help support the family. Robert put his age up two years to get this work. He was fortunate to fund a good-paying government job, one for which most men at the time would have traded their right arm. Beaufort County was a rural area without much industry and the government-owned military was the largest employer in the area. Robert was lucky to be picked up every day by a truck sent around to pick up the workers.
For twenty-two years as Robert grew into a man on St. Helena Island in Beaufort County, S.C., he continued to pray and ask God for someone who knew his family’s story. He had never left home and had never experienced prejudice or racism outside of the safety of his boyhood home on the island.
In January 1951, the United States Army drafted Robert to serve his country for two years in Germany during the Korean War. The day he opened his draft letter was a turning point in his life. Robert had never been away from home before; the only life he had known existed on a tiny island of moss-draped oaks and salt marshes. He had never ridden on a bus or plane. He had never seen a skyscraper and had never eaten in a restaurant. Robert’s world was about to change and he was eager to take it all in and to defend the American ideals of freedom in the process. Like many other Blacks, Robert was in Germany when they first started integrating in the Army. “I was in a Black outfit of engineers. That was the first I ever experienced segregation because I lived in the country growing up and didn’t have too much contact with Whites until I went into the service.” Segregation and separation were obstacles that Robert grew to accept because he had already learned how to cope with being apart from his birth family all his life. After his stint in the service was over, he returned home and went back to work on Parris Island in the Officer’s Club.
BACK HOME ON ST. HELENA ISLAND
In 1976 Robert had a dream that it was time to return to South Carolina. Both his birth parents and adoptive parents had passed. He had lived and worked in Philadelphia for more than twenty years, been baptized at the New Hope Baptist Church, and most importantly had gotten to know his birth family.
Upon returning to South Carolina, Robert did work that he loved—landscaping. He still lives on St. Helena Island where he raised seven children—John, James, Peggy, and Leander Middleton, Barbara Jenkins, Julie Daise, and Eloise Sheffield in Tifton, Georgia. He is proud that all of his children graduated from high school and have jobs and children of their own. He is a “blessed man” with twenty grandchildren and more than twenty-seven great-grandchildren in all. Robert still has a close relationship with the children of his adopted brother, Danny—Mary, Sharon, and Queen.
Robert volunteers four hours each weekday and Saturdays at the York W. Bailey Museum located at the historic Penn Center. He eagerly shares about the Gullah culture and how blessed he is to have been raised on this unique island. Mr. Middleton happily agrees to give personal tours, when requested, for the opportunity to share more about the natives of St. Helena Island referred to as the Gullah people and other historic sites on St. Helena Island, which is one of the numerous important locations in Beaufort County, South Carolina.
Robert is a man of strong faith who actively serves as a Deacon and a Sunday School teacher at the First African Baptist Church on the island. He said his favorite Bible story is the story of Joseph who was taken far away from his birthright to live in another land, but in the end—through his unwavering faith in God—accepted his brothers and shared his kingdom with them.
Robert, now eighty-one, has one final prayer. “I want one day, if I live, to have all my grandchildren, nieces, and nephews to have one big family reunion and enjoy one day together as a family. I am not afraid to talk about what happened. I want my kids and grandchildren to remember and always remember who they are and where they came from. It is good to know who you are and your roots from where you came, so that you can always talk to your children and grandchildren.”