Education through Celebration
Honoring Gullah Geechee culture is central to the North Carolina Rice Festival, which is slated to occur in northern Brunswick County on March 4 and 5 of 2022.
At its apex, Brunswick County rice production accounted for 90% of that grown in North Carolina. It was the same superior strand grown in the Low County of South Carolina and Georgia — Carolina Gold.
Its cultivation and export to Europe, especially England, accounted for much of the wealth of the agricultural antebellum south. Rice plantations existed all along the Cape Fear River, with several being in the area that would become Leland.
Rice plantations were an integral part of the culture among African-American slaves and their ancestors, which came to be called Gullah Geechee. The Gullah Geechee culture was once associated primarily with the Charleston area, but studies of the culture — its food, language, religion and more — have resulted in recognition of its existence from Florida to North Carolina.
A celebration of the Gullah Geechee culture is central to the North Carolina Rice Festival, which is slated to occur in northern Brunswick County on March 4 and 5 of 2022.
North Carolina Rice Festival chairman George Beatty says a gala will take place on March 4 at Leland Cultural Arts Center. A festival will be held on March 5 at a location yet to be determined and on a scale that is dependent upon COVID restrictions.
Central to the celebration is education about the Gullah Geechee culture. Many descendants of slaves who lived and worked on the rice plantations still live in the county. As Beatty points out about himself, they may have little knowledge of the culture. He grew up on land that was a former rice plantation but was unaware of it as a young person. He remembers riding along the Cape Fear River with his father and being told that the collapsing piers were remnants of rice fields. He also recalls that it meant little to him at the time.
“Keep in mind that the whole purpose of the rice festival is education,” he says, “education on Gullah rice culture which has been overlooked.”
Focusing on a motto of “education through celebration” the committee seeks to have all venues present an educational message.
“For instance, we hope to have food trucks, Gullah Geechee themed and others,” he says. “At each we plan to have banners that would have a ‘did you know?’ type of fact on them. Did you know that in Leland there were several rice plantations? Belleville, Woodburn?”
As food is a central part of the culture, the festival committee has engaged award-winning chef Keith Rhodes as consultant. His work is highlighted in one of two documentaries produced by the festival and available on the website — northcarolinaricefestival.org.
Rhodes explains that much of Gullah Geechee cuisine is vegetarian and seafood based. Rhodes presided over the previous gala, which took place just before the COVID shutdown, and will be integrally involved again in 2021.
Entertainment at that event included the stars of Nickelodeon’s Gullah Gullah Island, Ron and Natalie Daise. The committee hopes to have entertainment of a similar caliber for the upcoming event.
They’re also pursuing performers of the traditional song and dance known as ring shout, believed to be the oldest African-American performance tradition on the North American continent, according to the National Park Service website. “This compelling fusion of counterclockwise dance-like movement, the call-and-response singing, the percussion of hand clapping and the stick beating of a drum-like rhythm on a wooden floor is clearly African in its origins,” according to NPS.gov.
The performers perpetuate Gullah Geechee culture through shouting and ceremonies, Beatty says. Several groups are under consideration, and the committee is working with a concert manager to select and book the performers.
“Several entertainment groups are culturally based, but we understand we’re not living in the 1700s or 1800s anymore so we would also like to have several local bands that would draw everyone,” Beatty adds. “In addition, we’re trying to put together a children’s program such that children would have a good time at the festival.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the festival is a search for the ancestry of Brunswick County’s African-American population.
“We know that the origin of most of us is West Africa,” Beatty says, adding that some people came directly here, while others went first to the Caribbean, including Barbados. “That’s one of the things we’re going to try to explore.”
To make that happen, the festival committee is hoping to have people volunteer for DNA testing through a company called African Ancestry, which can identify tribal origins. Beatty hopes individuals who would like to participate will contact him or other committee members. Because the test is $300 per person, he also hopes to procure sponsorships. The resulting information would be revealed at the festival.
Beatty’s own testing revealed that his father’s family is from the Igbo tribal group of Nigeria. His mother’s origins are in neighboring Cameroon.
“But they had to come all the way to Brunswick County to meet each other,” he quips.
Learning the origins of ancestors can reveal a long line of experience and affinity to rice production, Beatty says.
Beatty and the committee are grateful for funding from Leland Tourism Development Authority, Brunswick Arts Council, Orton Foundation and others. For now, they’re proceeding with plans for a home-grown celebration of culture.
“We’re planning to do a festival knowing that everything could change quickly,” Beatty says. Stay tuned.
Want to be a sponsor or learn more?
Sponsorships for North Carolina Rice Festival are available from $1,000 to $7,500.
More information is available at northcarolinaricefestival.org or by emailing