To Celebrate and Educate
The North Carolina Rice Festival aims to educate people about the Gullah/Geechee culture in North Carolina while at the same time providing fun activities for all ages.
Nelson Mandela is credited with saying “Education is the key to moving forward in any society,” and George Beatty, Jr., chair of the North Carolina Rice Festival board, says education is the aim of the Rice Festival.
“The whole purpose is to get folks to understand the rice history and culture that propelled this region economically,” he says. “I volunteered to lead the effort because I didn’t want the Rice Festival to become just a festival and not honor the people who actually grew the rice.”
The motto of the festival is “Education through Celebration!”
Rice Festival activities start March 2 with the Ancestor Reveal at the Navassa Community Center and continue through March 4 with demonstrations, tours and other activities at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson in Winnabow.
“What is important about this location is that it was the initial port of this area of North Carolina,” Beatty says. “Ships could leave directly from Africa and land at the port there. It’s documented that the enslaved set foot on the North American continent for the first time at Brunswick Town, the port of Brunswick.”
Most local residents don’t realize that rice was “Carolina gold” in the late 1700s and into the 1800s. The Gullah/Geechee people from West Africa, where rice was grown, were captured and sent to be slaves on Southern plantations from Florida to North Carolina. Here they produced the crop along the Cape Fear River.
The National Heritage Areas Act of 2006 created the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which includes parts of North Carolina. Since they were isolated from the rest of North Carolina residents, the Gullah/Geechee were able to maintain their arts, crafts and other traditions. Their food consisted of what they could grow, hunt and fish. They also created the Gullah language, not spoken anywhere else in the world. Because of discriminatory laws of the late 1800s, the Gullah/Geechee people were forced to find places where they could live without persecution.
Interest in these people grew, and businessman W. C. Lanier founded the Rice Festival in 2014. When he passed away in 2018, the Leland Tourism Development Authority bought the rights to the festival from his estate. Its first festival was in 2019, and it has grown since.
Beatty says the festival has added two new activities this year: the Ancestor Reveal and the Children’s Stage. The Ancestor Reveal traces people’s heritage through their DNA, so they can learn what ties they have to African tribal groups.
The festival is working in collaboration with africanancestry.com, which has the largest database of African tribal groups.
“If you have African ancestry, it will tie you to a specific tribal group,” Beatty says. “You can learn if your ancestors came here during the African slave trade.”
To be part of this activity, people can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The service is free.
The children’s stage is part of the vast array of activities on March 4. It features adult storytellers giving performances on the Gullah/Geechee culture.
“It is important to get children to understand the history and culture,” Beatty says. “We are trying to educate a wider audience and have something focused on children.”
Gullah/Geechee food vendors, arts and crafts, live entertainment, tours and demonstrations are also on the agenda. Sunn m’Cheaux, a Harvard University professor who teaches Gullah languages, will attend the March 3 and 4 festival activities.
Beatty says he’s glad he pointed the festival toward history instead of a “feel-good festival.”
“The history has proven to be quite interesting,” he says.
Want to go?
North Carolina Rice Festival
March 2 to 4, 2023
March 2: 6 to 8 pm, Ancestor Reveal, Navassa Community Center, 338 Main Street, Navassa. Free and open to public.
March 3: Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Gala Dinner, Leland Cultural Arts Center, Sold Out
March 4: 10 am to 6 pm, Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson, 8884 St. Philip’s Road SE, Winnabow. Indoor/outdoor events. Free and open to public