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Zenobia Harper: The Gullah Garden is Always Giving

As a wife, daughter, and mother, Zenobia has bloomed into a cultured, wise woman. Many of her positive attributes are owed to her roots and her connection to the history of her heritage. While her parents and even some grandparents were raised in Georgetown just like she was, the Gullah culture remained prevalent during her upbringing.

“No one in our family ever said, ‘What I am teaching you or showing you is Gullah’ – it was merely our way of life.” Zenobia explained, “However, due to our ancestors being brought here as enslaved African peoples, you were often seen as less than if you spoke the Gullah Geechee language. Instead, you were taught that receiving an education and learning to speak English well would serve you better. During that time period, I felt it was not necessary to bring my Gullah ways into the world along with me, so I left them as far behind as I thought I was supposed to.”

Zenobia studied at the Fashion Institute where she received a degree in merchandising and fashion. As a young adult, she lived an exciting lifestyle in New York City as a jewelry designer. It wasn’t until after she was married and in the process of having a daughter of her own, that she recognized how essential it was to have her culture. She said, “In order to be at least half as good a mother as my mom and grandmother were to me, it was vital that I come back to my culture and my people. This humbling and healing experience provided me with clarity. My daughter was raised with the understanding that she was Gullah and undoubtedly proud.” Ultimately, Zenobia realized that if she and her daughter needed the culture, others would probably benefit from learning about it as well.

On a mission to pass along her knowledge as well as preserve the culture through the arts, she and her husband, Reverend Jerry Harper, created the Gullah Preservation Society of Georgetown County, Inc. Although many aspects of Gullah culture have been passed down for generations, one incredibly influential theme is the culinary arts. Learning how to best grow a garden, knowing when and when not to plant certain things, and even growing food for medicinal purposes were all prevalent aspects that are still important today. In hopes to promote these natural values as well as create an outdoor gathering space for their organization to stay active in the community (during the pandemic), Zenobia and her husband opened the Gullah Preservation Community Garden.

Located in Georgetown on the well-traveled Merriman Road, the Garden serves several purposes that revolve around life lessons. One intention of the garden is for all people, especially young people, to see how to grow a garden and understand the importance of where food comes from. She specifically grows sunflowers because she believes they are a wonderful way to speak about abundance, “It only takes one sunflower seed to produce a sunflower, but that one sunflower can give you up to 400 sunflower seeds. So, thoughtful effort and care for just one sunflower can bring a plentiful harvest.” Another metaphoric lesson she teaches is for when they build proper trellises that support the plants, like how we need our trellis’ in life such as family, education, and other supportive foundations. Learning in the garden is forever open to all who are interested.

The Garden offers several crops throughout the year, but Zenobia especially loves planting crops that the Gullah culture traditionally grew and brought to South Carolina called “soul food” such as okra, peas, and corn. She also grows garlic and elderberry which have always been herbal remedies (that can be supplemented for big pharma) to support immunity and well-being. Zenobia believes it’s meaningful for people to understand the connection between the food they eat and the land where it’s grown. This specific garden is not and was never meant for commercialization – the harvest is simply free to anyone who needs or wants it as well as seeds to encourage others to try growing their own.

With the help of her master gardener, Tim Chapman, she has been able to organize and use her design talents to create a beautiful layout. The Garden has truly become Zenobia’s peaceful place to work and reminds her of when she was growing up on the same streets. “Because growing food was a part of life in our culture, every yard, no matter how small, always had something blooming, like figs, pears, pomegranates, or pecans. When reflecting, it’s interesting how often we take for granted this way of living. Relearning how to grow a garden just as I learned from my mother and grandmother served as a reminder of why the Gullah people did what they did in order to sustain community and health.”

In addition to her growing and ever-giving garden, she is also in charge of community outreach for the Charles Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies at Coastal Carolina University. She specifically helps orient the students into the Gullah culture who join the RISE program and any others involved in the Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts. She is hoping to continue growing the institute and spreading the culture.

Whether it be a tomato plant or a tiny human, the Gullah culture proves that proper care and respect are necessities for growth, just as staying humble and giving are imperative for the sustainability of a community. On many occasions, but especially to celebrate Mother’s Day, Zenobia always gifts her mother something live to take care of and continue to grow which is a beautiful way to honor their ancestors.

For Zenobia, the idea of growing your roots means survival, physical and spiritual survival. She explained, “We are living in a world now where there is not a lot of attention paid to the root of something. Instead, it’s paid to the flowers, the fruit, and the beauty of something, but you can’t have any healthy growth at all without strong roots.”

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