2009 CTA — Sandhills Family Heritage Association

Sandhills Family Heritage Association
by Monica McCann

Located in the Sandhills region of North Carolina, the Sandhills Family Heritage Association (SFHA) works to preserve the unique natural and cultural heritage of African-American families in the Sandhills region, while also carrying on those traditions that have helped sustain the community and culture for hundreds of years. Environmental conservationists have long recognized the Sandhills region as one of the most distinctive and endangered ecosystems in North Carolina and the country. The unique African-American culture that flourishes here is, likewise, nationally significant. The Sandhills Family Heritage Association recognizes that the preservation of its culture is inextricably linked to the land and its residents’ ability to live self-sufficiently from that land. As a result, this grassroots organization’s work focuses on building what are called “Communities of HOPE” through heritage preservation, ownership of land, public education, and economic development, all of which are interconnected goals given the nature of African-American culture in the Sandhills region.

The Sandhills Family Heritage Association was established, in part, to reverse the mainstream “historical memory” that largely overlooks the significance and contributions of African Americans to the Sandhills region. The SFHA works to preserve its communities’ history and culture through a variety of methods that highlight and showcase the folklife and rich cultural heritage of local African-American people, including the collecting of oral history, the promotion of heritage tourism, and the organization of the Sandhills Sankofa Festival. SFHA has conducted and recorded over 130 oral history interviews that document the lifestyles, livelihoods, land-based activities, and stories of African-American families and communities dating back to slavery. These stories range from the simple but significant everyday struggles of farming in white America to agricultural, forestry, and other land-based and technical innovations created by African Americans in the Sandhills. The SFHA has also developed African-American heritage tours that educate, celebrate, and showcase the achievements of African Americans dating from the time of slavery to the present. The organization has also developed a tour and heritage site at their community center, which includes a replica of the historic Plank Road and a brush arbor, which ties in with the beginnings of local African-American churches. A second tour, which was featured in the National Travel Media Showcase’s annual meeting held in Fayetteville in 2006, educates visitors about African-American sites and contributions in the region. Finally, the SFHA organizes the Sandhills Sankofa Festival, which celebrated its sixth anniversary this past fall in Spring Lake, N.C. This festival has served as a means to celebrate and promote the music, dance, crafts, food, and other cultural traditions of African Americans in the Sandhills.

The Sandhills Family Heritage Association focuses much of its efforts on the land and cultural connections to the land that have sustained its communities for generations. To the African-American families of the Sandhills, land was not just soil; it was their food supply, their home, and their source of income, medicine, and recreation. Land was the center of family and community life. Elders who had little or no formal education were able to leave a legacy of knowledge and wisdom about the land and how to use it to enhance their families’ quality of life. This collective knowledge was passed down from generations dating back to slavery and, before that, to Africa. This makes SFHA’s work toward halting the rapid loss of African-American-owned land even more important. Through seminars, workshops, publications, and other means, SFHA educates African-American landowners about the long history of African-American land ownership in the region, while also providing tools to help sustain land ownership and cultural traditions of land stewardship. Over 700 people have attended SFHA’s educational workshops on a variety of topics including traditional gardening practices, legal issues of land ownership, land management, forest stewardship traditions, and more.

The Sandhills Family Heritage Association recognizes that helping to carry on the unique traditions of the African-American Sandhills community is as important as the work they do to preserve them. For this reason, much of SFHA’s efforts focus on ensuring that the history they preserve is not only recognized by the wider public, but is also actively passed on to future generations. SFHA established an innovative gardening project that paired up community elders and youth to preserve, pass on, and document cultural traditions of gardening and “gleaning” (sharing excess crops with less-fortunate neighbors). In addition to this project, SFHA has created a variety of public education tools. These include the dissemination of SFHA oral histories through workshops, seminars and publications, including a DVD, Our Land, Our Community, Our Family Heritage, about the importance of land to the African-American community. They also include the publication of a book, Healing from the Land, that documents folk medicine traditions commonly used in the community. Finally, community members participated in an asset-mapping project, in which community members identified hundreds of historic lands, events, people, and businesses that are the foundation of African-American communities in the Sandhills.

The SFHA is a unique organization in that it sees the goals of economic development and heritage preservation as inextricably linked. Because African Americans in this region have a long tradition of economic self-sufficiency that is tied to the land, part of the preservation of African-American heritage involves the cultivation and re-awakening the entrepreneurial spirit that sustained the community for so long. SFHA believes that the perfect model for community revitalization is found in its own rural ancestry. When the community looked at Manchester, an African-American community in the Sandhills, during their asset mapping project, they noticed that almost every parcel of land had some sort of entrepreneurial business attached to it—a barber shop, beauty salon, garage, dressmaker, grocery store, or other business. The community was almost totally self-sufficient, a tradition that has been significantly weakened by global economic trends. SFHA works to regain this self-sufficiency by focusing efforts on initiatives and programs that build support for community-level entrepreneurship. For example, SFHA uses heritage tourism to preserve African-American culture, while providing entrepreneurial opportunities for community members through historical re-enactments, guided tours, and family reunion services. Proposed renovations of the old community civic building include plans for a small business incubator and commercial kitchen to support community-based cultural enterprises. Finally, a farmer’s market at the Sandhills Heritage Center site provides a market for landowners in the region to generate income by continuing traditions of gardening and gleaning on their lands.

The spirit and purpose of the Sandhills Family Heritage Association is embodied in the organization’s emblem, the Sankofa Bird. Visually and symbolically, Sankofa is expressed as a mythical bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg (symbolizing the future) in its mouth. The concept of Sankofa is derived from King Adinkera of the Akan people of West Africa. Sankofa is expressed in the Akan language as “se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki.” Literally translated, “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” Sankofa teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. SFHA is helping community members reach back and gather the best of what the past has to teach in order to achieve full potential in moving forward. Whatever has been lost, forgotten, forgone or stripped, can be reclaimed, revived, preserved, and perpetuated.

The Sandhills Family Heritage Association is both unique and effective in their approaches to preserving African-American cultural traditions. Their effectiveness was showcased nationally in 2007 when a segment on the work of SFHA and Executive Director Ammie Jenkins was televised on PBS’ Jim Lehrer News Hour. Now their groundbreaking work in preserving and sustaining the cultural traditions of African Americans in the Sandhills is also recognized by the North Carolina Folklore Society’s 2008 Community Traditions Award.

Monica McCann works with The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities Program. Resourceful Communities has worked for more than fifteen years in distressed communities throughout North Carolina to build successful working partnerships with more than 200 grassroots organizations. Collectively, the program has helped partners create over 160 new businesses and 430 jobs that are demonstrating economic, social and environmental returns-on-investment in our state’s most isolated rural areas. For more information, visit <www.resourcefulcommunities.org>.

Original publication citation:
McCann, Monica.  “Sandhills Family Heritage Association.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 55.2 (Fall-Winter 2008): 37-42.

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