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Young cyclists discover this ancestral African-American region and make a connection to the historical experience of the Gullah Geechee people.

Author Herb Hiller was recognized in 2010 with an American Trails State Trail Advocacy Award



Youth bicycle the Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor

Herb Hiller

Young boy riding trail on grassy hills

Riders at the Georgia State line


The East Coast Greenway Alliance works to get a trail built between Maine and Florida. Except for a once-a-year donors ride that progressively covers its 2,900-mile route, the alliance doesn’t run extended tours.

It didn’t run one this summer either, although it sponsored one— a youth tour— together with two other nonprofits and the governing commission of a national heritage area. The tour crossed 700 miles of the alliance route that focused on 550 particular miles that constitute the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

Last year the alliance and the governing commission of the heritage corridor entered into an arrangement. The alliance would market the corridor to touring cyclists, whose economic impacts could help revitalize African-American communities pressured by coastal development and by the out-migration of young people in search of mainstream opportunities. In return, the commission would lend its good offices to help close greenway gaps.


What could happen next

The tour was an experiment of two parts. Would the youth group enjoy a two-week ride and excite residents and leaders along the Gullah Geechee corridor about what could happen next? And could the tour’s lofty premise also excite an adult touring market by re-discovering America through this ancestral African-American region?

Smiling African American youth on bicycle

Young cyclist on the trail



The experiment wasn’t perfectly set up. The cyclists were mostly high school students (18) with a few middle schoolers (3) on a bike adventure with their adult coaches. They were from low to moderate income families. The youth and adult coaches slept mostly in tents. Some days, midday heat topped 100 degrees. They cooled off at beaches, in pools and refreshed in the shade of coastal woods.

Differently, follow-up tours would cover fewer days and miles across only portions of the corridor at a time, take place at cooler times of year, and appeal to an adult market willing to pay for indoor lodgings.

Nonetheless, affluent adults could find much to like in how David Quick of the Charleston Post and Courier weighed the promise in his “Tour de Gullah” report when he wrote:

“The tour is one of the most multi-dimensional I’ve heard of, fostering a sense of health and adventure, learning about history, culture and the importance of public service and volunteerism and exercising an important lesson of life: bonding and cooperating with others who aren’t exactly like you.”

Hosts excited by the tour

Black and white hosts alike were excited by the preview.

• Learning from history began at the top of the corridor near Wilmington, North Carolina. There, a ranger at Moores [cq] Creek National Battlefield Visitor Center led the group through a Revolutionary War site strewn with relics of the role that African workers played in fighting for American independence and building the Southern economy.

• In Charleston, Corridor Commission Executive Director J. Herman Blake greeted the cyclists at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church just weeks after the summer killings there. Dr. Blake reflected on a nearby mansion “of the family that owned my forebears, and how those people were forced to traverse that same corridor— probably in chains.”

• At the Penn Center campus on St. Helena Island, the cyclists honored a font of Gullah culture by donating 10 bikes to help start a youth cycling club.

• At another cultural landmark, Mitchelville Freedom Park on Hilton Head Island, they spent the day with 20 high school teachers and a group of 15 youth from Dublin, Georgia. They traveled together by van back to St. Helena and spent the evening at a beach park.

Man speaking to youth in matching shirts

Corridor Commission Executive Director J. Herman Blake greets cyclists

For two nights, the group slept in beds at the Penn Center. Comeuppance came next day with six flat tires and an electrical storm. Night was on mats atop wet ground at Georgia’s Skidaway Island State Park.

Along the Coastal Georgia Greenway in Riceboro, Geechee Kunda Center co-founder Jim Bacote exclaimed as he welcomed the team: “You are the ones I have been waiting for my whole life."

The cyclists’ day and evening at Geechee Kunda Center were spent enraptured by musical lessons, in the dramatic interpretation of historical moments related to Gullah Geechee ancestry and by Gullah cuisine. Cyclists slept the night in a bunk house.

Observed Coach Atiba, “There's no doubt that Jim’s infectious enthusiasm won over every skeptical or quizzical teenage member of our team.

“We also met one of our Gullah Geechee tour goals at Geechee Kunda— to start another BRAG Dream Team chapter, and it’s destined for Riceboro!”

In Darien, Georgia a police car escorted the group to city hall for official welcome. Council member and heritage corridor commissioner Griffin Lotson declared the moment “a dream come true.”

In Brunswick and again in St. Marys, the group played and listened to music with teen center bands while Coach Atiba spoke to the Boys & Girls Club Teen Center governing board about the tour and opportunity to launch a youth cycling program.

The tour crossed Cumberland Sound from St. Marys by sponsored ferry, arriving to official Florida welcomes in Fernandina Beach and a police escort to heritage sites that included Florida’s first beach for African- Americans – American Beach -- and its sacred dune Nana, the highest natural landmark along east coast Florida.


What observers and the youth said

“That physical experience makes a practical connection to the historical experience of Gullah/Geechee people, most of whom lived for hundreds of years as enslaved people along the route the bikers rode,” wrote Glenda Jenkins in the Fernandina Beach News-Leader.

Youth on bicycles pose at Waffle House



You had a lot to lose if you got caught escaping from enslavement,” Itza Salazar, 21, told Jenkins “It helps you put it into perspective.”

Guided tours and lunch at the American Beach Center were followed with a historical talk by Dr. Eugene Emory, a member of the psychology faculty at Emory University, who keeps a home in American Beach.

“A wonderful occasion,” Philip Scanlan called it. Locally retired from Bell Labs, Scanlan is founder-chair of Amelia Island Trails. He biked 20 miles with the group— his longest ride ever, he said.

“I asked them all to come back to Amelia Island for vacations with their families in 10 years -- when Amelia Island is the best place in Florida to walk, run or bicycle safely.”

On its final cycling day, the group crossed the St. Johns River by ferry to Mayport, where past president of Friends of the St. Johns River Ferry Val Bostwick led them to breakfast and through beach towns. There was time for a dip in the sea.

Velo Fest Community Initiative arranged welcomes by the bike friendly community of Armstrong at the end of the heritage corridor. SEA Community (Spuds, Elkton, Armstrong) Executive Director Malinda Peeples told how touring groups now regularly arrange for meals and join in “jump-ups” that draw hundreds of cyclists.

The tour wrapped up with a visit to Fort Mose State Historic Park, a National Heritage Landmark, for an hour of learning about Gullah Geechee history, where St. Augustine City Commissioner Todd Neville presented each touring youth with a pin that commemorates his city’s 450th Anniversary. Visits followed to Flagler College and to the monument that honors former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.

For Cienna Minnifield, 19, a freshman at Georgia State University, “the tour made me more mature. I thought a lot biking eight hours a day. I’m going to aim for art and business, to do what I love and work for it.”

On his second tour, Micco Guthrie, 15, “learned so much more,” he said, about “how the Gullah/Geechee people were able to keep their heritage.”

For three youngsters from Dublin who all completed the tour— Jeair Beauchamp, Marcus Adams and Jadavious Martin -- the ride was “simply amazing.” They were amazing. They were all 12 when they made the ride.

Said East Coast Greenway Alliance Executive Director Dennis Markatos-Soriano, "We want bike touring to keep growing as a means of connecting people to the rich culture, history, and nature of the East Coast, and we welcome partnerships with touring companies to make that happen."

Author Herb Hiller of DeLand, Florida writes frequently about placemaking, ecotourism and trails. See more of Herb's articles for American Trails:


photo of kids with mural photo of bicyclists
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