Saint Helena Island Gullah: The Voice of an Island scroll down to explore this publication

Survival and Revival

Praise House

Unlike church services where a principal focus of gathering was to listen to the message of the preacher, Gullah praise services followed a structure based in the collective worship and contribution of members of the congregation. Praise houses (also called prays houses) were small song and meeting houses that dotted the plantations upon which they were built. Praise houses allowed community members to meet more frequently throughout the week, and only make the long journey to church on Sundays. Saint Helena Island was once home to more than twenty of these praise houses. Today, only three are still standing.

As Gracie talks about in "Praise House," Gullah style praise house worship began with the lining of the hymn, call-and-response singing that depended upon memory and that required the initiation of a given hymn or spiritual by a song leader. In the place of a piano or organ, bodily percussion was the main accompaniment. Clapping or stomping, with the aid of a large walking stick occasionally, kept a main floor beat for a song. This distributed and interactive form of worship allowed for the congregation to "feel the spirit" of the moment through the musical influence of multiple participants.

Press the circle and slide the bar to reveal each photograph.

From the Penn School Collection at the UNC-Chapel Hill Wilson Library. Permission granted by Penn Center, Inc., St. Helena Island, SC.

Home Going

Regardless of the geographical and social differences within Gullah cultures, there remained common rituals and beliefs pertaining to funeral services. These funeral practices were referred to as a "Home Going," signifying an emphasis on return and rebirth. A Home Going emphasized both separation from the physical realm and the continuation of a spiritual journey. Funeral services were held outside during the evening after work or other tasks. The later hour set aside for these services allowed for all members of the community to gather together during times of mourning. Spirituals sung during funeral services, such as "Beyond de Sky," melded profound sorrow with the uplifting hope associated with returning home to God.

Enslaved African-Americans also had to cope with high mortality rates among children. Home Going ceremonies thus served as rites of protection for the young as much as they were passing rituals for the deceased. As Gracie Gadson describes in "Home Going," babies were passed over the coffin of the deceased to form a guardian bond between the child and the person passing. Though this ritual is not practiced today, some of the beliefs that informed these services, such as faith in a close communion between children and ancestors, still flourish in the culture.

Press the circle and slide the bar to reveal each photograph.

From the Penn School Collection at the UNC-Chapel Hill Wilson Library. Permission granted by Penn Center, Inc., St. Helena Island, SC.



About the Song Leaders

  • Minnie Gracie Gadson, a Gullah Praise House singer, was born in 1947 on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. At an early age, she fell in love with the praise and worship experience and attended services at the Hope and John Fripp Praise Houses with her maternal grandmother.

    Minnie Gracie Gadson

  • James Garfield Smalls was born on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina in 1920. As a little boy, Garfield began singing in the Croft Praise House with his grandmother, and he learned many spirituals from these early experiences. After serving in the military for four years, he raised cattle on his farm located in the Eddings Point area. He has 7 daughters.

    James Garfield Smalls

  • The Murrays were born within twenty miles of one another: Joseph in Beaufort, South Carolina, and Rosa in Saint Helena Island. Both left the island for other employment opportunities, but returned when they married one another. Joseph is a deacon at Bethesda, where Rosa has led the Adult and Senior choirs.

    Rosa and Joseph Murray

Students and Faculty

  • Faculty
  • Jen Boyle Associate Professor of English and New Media
  • Alli Crandell Digital Content Coordinator
  • Eric Crawford Assistant Professor of Musicology
    Norfolk State University
  • Scott Mann Assistant Professor of Visual Arts
  • Armon Means Assistant Professor of Visual Arts
  • Matt White Assistant Professor of Music
  • Students
  • Brant Barrett Photography
  • Judy Barrett Pianist
  • Derek Berthiaume Historical Research
  • Sharonda Epps Biographies
    Norfolk State University
  • Tori Jordan Design and Photography
  • Liz Kelly Recording
  • Emily Munn Photography
  • Amanda O'Brien Photography
  • Aubrey Plum Photography
  • Lauren Rose Design and Photography
  • Erica Smith Narrative
  • Ronda Taylor Narrative and Research
  • Tevin Turner Recording
  • Blair Virden Narrative and Research


Alongside this digital application, this project also includes a CD Box Set of the four soloists performing.

Copies are available at