It’s a Sunday, and the Gullah Heritage Trails Tours bus is loading up at Honey Horn. Shuffling on board are visitors from across the globe—literally. The usual midwestern mix of Minnesotans, Ohioans and Wisconsinites are joined by a family from Italy, not to mention a handful of locals.
And lording over the entire bus is the man who will serve as part historian, part master of ceremonies, and part standup comedian: Irvin Campbell.
“I’m a rice-eating Geechee,” he tells the gathered crowd to a round of laughs. “We’d have rice and seafood, rice and vegetables, rice and rice … lotta rice. When I was younger, we couldn’t wait to get away from Hilton Head to the big cities to buy hamburgers and hot dogs.”
Another Campbell, John, drives the bus. Inside, a Campbell cousin takes tickets. They are just a few members of the massive family that has made the Gullah Heritage Trails Tours bus a ubiquitous fixture on the island. Since founding the business in 1996, the family has not only been able to use these tours to educate binyahs and cumyahs alike on an oft-forgotten chapter in our island’s history, but they’ve been able to secure a family legacy for the ages.
Up close and personal
The tour itself is a marvel, even for those of us who consider ourselves locals. Winding its way through the north end and mid-island communities that Gullah have called home for centuries, it gives you a chance to immerse yourself in these neighborhoods, seeing them up close. But it’s the narration by Irvin (or whichever Campbell is on duty that day) that creates magic.
Driving through these neighborhoods, the bus becomes part time machine through stories that take you back before the bridge. Irvin tells of long days spent helping family, picking vegetables, and mending nets. Of seeing Tina Turner play at the old bandstand. Of counting cars when the bridge first opened. Of getting together for barbecues and sharing stories. Of a history, and a people, and a culture.
For the visitors from afar, it represents a singular opportunity to experience a side of the island that was withheld from the tourism brochures for decades. They’ll hear all about the first steps Africans took toward freedom at Mitchelville, and they’ll be able to see replicas of the old praise houses. They’ll see the boundaries that marked off places like Stoney, Chaplin and Squire Pope and gain a better understanding of the vital communities these names once represented.
“Farming, fishing and hunting were our way of life,” Irvin said. “But everything was done as a family. You’d know who you were.”
It’s an eye-opener for first timers, but even locals will tell you that, at some point, you need to take this tour. If nothing else, it will color in the lines of what you think you already know. You may have heard all about the legendary Charlie Simmons Sr., but did you know that the island’s original ferryman had a notorious sweet tooth for chocolate? You may have seen the signs marking these neighborhoods, but you don’t know which one was known for its fishermen, for its farmers, and for its handymen. Even something as simple as hearing about how immensely popular baseball was among Gullah youth helps you see the island’s first people as less an abstract and more a vital living culture.
When you see how well these families thrived before a bridge, you get a glimpse of a different world, now relegated to stories and plaques set beside busy highways.
You also see, through the Campbell family, how keeping these stories alive is giving a family purpose. “We’re trying to teach our nieces and nephews this culture. My children are all grown, and they used to tell me, ‘Daddy, you’re making this up.’ They didn’t think we used to live like this,” Irvin said as he wrapped up his tour. “They grew up in a different world.”
Beyond the bus
Some stories need to be heard on a bus. Some, however, must be told via Zoom. With Campbells scattered from Florida to North Carolina, sometimes it’s the only way to get all of them in the same room. At least in between holidays or Sunday get togethers, which are massive affairs.
“We’re all really close. We keep up with each other, and we pray for each other,” said Stephanie Campbell, an island native but Charlotte resident. “Those are the things we were taught by the older generation. After moving to Charlotte, I realized the value of my family and that not everyone has family like I do.”
Stephanie’s first job was taking tickets for the tour buses her family operates under parent company C&W Connection. During high school, she completed an internship, gaining business skills that have served her well. “It taught us a lot about being entrepreneurs,” she said.
Her brother John, who was driving the bus on that particular Sunday, is a great example of this entrepreneurial spirit that runs through the Campbell family—one that has fueled each member of the family as well as the business. His work as a Realtor gives him the flexibility to fill in as a driver when needed.
Cousin Quincy has been working for the tour for 20 years, first as a driver when they had a small van, then selling tickets, dispatching, and keeping the books.
And calling in from Florida, Uncle Luther Mitchell uses his business acumen as a vice president at C&W Connection. And while some family-owned businesses might bestow a title like vice president on a whim, it’s clear that Mitchell views the family business as very much a business.
“I did a lot of leadership training in the Air Force and brought that back to the business,” he said, “things like examining our core values, defining our mission statement.”
The corporate structure behind Gullah Heritage Trails Tours is surprisingly formal, with set minutes for each meeting and motions set by the group to carry forward items of business. “We follow Robert’s Rules of Order,” Mitchell said. “Sometimes it gets heated, but at the end of the day, you go back to family.”
Keeping the business running has not only allowed the massive Campbell family to work toward a common goal and strengthen family bonds across distance, but it helps advance a legacy of a family whose name has graced this island for centuries. It’s a legacy of reverence for the culture and the history, but it’s also one that keeps one eye on the future, by teaching new generations what it takes to live Gullah.
“That drive is what sustained Gullah culture,” Mitchell said. “Everyone back then was an independent contractor. Everyone worked for themselves.”
Instilling that drive has helped the Campbell family to endure and thrive as the island around them changed. And those drives, winding their way across Hilton Head nearly every day, help remind us cumyahs that the island’s story began long before us. Thanks to the Campbells, that story will continue long after we’re gone.