Heritage, the arts and award-winning creativity unite Ron and Natalie Daise
An educator, author, TV personality, singer/songwriter, cultural performer and tireless advocate, Ron Daise (pronounced “days”) has spent his entire adult life speaking, writing, protecting and singing about his Gullah heritage. As Vice President for Creative Education at Brookgreen Gardens since 2004 and as past chairman of the National Park Service cooperative program Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, Daise is widely considered an ambassador of and authority on a community of people he simply calls “family.” With a life born out of Sea Island traditions, rarely a day goes by that he isn’t asked to explain or describe some aspect of his family’s heritage and just what it means to be “Gullah.”
Some descendants of the originally enslaved African-Americans that inhabited the Sea Islands of South Carolina still speak a lyrical and unique English/Creole language known as “Gullah.” Daise loves telling the Gullah story, and speaking the language, because it is his own story. For some three decades he and his wife, Natalie, have been answering questions and sharing the history of the South Carolina Sea Islands and their people in some extraordinarily creative ways. The couple lives in Georgetown and has two grown children, Sara and Simeon.
Many visitors and residents to the Grand Strand know both Ron and Natalie from Brookgreen Gardens’ performances. Sellout crowds enjoyed their “Gullah Family Christmas” in song and story last December during the Nights of a Thousand Candles. Previously, Brookgreen Gardens hosted Natalie’s one-woman show “Becoming Harriet Tubman,” and Ron currently hosts regular educational lectures there. Still millions more know the couple as the smiling, singing and dancing husband-and-wife team who starred in the critically acclaimed, Emmy Award-nominated Nickelodeon children’s program Gullah Gullah Island, which was nationally televised for four seasons between 1994 and 1998.
Ron Daise comes by his Gullah heritage through family experience: born into it. Natalie, though not a native to South Carolina—she is from the Rochester/Syracuse, New York, area—was a fast learner and became a storytelling partner as she was assimilated through marriage into the Daise family in 1985. His stories became her stories, and yet she also developed her own voice and outreach through fine art, workshops and one-woman theatrical performances. The couple has performed spoken word and musical programs together and as soloists around the U.S. and around the world via their celebrated television program. Ron is the author of several books on Gullah culture. As a Fulbright-Hays fellowship recipient, he visited Ghana and Sierra Leone in 2004, which inspired his writing of a memoir Gullah Branches: West African Roots. His Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage: Legacy of Freedmen on St. Helena was published in 1986.
“My own grandparents were slaves,” said Daise. At 61 years old, he is the youngest of nine siblings who all grew up on Saint Helena Island just south of Charleston. He understands the Gullah culture better than most, as well as the importance of sharing his knowledge. “When my mother was child, the only way on or off the island was by ferry. We had one little store that we could walk to, but for serious shopping we had to go to the mainland. My next oldest sibling and I were born both in the hospital in Beaufort, but all my other siblings were born at home on the island.”
His remembrance of the life in the Sea Islands is filled with family, friends, church and the occasional storm. “I remember as a child when Hurricane Gracie (1959) came through,” he recalled. “Most of us were all still at home, and it was like The Wizard of Oz. We peeked out of the windows and saw chickens flying by in the wind. I guess that’s my earliest memory of life on Saint Helena.” The major hurricane made landfall at the island and caused extensive damage in nearby Beaufort, but the Daise family and their home were spared.
“I used to watch the cars on Highway 21 coming and going and thinking ‘one day, I’ll be in one of those cars and get on out of here,’” he laughed. “When we were kids our church groups would take summer bus trips to shop in Myrtle Beach, and we always stopped at Brookgreen Gardens, which in the 1960s was integrated and was one of the places African-Americans could visit and enjoy the arts.”
Both of Ron’s parents were graduates of the Penn School (now the Penn Center) on Saint Helena Island. The building is now a museum and cultural heritage landmark. Open to the public, the Penn School was one of the nation’s first schools for freed slaves, as well as a former retreat center for Dr. Martin Luther King at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Acclaimed Southern author Pat Conroy, who died in 2016, is buried on Saint Helena Island not far from the Daise family home.
Though the Gullah community may be best known for its sweetgrass basket weaving, Lowcountry locale and unique language, their settlements are not limited to just the Sea Islands or the Charleston area. Likewise, their skills are not limited to just the beautiful but dying art of weaving. The Gullah people thrived in coastal communities from North Carolina to northern Florida and count among their ranks artisans, farmers and fishermen, but also doctors, lawyers, sports superstars, politicians and first ladies. Former first lady Michele Obama, who famously once stated “I live in a house built by slaves,” can trace her roots to her enslaved great-great grandmother in Georgia, and her great-great grandfather Jim Robinson, who was a slave on a rice plantation in Georgetown.
Though the tragic story of slavery in America is rightfully still painful to Daise, he has managed to move the narrative forward by exploring and acknowledging the past while also celebrating family, their accomplishments and their assimilation as Americans. He lights up when he tells the story of his ancestors and his contemporaries and their intertwinement even here along the Grand Strand. “I had a high school classmate who married a Sandy Islander,” he recalled. Sandy Island, which sits in the middle of the Waccamaw River near Murrells Inlet, is still inhabited by direct descendants of slaves and those from the greater Gullah community. The island is served by a School Boat, the only one in South Carolina, which transports children to and from the mainland each morning and afternoon.
Though Ron Daise lived and worked in Beaufort County for much of his early adulthood—he was once a high school teacher and a reporter for the Beaufort Gazette—as a transplant, Natalie quickly fell in love with the Sea Islands and the man who would become her husband. “My Auntie married a man [from Saint Helena Island] who eventually brought her and my grandmother back down to the island to live here,” she said. “When I was 22, I came down as well, which is where I eventually met Ron. We’ve been married 31 years and have two children. The South became home to me almost immediately after arriving. The only thing I miss [about upstate New York] is autumn.”
Ron Daise commutes daily to Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, and Natalie works from home or is on the road traveling and performing when she can. Natalie primarily works in fine art and performance art. Her paintings are on exhibit throughout the state, and her portrait, The Collard Queen, will be on exhibit in Myrtle Beach at the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum as a part of a summer-long show. Additionally she is an award-winning playwright, singer and storyteller. She holds workshops around the region, teaches storytelling and has performed a one-woman show, Becoming Harriet Tubman, at Piccolo-Spoleto in Charleston and at Brookgreen Gardens.
The couple’s mutual love of the arts and their creativity initially attracted them to one another, fueled their relationship and helped them grow artistically. “I was naturally shyer than Ron and had only been on stage prior to meeting him as a part of a group,” said Natalie, “and I mostly performed in church. After we were married, when Ron started creating his Gullah programs, he gave me a script to learn, and we started working together as a team. I had to learn to be comfortable with a more prominent role. But that first time on stage with him was like magic, an epiphany, and it felt so right. I knew I was a storyteller. It was challenging in that there came a time when the stage wasn’t big enough for us both,” she laughed, “and we had to figure out how to navigate that, which we did.”
Small Screen Success
A chance encounter with a visiting movie and television producer who had seen the couples’ multimedia program, Sea Island Montage, led to meetings and finally an offer to be the creative consultants and stars of Gullah Gullah Island. Unprecedented in African-American and children’s programing at the time, the show was nominated for an Emmy Award, won the Parent’s Choice Award and was nominated for NAACP Image Awards nearly every year of its four-year run. All 66 episodes of the 30-minute sing-a-long program for preschoolers were produced in Orlando, Florida, at Universal Studios. The show, which is still aired in syndication, featured original songs, lessons, dancing, crafts for kids and a tadpole full body puppet named “Binyah Binyah.”
“After the show was over there was this perception that we were rich,” laughed Ron, “which wasn’t the case.” Additionally Daise says the pair were typecast and pigeonholed as only doing Gullah programming and only doing children’s programming, so few offers followed. “I had to find work, and I really didn’t like teaching. I was never meant to be in a classroom. After Natalie and I helped dedicate the Lowcountry Center [at Brookgreen Gardens] during Gullah Days, it eventually led to a job offer, and here I am.”
“We had been ‘Ron-and-Natalie-Daise’ like it was one word for a long time,” said Natalie, “and that was great and wonderful, but after [Gullah Gullah Island wrapped its fourth season] we weren’t able to perform together very often.” With their children now grown, the Daises are finding more joint performance opportunities. “Last year we performed together a number of times, and it was wonderful. Now, all these years later, we each have our own work and identities, which makes working together that much better.”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF RON AND NATALIE DAISE