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The Lowcountry’s Gullah storyteller

Louise Cohen has dedicated her life to collecting, protecting and preserving Gullah stories and artifacts.

Story by Luana M. Graves Sellars + Photography by Mark Staff

Generally soft spoken and quiet in her demeanor, when her passion for the Gullah culture ignites, Louise Cohen brings the voice and character of her ancestors back to life. It was only within the recent past that Cohen’s calling motivated her to follow her dream of documenting, preserving and sharing the Gullah culture.

Known island-wide as the Hilton Head storyteller, Cohen, 73, passionately and tirelessly breathes life into Gullah stories, while fighting to keep the history and culture of Hilton Head’s native islanders alive. As the curator of the Gullah Museum, Cohen dedicates her life to collecting, protecting and preserving Gullah stories and artifacts for future generations.

The Gullah Museum is in a house that was handed down to Cohen from her uncle, William “Duey” Simmons. Known as the “Little Blue House” on Gumtree Road, the house is part of a collection of buildings that will eventually be part of a campus.

Cohen works tirelessly toward her vision for the museum: to demonstrate how life on Hilton Head was for native islanders before outside influences came across the bridge; and how Gullah traditions continue to live on today.

Cohen was born on Hilton Head and is a direct descendant of slaves who were brought to Sullivan Island and eventually held at Rose Hill Plantation, where her great-great grandparents, Cesar Kirk Jones and Moriah Jones, are listed in a frame on the wall of the plantation. They refused to stay in bondage and were visionaries who made a daring escape with their three children across the Harbor River to Hilton Head in search of freedom.

The mother of four, grandmother of five and great-grandmother of two, Cohen is building a legacy of dedication and commitment to traditions and culture by involving her family in her work at the museum and in raising funds to keep the museum alive.

Fast facts about Louise Cohen:

The South Carolina Department of Education has nominated Cohen to be included in the African American History Calendar representing the month of March and highlighting the work she’s done preserving Gullah culture.

A recipient of a Commendation in March 21, 2017, from Mayor David Bennett and the Town of Hilton Head, Cohen was recognized for being a long-standing resident of the island, her work in restoring Gullah houses and for her dedication to the island’s culture.

In April 2017, Cohen was bestowed with an honorary doctoral degree in Humane Letters from the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

Also in April 2017 in Chicago the National Civil Rights Library awarded Cohen its Community Service Award for her dedication to Gullah preservation.

From 2007-2013, Cohen was among the first Commissioners to serve on the S.C. Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.

Recognized often for her preservation work, Cohen has been nominated twice for the Civitas Lifetime Leadership Award, was the 2010 recipient of the Governor’s Award from the S.C. Palmetto Trust, a Community Service Award from NIBCAA, the co-recipient of an Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation of the Little Blue House and under Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin, was recognized as the Citizen of the Month in Feburary 2014.