Story by Carolyn Males + Photography by Mike Ritterbeck
Back in the 1990s, four-year-old Sonya Grant would wander from table to table, cadging quarters from diners at Abe’s Native Shrimp House, her grandfather’s restaurant on William Hilton Parkway.
Then she’d insert the coins in the jukebox, climb up onto a table near the bar and belt out the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Sonya Grant is not shy.
In middle school, at an age when conformity reigns, she dared to dress differently. She’d gotten her first sewing machine in eighth grade and voilà, a fashion designer was born. What’s more, she never read the operating instructions. Propelled by bold imagination, she worked on pure instinct. She’d grab a pair of jeans, take them apart and refashion them into a skirt or a purse with a belt strap. Or she’d dress in a psychedelic creation: a wildly patterned paisley skirt coordinated with a hot-pink button-down. Then she’d wrap her head with a matching bandana. “What the heck do you have on?” kids would ask. The answer? Designs she’d developed and sketched in a spiral notebook.
Twenty years later, she’s ditched the hallucinogenic paisley, but a notebook is still part of her creative tool bag. However, this time around, she’s toting one with a bold stacked Gullah graphic on its cover that she created for her company, Gullah T’s N’ Tings. She takes it with her whether she’s at her day job managing the Lancôme counter in Belk’s, at pop-up shops where she sells her latest collection, or at the beach when she’s chilling out. Along the way, her “manifest” as she calls it, has become dog-eared and coffee-stained, but it serves as an ongoing repository for business plans for her expanding clothing and sundries line.
Today if you go to her Etsy store, Bluffton’s monthly Gullah markets, or her pop-up shops around town, you’d find her tees, sweats, hats, shirts, bodysuits, bedding, totes and more– all emblazoned with Gullah-Geechee graphics. Clean lines, soft fabrics –– nothing cutesy or kitschy.
But, as I learned during a recent conversation, Grant has bigger plans.
[Q] Let’s start with your Gullah heritage. The Grant family has deep roots on the island dating from Mitchelville, founded in 1861, the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people.
[Sonya Grant] I developed this line to keep the Gullah-Geechee culture alive and to create awareness. It’s not about the money for me. It’s about history and making sure that with all of the development going on in Hilton Head, our culture is not erased. It blows my mind that people who live here don’t know that Abe’s Native Shrimp House, a landmark on the island, ever existed. That’s why this line is so important to me. When people sometimes treat it like a charity and say, “Oh, let me support this small business…,” I go “Oh, no. You’re supporting a culture, a history, a movement.” To me, this is monumental.
[Q] How did you get started incorporating the words Gullah and Geechee into your designs?
[SG] I always wanted to be a designer, and at random moments I would tap into my creativity. When my friends and I got comfortable or crazy in our conversations, we’d start talking in dialect and I’d say, “That sounds Geechee af.”
[Here it should be noted that af is a texting term for “as f-word.”] I thought, ‘you know, why don’t I just put that on a T-shirt?’ So I started buying shirts and vinyl strips for lettering at craft stores and making custom tees for my friends and my church.
[Q] You’ve said your aunt Carolyn Grant (co-author of Gullah Days) is a big influence.
[SG] I don’t know where I’d be without her. She keeps me on track. When I was first making my shirts, my aunt said I should call my business, Gullah T’s N’ Tings. “Oh, I think that’s corny,” I told her. Then during the Covid shutdown last year, I tapped back into making shirts and bought my LLC with the stimulus check. I may have started off with tees, but we now had a vision that went beyond that. That’s when I realized Gullah T’s N’ Tings was kinda cool.
[Q] What’s the philosophy behind your business?
[SG] It was important to me that it wasn’t your average “I love Hilton Head T-shirt.” I didn’t want it to be touristy. I started off with three designs: the Gullah letters stacked; the Geechee af. design. And then the Word Find Community. [This shirt cleverly embeds names of Gullah Heritage sites like Stoney, Jonesville and First African Baptist Church in red amid a block of random letters.]
And I wanted my shirts to be more versatile. You can play basketball in them or sleep in them. But I wanted to make sure it was a design you’d feel comfortable tucking into a skirt or a pair of pants. Or wear under a blazer for a casual interview, which is also why I came up with ladies’ bodysuits and men’s shirts. I want this to be a lifestyle brand.
[Q] What can we look forward to?
[SG] One day I hope to have a storefront and be a one-stop shop for everything Gullah. I’d have all I produce for Etsy on hand so you could walk in the store, and you’d have your men’s store, women’s store, bedding and kitchen.
[Q] I’ll bet you’ve got this planned out in your spiral bound notebook.
[SG] You betcha. LL