By Elisabeth Liljenquist
“Archaeology has been a hobby, an interest, and a passion,” says Randy Akers, director of the South Carolina Humanities Council. “I’ve always felt that archaeology is a way of helping interpret the human story from past to present to future.”
Akers has participated in ten archaeological dig seasons in Israel since 1974, including a six-month study at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. With a doctorate from Northwestern University in religious studies, Akers has focused on Roman Byzantine sites where early Christianity developed in the Mediterranean world.
In his time at the South Carolina Humanities Council, Akers has worked to interpret what he calls the state’s “human story.” Since he became director in 1988, the South Carolina Humanities Council has devoted particular attention to studying the culture of the Gullah peoples, who were brought to South Carolina from West Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. After the Civil War, the Gullah peoples were freed and given the abandoned rice and cotton plantations on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina.
In 1989, the council produced the film, Family Across the Sea, which follows the three-hundred year history of the Gullah peoples from Sierra Leone to South Carolina. The film, which won fourteen national awards, looks at the role the Gullah peoples played in the early development of South Carolina agriculture. “One of the reasons so many slaves were brought, especially from Sierra Leone, was that they were proficient in the rice industry and South Carolina became very wealthy early in its existence based on rice plantations,” says Akers.
Since the production of the film, the Council has sponsored other projects dealing with the contribution of the Gullah peoples to South Carolina’s history, including summer programs on Gullah history and language, crop growth and preservation, and net and basket making. “I’m proud of the work the council has done to try and help us understand a very difficult period in our past, but also in some positive ways to understand that the African influence, history, and heritage is still real and with us today,” says Akers.
The council also celebrates the state’s culture through its annual Book Festival. The festival, now in its sixth year, brings together nearly sixty authors from around the country to present their works. Growing in popularity year by year, it is now held at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds to accommodate the increasing turnout. This year’s festival had its largest attendance ever, with nearly seven thousand people attending over a two-day period. One of the highlights of the festival was a presentation by novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who drew a crowd of more than seven hundred people.
Of the projects the Council is currently working on, Akers believes that the state’s encyclopedia, due out in 2005, will be the most successful in bringing home South Carolina’s cultural heritage. “This has been something that’s rallied and energized the council. So thi s is kind of a win-win type of project. It’ll be good for the people and it’s been really good for the council.”
The encyclopedia will include more than two thousand entries grouped into eighteen major sections, including business, agriculture, religion, ethnicity, and politics. One entry features African American tap dancer Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, who was born into a family of sharecroppers in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. At the age of twelve, he lost his leg in an accident at a cottonseed oil mill and was fitted with a wooden limb. Bates, who loved to tap dance, adapted tap moves for his own choreography. He went on to perform in top Harlem nightclubs such as The Cotton Club and Club Zanzibar in the 1930s, and the vaudeville stage in the 1940s. His is one of many lives that the encyclopedia will document. “This is going to be the story of South Carolina told in one volume,” says Akers.
Akers feels that his most important job is to make the humanities accessible to people. “For me, the humanities has been almost a calling or a mission, in a way that a clergy person might serve. I think that folks in the humanities have a chance to serve the public with something positive, worthwhile, and enduring.”