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Charles Hillinger's America : Basket Weavers' Thread to Africa : South Carolina Town Keeps Tradition From Slaves Alive

Charles Hillinger's America

July 30, 1989|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

MT. PLEASANT, S.C. — Along a four-mile stretch of Highway 17 in this Atlantic coastal town, there are 60 family-operated sweetgrass basket stands. Mazie Brown sits on a chair in the shade of Mazie's Sweetgrass Baskets, weaving her latest basket.

Behind the basket weaver are scores of baskets she has created--bread baskets, casserole baskets, fruit baskets, flower baskets, knitting baskets, cookie baskets and planter baskets. They are all made of sweetgrass, a soft pliable wild grass, gathered from sand dunes, swamps and marshes. Priced from $25 to $200, each one is a little different, reflecting the way Mazie felt at the time she created them. She stitches in bulrush reeds, pine needles and fiber strips from palmetto trees for added color and design.

Slaves brought the art of sweetgrass basket making from the West African countries of Ivory Coast and Senegal. "This is my heritage, something my ancestors who came from Africa as far back as the 1600s gave to me. It is an art form that must never be lost for it never lets us forget how our people came to this country in chains and shackles. It is our direct link to Africa," the 46-year-old basket maker explains.

In the planation days, the men made huge baskets for storing and winnowing grain and for shipping cotton and indigo. A few of the large 16th- and 17th-Century baskets are museum pieces.

After the Civil War, the art of sweetgrass basket making died out except in Mt. Pleasant where it continued as a family tradition.

"I have been weaving sweetgrass baskets since I was 8," says the basket maker whose mother and grandmother were also named Mazie. "My mother taught me, and her mother taught her, and it goes on and on for generations in my family. My mother did this until she died two years ago when she was 72."

But now the three-century-old legacy is endangered. A year and a half ago, 100 black families, all living in Mt. Pleasant, formed the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Assn. to encourage younger women to take up the craft.

"We formed the association to make certain this tradition does not die," says Mary Jackson, 44, founder-president of the group who is known as the Ambassador of Sweetgrass Baskets. "Most of the basket makers are older women. In many families where basket making has been a tradition, handed down grandmother-to-mother-to-daughter, younger women no longer are interested in doing this.

"We are encouraging the younger women, who work at something else, to spend at least a few hours a week weaving sweetgrass baskets and to teach their daughters the art as their mothers taught them," says Jackson, a master craftsman whose baskets sell for as much as $3,000 and are displayed in a number of museums around the country.

Then there has been the gradual disappearance of sweetgrass in Mt. Pleasant, due to rapid beachfront development in recent years.

While grandmothers, mothers and daughters have made the baskets, grandfathers, fathers and sons gather sweetgrass in swamps and on dunes along the beaches where the grass grows.

"We let the men gather the grass. That's hard work. Rattlesnakes, mosquitoes and other bugs abound where the grass is harvested. We stay home and do the weaving," Mazie Brown laughs.

But now those men have been forced to travel hundreds of miles in both directions up and down the Atlantic seashore to find enough sweetgrass to take care of their needs. Last year, they were running so short of the wild grass that the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Assn. held a conference in Charleston to call public attention to the dwindling supplies.

Hearing about the search for new sources of the wild grass, Fred Marland of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources told the basket makers about a private island off the Georgia coast with an abundant supply. The basket weavers of Mt. Pleasant contacted the owners of Little St. Simons Island who gave them permission to harvest the grass.

"On hearing of our search for sweetgrass, Ben Gibbens, the manager of the island, said he would be delighted to have the men come out and harvest all the sweetgrass they needed," says Jackson.

Now every Saturday, men of Mt. Pleasant drive 200 miles north, where owners of little St. Simons provide them with boats without charge to go to and from island beaches covered with sweetgrass. They pull bunches of grass by hand, leaving the roots to produce more grass for later harvest.

Little St. Simons is undeveloped except for a small resort with only a dozen rooms. Every other week, sweetgrass basket weavers go to the island and tell the history of their craft and demonstrate their weaving skills. Their baskets are sold at a gift shop at the island inn.

"Finding the island has been a godsend," Jackson says. "It ensures the continuance of our legacy as there is more than enough sweetgrass on Little St. Simons to fill the needs of the basket makers.

"Now the important thing is for the next generations to carry on so we do not lose our direct link with our African ancestors."

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