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Gullah Geechee

By Angel Parson for Island Eye News

Victoria Smalls

Victoria Smalls, a National Park Ranger with the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Beaufort, SC, and public historian, educator, arts advocate, and cultural preservationist from St. Helena Island, SC, has been named the executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, four-state National Heritage Area under the National Park Service that extends from North Carolina to Florida. The Commission executed a rigorous national search process to identify its new leadership. Smalls served on the 13-member federal commission as a South Carolina Commissioner from 2016-20. On July 26, she will return to lead the corridor with her extensive knowledge as a primary resource in the Gullah Geechee community, working in cultural education and development, across the corridor and internationally. 

Continuing the corridor’s mission to create and build strategic alliances to strengthen the preservation and stimulation of Gullah Geechee people and communities within the global corridor. Dr. Dionne Hoskins-Brown of Savannah chairs the Commission and leaves the role of acting director as Ms. Smalls assumes leadership. Of the appointment, she said, “I am absolutely ecstatic that we are able to place someone as capable as Ms. Smalls at the helm of our organization. She is eminently qualified, uniquely prepared, and profoundly representative of the community.” A lifelong member and descendent of the Gullah Geechee community, 

Smalls has emerged as one of the thriving voices in cultural preservation education, beginning her professional work in her Beaufort County community at the Historic Penn Center, one of the country’s first schools for formerly enslaved people on St. Helena Island in 2012, serving five years as the Director of History, Art, and Culture and Director of the York W. Bailey Museum. In 2019, Smalls returned to serve in various roles, serving as the cultural, historical, and creative diplomat for Penn Center, and provided leadership and strategic direction for the department, articulating positive impacts of the Penn Center’s 159-year history to the public. Smalls’ service also includes her role as a Commissioner with the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission, through which she assisted in identifying and promoting the preservation of historic sites, structures, buildings, and culture of the African American experience. She is also a Riley Fellow with Furman University’s Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative, which helps leverage diversity to improve organizational outcomes and drive social and economic progress in South Carolina. Smalls is joining the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor after serving with several partnering organizations and commissioned boards that align with the mission of the commission “to preserve, share and interpret the history of Gullah Geechee people, including the International African American Museum as Program Manager, the Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies at Coastal Carolina University Conway, SC as a Cultural Consultant. And most recent with the National Park Service as a Park Ranger at the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Beaufort, SC that educates the public on the Reconstruction era, 1861-1900. The historic period in which the United States grappled with the question of how to integrate millions of newly freed African Americans into social, political, economic, and labor systems. 

In her role, she provided education and interpretation at historic sites to diverse visitors, conducted presentations for secondary and higher education audiences, conducted relevant research, and served as the liaison between affiliated networks. In contemplating her new responsibilities Smalls commented: “I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to advance the great work of the Commission, where I can serve the Corridor in a focused capacity, as an advocate and connector, promoting the magnificent richness of the culture, sharing the beauty of the people, and helping to support and uplift our communities.”

Ms. Smalls is also a studio artist and arts educator who enjoys painting cultural pieces that represent her family and community, with a visual representation currently being exhibited at the Art League of Hilton Head Island titled “The Contemplation Series” through July.

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