Through oral history of the African slaves, the basket-making technique can be traced to West Africa, their homeland. What is known of slavery and African slave culture and lifestyle was proudly preserved by their descendants living on Lowcountry plantations.
Oral histories were carefully handed down from one generation to the next during basket-making sessions. Sweetgrass basket making, called “sewing” until the 1970s, when the term “weaving” was used, has remained unchanged since the original Africans’ journey to America over 300 years ago.
The basic patterns begin with a knot, or long row. This is “sewn” upon until the basket reaches its desired size. Shapes are created by the manner in which the basket makers maneuver the grass while making a stitch. The earliest weavers in Christ Church lived at Boone Hall Plantation. Oral history gives an account of slaves making baskets to winnow rice and store dry goods.
Following the Civil War, four major eras occurred in the sweetgrass industry. In the 1865 period, as freed families attempted to establish a household, utensils were extremely limited.
The baskets were made in large quantities to store dried grain, okra, salted fish, corn and wild herbs saved for medical purposes. The 1911 storm that struck the South Carolina coast completely devastated the newly-formed Hamlin Community where most of the basket makers lived. On the night of the storm, they took shelter with family members who were still renting the remaining slave cabins at Boone Hall. By this time tourists had begun visiting the plantation and paid ten cents admission. The next decade would establish basketmaking as a family business.
Viola Jefferson and Lavinia Barnwell still recall the early days of the excitement of seeing a car enter the gate. “A beel! (automobile)”, yelled the first person spotting the car. All of the children hurriedly gathered their wares to try to impress the eager buyers who beckoned them to sing and dance.
Competition was great and it stimulated the artisans’ creativity in their designs. Many of the porcelain items from the “Big House” were copied. It was during this period that Ike Coakley recalls selling baskets for the family to the Legertons, a renowned local family, that shipped them to New York on the Clyde Line, to be sold in specialty stores. He and his sister walked for 7 miles from Haamlin to Shem Creek on Monday mornings to catch the ferryboat to Adgers Wharf on the peninsula where he met the businessmen.
Sometimes he was paid as much as five dollars depending on the number of baskets bought. The 1930s were crucial. There was no work available locally. Sam Coakley, the local preacher in the community, organized the basket makers to sell in bulk to the New York markets. He was able to negotiate this through his sister-in-law Dolly who had been previously selling the baskets to the Legertons. Because there were no cars in the community, a businessman made his weekly trip to the “praise house” in Hamlin to make the purchases. The basket makers were ingenious in creating styles and techniques to attract the buyer to their wares. It was also during this period that the first basket stand was placed on Highway 17. The new highway had just been completed and tourists were using it to travel from the North down to Florida. Ida Jefferson Wilson was one of the first to start selling along the highway, after she had lost her “day-labor job” at Boone Hall. The first day she placed a white sheet on a chair and made a sale selling a fruit basket. Within the week she had her husband Jack construct a basket stand and she was in business. When the news spread that she had made money from her basket stand, there were many other stands to follow.
The 1960s ushered in the modern era for basketmaking. Edna Rouse began the first out-of-town basket show in North Carolina through the new owners of Boone Hall Plantation, and those who attended the show were fascinated by the construction of the baskets.
This out-of-state exposure increased their popularity. Mary Jane Manigault, daughter of Sam Coakley, hosted a basket show at the White House during the Reagan Administration, while Elizabeth Seabrook Coakley had a basket displayed at the Smithsonian Museum. In 1988, the community created the first organization for the preservation of the sweetgrass basket making tradition, calling it the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Preservation Society Written by J.V. Coakley