Have you ever met someone that you knew you probably wouldn’t ever forget? Maybe it’s their personality or the way they made you feel in a particular moment?
Fouché Sheppard is one of those people for me. Her positive spirit is incredibly contagious.
In February, we sat down and interviewed her to learn more about her story and highlight her during Black History Month.
Fouché Sheppard, a native Gullah, is an award-winning poet, storyteller and inspirational speaker that brings Gullah culture and history to people around the lowcountry, state and nation.
“For over a decade, local storyteller Ms. Fouché Sheppard has performed “T’was the Night Before Christmas” in Gullah at the Edmondston-Alston House’s annual Christmas event. She is a gifted storyteller and for many who attend, their first introduction to the Gullah language and culture and its historic connection to the Lowcountry.”
Caitlin Smith Anderson, Museum Manager, Edmondston-Alston House
Although Fouché had difficulty reading and comprehending as a young child, her grandmother taught her native Gullah stories and helped her gain the confidence she needed to be proud of who she is. She used her grandmother’s teaching and stories to develop a framework for her storytelling.
“My grandmother, who never had any formal education, was teaching me to dance and sing through scriptures when I was a child. She taught me to use my voice, to communicate through song and dance, and to have faith no matter what. ”
For those who are unfamiliar with Gullah culture, the Gullah are African Americans who live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia. They are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States.
They speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and significant influences from African languages in grammar and sentence structure.
Fouché spoke Gullah as her primary language, and wasn’t aware of it being different than English until her elementary school teacher informed her of it.
She then learned how to speak English in school and would read what she learned to her grandmother in Gullah. This was where she learned how to go back and forth with both languages.
In college, she found that her ability to speak both languages negatively affected a career opportunity for her. Although she knew how to speak English, she was still considered different based on how she spoke English. She went to Rice Business College (now Trident Technical College) and was taking clerk courses. One had to do well in these courses, including typing at least 65 words per minute on a manual typewriter and taking dictation at 120 words a minute. She was working towards one goal – to be part of the top five in the class and get hired by AT&T who were looking to hire the top performers.
She did it. She was a part of the top five, but was told that she wouldn’t be able to work for them because no one would be able to understand her over the phone.
This was Fouché’s first reality being criticized for her cultural background and being able to speak the language.
From there, she made it her mission to help students celebrate their cultural background and be proud of what makes them different.
“[The Gullah culture] is me. It’s what I know. It’s been home. I am so grateful today for my grandmother’s persistence.”
Even though she and her family had always been involved in the community and helping out their neighbors, she took on a larger role in helping people beyond her neighborhood. To date, she has visited a variety of schools throughout the state and country to teach them about the beauty of the Gullah culture.
She realized that when she went into these schools around the state, many of the African American students were ashamed of their Gullah culture – probably feeling the same way she felt in that clerk class in college. Fouché was determined to find ways to help them understand the culture and value the history behind it. She developed stories, songs and games to help them feel proud of their Gullah background and feel more confident in the language.
“[Giving back to the community] is a spiritual training. It’s how I was trained coming up. We didn’t have monies, but we had the gifts of God – our talent. Our training was we had to help people. We had to help you believe in what we were saying. Even though people were doing better than us, we still had to be available to help them if they needed help. To know that I’m helping people, even in my mid 70s, is really tremendous.”
Fouché Sheppard continues to be in the community and currently volunteers as Advocacy Coordinator for Palmetto Goodwill, offering tours of Goodwill’s operations.
Speaking with Fouché felt like more than an interview for me – her passion and spirit helped me to better understand the people and the faces behind the Gullah culture, which still remains a strong influence in our region today. Although she is humble and may not think of herself in this way, her work and her passion for helping people will leave a long-lasting legacy.
To view the full video of Fouché Sheppard, please visit https://vimeo.com/515403135
Interested in learning more about Fouché? Here is her contact information:
POB 21767 Charleston, SC 29413-1767