Continuing a Legacy on Johns Island, South Carolina

Doris Sease continues a tradition of community work, church and cooking on the Lowcountry sea island

By Abby Deering
Photographs by Josh Norris

When I ask Doris to tell me about her recipes, she gives me a bemused look. “I don’t really follow recipes. I just follow things I’ve seen.” This isn’t a tactic to safeguard family recipes. These are the words of an innate cook.

Born Albertha “Doris” Sease in Charleston, South Carolina, Doris has worked as a cook for Rural Mission Incorporated on Johns Island for over 30 years and owns a catering company, Sease Catering.

As a young girl growing up on Johns Island, Doris would watch her mother cook. She remembers thinking: “I want to try making that red rice.” She adds, “But not when my mother was there. She wouldn’t let me cook.”

Doris’ mother, Ruth “Tootsie” Bligen, was a larger-than-life character who was famous on Johns Island for her sharp wit and Gullah wisdom. (An article in the Post & Courier commemorated her life when she passed away in 2012.) Tootsie sang with the renowned Moving Star Hall Singers.

Moving Star Hall, a small clapboard building, was a one-room praise house built by the Gullah community in 1917. It housed a “tend-the-sick” program, a burial society, and a community of worship. Several nights a week, during worship, members sang spirituals in the old a cappella “shouting style” for which Johns Island was famous. People sang with their whole bodies.

Doris Sease supports community building through her cooking.

“There wasn’t any guitar. There wasn’t any piano. There wasn’t anything. They would just shout, and then clap, and this is how they built a rhythm,” Doris explains, as she demonstrates an intricate step and handclap sequence.

The Moving Star Hall figures heavily in Doris’ memories of her childhood. She grew up behind the hall in a two-room house with her grandfather, father, mother and three sisters. They had a wood stove and an ice box.

Doris recalls the all-night Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve Watch Night services at the hall.

This historical tradition traces back to “Freedom’s Eve,” the night before the Emancipation Proclamation, and some say even farther back, to when enslaved people gathered with loved ones during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, praying that God would watch over and protect them as they faced another year in bondage.

In an interview, Esau Jenkins, a member of Moving Star Hall and noted grassroots community organizer, explained the importance of Watch Night to generations before: “Those songs are the ones that made them happy, made them go through those hard days. The days when they didn’t have a place to live of their own; didn’t have a piece of land of their own.” Describing the atmosphere of the night-till-dawn meetings at the hall, Jenkins said, “They’re giving praise to the great Supreme Being who has stood by them in the past days — from slavery up to this present. These people are hard-pressed people and they are optimistic enough to believe that there are better days coming. When they get into these religious ‘shouts’ they feel so happy it’s all they can do but shout. The motion going through their hands and to their feet, they start clapping. You can’t keep them sitting. Not when they start clapping. They feel so happy that they’ve got to shout. People 60 and 70 years old, clapping and shouting and jumping all over the floor without falling down!”

The Moving Star Hall Singers were widely recognized as the preeminent traditional bearers of the oldest layer of Afro-American cultural expression in the United States. Doris was around 8 years old when her mother, aunts and uncle started touring across the country, performing at prestigious venues such as the Smithsonian. It was at this time she began teaching herself how to cook and tried cooking her mother’s red rice.

“When I first tried it, my mother was away then, it didn’t turn out right, but I knew what I had done, so I kept doing it. And I would say, ‘I need less water’ or ‘I need less seasoning.’” And it was in this manner that Doris taught herself to cook. “If something didn’t work, I tried it again.”

For Doris, cooking is an intuitive process. “You may try something and you know it’s not right, and you may say, ‘Let me try this differently and see if that will be better than before.’ That’s what you have to do. You have to improvise.”

She says sometimes she will cook in the Gullah/Geechee tradition, but sometimes she doesn’t. “I know what my mother put in the food, but I didn’t follow her exactly.” Doris likes to put her own spin on things.

Doris Sease learned to cook by watching her mother – and from years of hands-on trial and error.

Doris works thoughtfully and methodically in the kitchen. She may be preparing six or more dishes at once, but she makes it look easy. “The timing is everything,” she says.

“I don’t like ‘exquisite cuisine,’ ” she adds with a dismissive flourish of her hand. “I like simple food — things that we all eat around here. Johns Island food. Lowcountry food.”

One of Doris’ sons attended culinary school at Johnsons & Wales University and her great-granddaughter, Kennedi, loves to help out in the kitchen. “Kennedi has shown a lot of interest,” she tells me. I’d say there’s promise there.

As a young girl, Doris worked on the farms on Johns Island. Sometimes, she and the other children would have to leave school early to go work on the farm. “When the sun was hot, we worked picking tomatoes, and then, when it was cold, we would cut the lettuce.” Doris pauses, “You think now, ‘How did we even live through that?’ But we did.”

Doris attended the Promised Land School, a two-room schoolhouse that was notoriously overcrowded and underfunded, serving both elementary and middle school-aged African-American children on Johns Island. (Later, in the 1950s, Doris was one of the first students to attend the newly opened Mount Zion Elementary School.)

Septima Clark, a lifelong educator and civil rights activist, taught at the Promised Land School in the 1930s; Esau Jenkins was one of her pupils. Although forced to leave school in the fourth grade, Jenkins left a legacy that improved the lives of the Sea Island community through education. He is remembered as one of the most effective civil rights leaders in the South; Martin Luther King was a close friend and would often come visit him on Johns Island.

Jenkins helped start Haut Gap, the first high school on Johns Island for African-American students. Prompted by unchecked racial violence and inequality, he formed the Progressive Club, a community-run co-op and mutual aid organization. And, with his former teacher Septima Clark (who was fired as a teacher when she refused to renounce her membership in the NAACP), Jenkins started a citizenship school providing literacy and adult education classes to assist with voter registration. This school served as a model for grassroots civil rights activism throughout the rural South and led to millions of black citizens becoming registered voters.

Doris remembers the days of the Progressive Club. A woman of deep faith, she also remembers Sunday school lessons with Mr. Jenkins.

Doris Sease Serving
Doris Sease dishes up a classic Lowcountry Boil of shrimp, sausage, potatoes and corn, seasoned with herbs and spices.

Doris attends the Wesley United Methodist Church and will sometimes cook large fellowship dinners when they host congregations from neighboring districts. “For me, church is a place you go to that’s peaceful. When you go in, you let everything go, and when you leave, you feel differently. We have a woman pastor, and whatever the message is that day, it seems that it is always with you. A stranger can go to the church, and if she’s speaking about one particular thing, somehow it can relate to something going on in their life.”

I ask Doris about the stories she was told growing up. “Aunt Dada — she used to tell all the stories,” Doris says. Her aunt, Janie Hunter, affectionately called “Aunt Dada” (which comes from a Niger-Congo word for “mother”), was considered the matriarch of the Moving Star Hall Singers. She was known for her many animal stories and was devoted to keeping Gullah traditions alive. On Sundays, 30 or more children would gather at her house and listen to folk tales. Hunter was also a keeper of folk medicine techniques and a maker of dolls and of quilts characteristic of the Sea Islands and reminiscent of West African design. (In 1984 Hunter received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.)

“I am very proud of my heritage,” Doris tells me. She remembers much about her parents’ and grandparents’ way of life. She remembers the watermelon, okra, collard greens, beans that they would grow in their gardens. Food came from the river, from the woods, or from the fields. One of earliest memories, she was about five, is of the elders outside her house shooing her away from of a big fire over which they were scalding a hog.  “Jump out the pot” it was called.

On a windy spring day, Doris showed me around Rural Mission Inc., where she still works. It’s a non-profit that was co-founded by Esau Jenkins, in part to provide services for the island’s migrant and seasonal workers. The Head Start Program for the children of migrant workers recently shuttered, but the Rural Mission still serves the needs of the rural people of the South Carolina sea islands. Throughout the year, and especially during the summer, different church and volunteer groups come from all over the U.S. to help the mission with its outreach and community building projects. Every Tuesday evening, the mission hosts a seafood jamboree for the volunteers. On occasion, the groups have been as large as 200 to 300 people. Doris cooks the meals, which often include all of the following: red rice, okra soup, cornbread, chicken, shrimp and fish.

I ask Doris what she loves about cooking food. Without skipping a beat, she replies, “People. I want the people to be satisfied and happy.” But she’s not looking for praise or compliments. “I just like the fact that they enjoy the food. That’s what makes me feel good.”

If you ask any of her friends from the church, colleagues from the mission, or grand and great-grand children their favorite dish that Doris makes, the answer is immediate: “Her red rice.”  E

Red rice from Doris Sease commands center stage on the table at family gatherings.

For more information on Rural Mission Incorporated and how to get involved, visit: http://ruralmission.org. You can find Sease Catering on Facebook @SeaseCatering.The songs and stories of the Moving Star Hall community are chronicled in the book Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life by Guy and Candie Carawan.


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