Mary Jackson – African-American Sweet basketmaker (B.1945)
and Sweet Grass Baskets from the Low Country.
The history and tradition of sweet grass basketry dates back to the 17th century when enslaved West Africans were brought over to South Carolina to cultivate rice in the low country.
Originally the task of making the baskets were completed by the men and the baskets served two important purposes. The first being purely functional in helping with household chores and rice harvesting. The second purpose was a cultural connection to their ancestral homes across the Atlantic Ocean.
It was not until after the Civil War when the traditional roles of basket making switched from men to women. Since then the women have continually taught the craft from one generation onto the next. It takes a lot of time, patience and creativity to make a single basket. There are no patterns or many, if any, ‘how to’ books; and most basket makers today have a difficult time in explaining the full process. It’s a tradition that one grows up with, learning the skill from a very young age from the elders in the community. Currently the state of South Carolina has gone to great lengths to preserve the heritage of basket making in the low country and there is a community push to preserve the land and marshes where most of the grasses grow from commercial overdevelopment.
In the beginning the grasses used for the basket making was Bulrush and Palm, very similar to what the early displaced Africans were familiar with from their homeland. With changing purpose of the baskets from purely functional to more decorative and cultural objects for selling to tourists, Sweet grass became a more popular choice of grass to use as the primary material with other natural grasses for visual and decorative contrast. The sweet grass is cultivated from local swamps and marshes by the family and the finish products are sold from makeshift stands along Rt 17 – also known as Sweet Grass basket highway- in Mt Pleasant, SC.
The first of these basket stands was established in 1916 and since the 1930’s they have become a standard stop for tourists visiting the low country and wanting a piece of the local culture to take home with them. I am one of those “tourists” and since 2006 have been the proud owner of my own little basket. I was very curious about the stands and the women making the baskets as their husbands ran the stands and register. I love my little basket and it currently sits on my dresser holding my favorite bracelets.
Today of the most notable contemporary basket maker and recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts National Heritage Award, among many other awards, would be Mary Jackson.
Jackson was born in Mt Pleasant, SC – a community near Charleston- and is a descendant of the Gullah community. Despite the long tradition of basket making in her family and community, she did not begin creating her baskets until she was an adult in the early 1970’s and selling them in the 1980’s. Today she is a very accomplished sweet grass basket maker and her craft has become a full family affair with her making the baskets, her daughter working as an administrator for the family business and her husband and son gathering the grasses. Jackson has exhibited her work in museums across the country and is a cofounder of the Mount Pleasant Sweet Grass Basket Makers Association.
Mary Jackson is also an activist in preserving the lands where the grasses grow.Presently there is always a fear that overdevelopment of the land for commercial purposes. The grasses are native, but like other species, they are only able to grow in specific areas. The basket maker’s tradition and livelihood depends solely on the ability of gathering their grasses. If the land is not properly preserve we as a nation will loose a piece of heritage.
Please visit the below links to learn more about Mary Jackson and the Sweet grass tradition.
Mary Jackson Sites:
Craft in America – Wonderful Vid of Mary Jackson discussing the history of a Fanning basket and her new twist the an old favorite.
National Endowment for the Arts – Interview with Mary Jackson
Washington Post – Article
Sweet Basket making Sites:
African American Charleston – Local history
Simply Baskets – History
Savannah Now – Article on the currents threat to Basket makers
Sweet Grass History – paper on the history and constraints to industry growth
Mount Pleasant – More history.