YOUNG BLACK ENTREPRENEUR MAGAZINE

Basket_Weavers-4617.jpg

 Renesha Wolfe, embraces her Gullah-Geechee roots with her handmade sweetgrass Art

BY NAILAH HERBERT

As a fourth-generation, Gullah-Geechee basket weaver from Charleston, South Carolina, Wolfe proudly embraces her Lowcountry roots, which have helped her thrive as a businesswoman and mother.

 

“I started weaving baskets at 13 years old. Basket weaving has been the main source of income for the women in my family,” Wolfe said. “My aunts would pay me $5 to make the bottom of a basket.”

 

What started as a side hustle for Wolfe as a teenager would soon become her primary source of income. Then, at 15 years old, she found out that she was pregnant with her son and decided to do everything in her power to keep them from living in poverty.

 

“I got pregnant at the age of 15, and not many jobs were hiring 15-year-olds. So I asked my aunts if they could teach me to make whole baskets. First, it started as a hustle for a way to feed my son and me and pay bills,” Wolfe said. “I still worked other jobs even as I made baskets, but in 2011, I started to take basket weaving more seriously. I started my company, Southern Styles (former business name), and I took my craft from a side hustle to an actual business.”

 

A native of Charleston, Wolfe is well-aware of how her family started the traditional basketry practice. Through the enslavement of Africans, the American economy gained wealth from the Carolina Gold rice stalks. The enslaved Africans used their sewn sweetgrass baskets to collect and gather the winnowed rice.

 

 

In 2006, South Carolina named the sweetgrass baskets the official state handicraft. In the same year, South Carolina designated a portion of Highway 17 North as the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway. The significance of the highway renaming was due to the basket makers, traditionally women, who would set up a stand along the roadside to sell their baskets and bring in additional income for their families.

 

“I am proud of where I am come from,” Wolfe said. “If I weren’t Gullah-Geechee and hadn’t learned this craft of making baskets, I would have never made any money for myself. I wouldn’t have had the chance to be an independent and stay-at-home mom.”

 

For almost two decades, Wolfe has hand-woven sweetgrass baskets. Although Wolfe has extensive knowledge in the practice of basket weaving, she takes every opportunity that she can to learn from her elders.

 

Last year, she was a part of a basket weaving group with women from Rwanda (an East African country). As she conversed with the women, she learned about their country’s history, culture, and unique basket designs.

 

“Through conversation, the ladies from Rwanda asked me about the inspiration behind some of my pieces. I told them I like to go on the internet to look at traditional and older style baskets,” Wolfe said. “The Rwandan ladies told me that I was practicing Sankofa, which is going back to the past and bringing those pieces to the present. After that encounter, I changed my business name to Sankofa Sweetgrass.”

 

According to Wolfe, the “sweetgrass baskets are becoming a dying art form.” However, she is motivated to change that narrative. Wolfe has used her business, Sankofa Sweetgrass, to educate others on the history of the Gullah-Geechee women, the sweetgrass baskets, while selling her masterpieces online.

 

As the city of Charleston continues to attract tourists, Wolfe has reached thousands of people through open markets who have, in turn, supported her business and mission to spread the cultural message of her ancestors.

 

She continues to transfer her knowledge of creating intimate and historical basket pieces with the devotion to making her Gullah-Geechee ancestors proud in the process.

 

To see Renesha Wolfe’s artwork, click here.

Basket_Weavers-4596.jpg