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"Gullah" (35434 hits)



Background and Summary

The “Gullah” peoples are Black people who live in the low country region of South Carolina and Georgia, which includes both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands. Historically, the Gullah region once extended north to the Cape Fear area on the coast of North Carolina and south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on the coast of Florida; but today the Gullah area is confined to the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country. The Gullah people are also called “Geechee,” especially in Georgia.

The Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other Black community in the United States. They speak an English-based Creole language (an Americanized version of French stemming from early settlers of Louisiana) containing many African loanwords and significant influences from African languages in terms of grammar and sentence structure. The Gullah language is related to Jamaican Creole, Bahamian Dialect, and the Krio (of Sierra Leone) languages. Gullah storytelling, food ways, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming and fishing traditions all exhibit strong influences from West African cultures.

The word "gullah" may derive from Kong, a former African empire spanning present-day Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, where many of the Gullah people’s ancestors originated. Some scholars have suggested it comes from “Gola,” an ethnic group living on the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa. The name “geeche” may come from an African tribe living on the border between Guinea and Liberia. Other scholars have suggested Native American origins for these words. The Spanish called the South Carolina and Georgia coastal region Guale after a Native American tribe, and the Ogeechee River, a prominent geographical feature in coastal Georgia, takes its name from a Creek Indian word.


African Imports

Most Gullahs' ancestors were brought to South Carolina and Georgia through the ports of Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. For a time, Charleston was the most important port in North America during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Almost half of the enslaved Africans brought into the United States came through that port. Savannah was also active in the Atlantic Slave Trade, but to a much smaller extent.

The largest group of Africans brought into Charleston and Savannah came from the West African rice-growing region that stretches from the coastal nations of Senegal, “the Ivory Coast” and Liberia. South Carolina and Georgia rice planters once called this region the "rice coast," indicating its importance as a source of skilled African labor for the rice industry in the New World; modern historians call it the "upper Guinea Coast." The second-largest group of Africans brought through these two ports came from Angola in southern Africa. Smaller numbers were also imported from “the Gold Coast” and the West Indies.

Gullah people have been able to preserve so much of their African cultural heritage due to of geography, climate and patterns of importation of past enslaved Africans. By the mid-1700s, the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country was covered by thousands of acres of rice fields. African farmers from the "rice coast" brought the skills for cultivation and tidal irrigation that made rice one of the most successful industries in early America.

The semi-tropical climate that made the Low Country such an excellent place for rice production also made it vulnerable to the spread of malaria and yellow fever. These tropical diseases were carried by mosquitoes that were brought unintentionally aboard the slave ships from Africa. The mosquitoes bred in the swamps and inundated rice fields of the Low Country. Malaria and yellow fever became endemic in the region.

However, Africans were far more resistant to tropical fevers than the European slave owners, and as a result, the White population of the Low Country grew at a slower rate than the Black population. The land was devoted to large plantations, and more and more enslaved Africans were brought as laborers into the Low Country as the rice industry expanded. By about 1708, South Carolina had a Black majority. Coastal Georgia later acquired a Black majority after rice cultivation expanded in the mid-1700s, and malaria and yellow fever were widespread.

Fearing disease, many White planters left the Low Country during the rainy spring and summer months when the fever ran rampant. They left their African "rice drivers," or overseers, in charge of the plantations. Working on large plantations with hundreds of similar laborers, and with African traditions reinforced by new members being shipped in from the same regions, Gullahs developed a culture in which elements of African languages, cultures and community life were preserved to a higher degree that Blacks on plantations in other regions. Their culture was quite different from that of slaves in states like Virginia and North Carolina where slaves lived in smaller settlements and had more sustained contact with Whites.


The Effects of the War

When the Civil War began, the Union Army rushed to blockade the Confederate Army’s shipping routes. White planters on the Sea Islands, fearing an invasion by the U.S. Naval forces, abandoned their plantations and fled to the mainland. When Union forces arrived on the Sea Islands in 1861, they found the Gullah people eager for freedom, and eager to defend it as well. Many Gullahs served with distinction in the Union Army's First South Carolina Volunteers. The Sea Islands were the first place in the South where slaves were freed. Long before the War ended, Quaker missionaries from Pennsylvania went down to the Sea Islands and started schools for the newly freed slaves. Penn Center, now a Gullah community organization on Saint Helena Island, S.C., and James Island, S.C. was the very first school for freed slaves.

After the Civil War ended, Gullahs' isolation from the outside world actually increased in some respects. The rice planters on the mainland gradually abandoned their farms and moved away from the area in response to labor issues and hurricane damage to crops. Freed Blacks were unwilling to work in the dangerous and disease-ridden rice fields. A series of hurricanes devastated the crops in the 1890s. And left alone in remote rural areas in the Low Country, the Gullahs continued to practice their traditional culture with little influence from the outside world well into the 20th Century.


Gullah Life Today

In recent years, the Gullah people, led by Penn Center and other determined community groups, have been fighting to keep control of their traditional lands. Since the 1960s, resort development on the Sea Islands has threatened to push Gullahs off family lands they have owned since the Emancipation Proclamation. But many have fought against uncontrolled development on the islands using community action, the courts, and the political process.

The Gullahs have struggled to preserve their traditional culture. In 2005, the Gullah community unveiled a translation of the New Testament of the Bible in the Gullah language, a project that took more than 20 years to complete. The Gullahs achieved another victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the "Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act," which provides $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture. The "heritage corridor" will extend from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. The project will be administered by the U.S. National Parks Service using strong input from the Gullah community.

Gullahs have reached out to West Africa. Gullah groups made three celebrated "homecomings" to Sierra Leone in 1989, 1997 and in 2005. Sierra Leone is at the heart of the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa where many of the Gullahs' ancestors originated. Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone, sent many African captives to Charleston and Savannah during the mid- and late 1700s. These dramatic homecomings were the subject of three documentary films: Family Across the Sea, in 1990, The Language You Cry In, in 1998, and Priscilla's Homecoming, most recently.

Over the years, the Gullahs have attracted a number of historians, linguists, folklorists and anthropologists interested in their rich cultural heritage. Many academic books on that subject have been published. The Gullah community has also become a symbol of cultural pride for Blacks throughout the U.S. and a subject of general interest in the media. It has given rise to countless newspaper and magazine articles, documentary films and books on their culture. Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., recently held an event to showcase the Gullah culture. Purdue's Black Cultural Center maintains a bibliography of Gullah publications.


Cultural Survival

The media typically portray the Gullah people as living only on the Sea Islands, but Gullahs have always lived throughout the Low Country region -- on both the Sea Islands and the much larger coastal plains. The media also shows Gullah culture as being "near extinction" as a result of resort development on the islands. Many Sea Island communities are, indeed, under serious threat, but there are islands that have never been subjected to tourist development and the Gullah way of life there is very much intact.

Far from being near extinction, Gullah culture has proven to be particularly resilient. Gullah traditions are still strong in the urban areas of the Low Country. The old ways have persisted even among Gullahs who have left the Low Country. Several Gullahs migrated to New York beginning in the 20th century, and these urban migrants have not lost their identities. Gullahs have their own churches in Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y.

Typically, Gullah parents send their children back to the rural communities of South Carolina and Georgia during the summer months to be reared by grandparents, uncles and aunts under more apparent Gullah traditions and lifestyle. Gullah people living in New York frequently return to the Low Country to retire. Second- and third-generation Gullahs in New York often maintain many of their traditional customs and sometimes still speak the Gullah language while living there.


Gullah Customs and Language

  • The Gullah word "guber" for peanut derives from the KiKongo word "N'guba."

  • Gullah rice dishes called "red rice" and "okra soup" are similar to West African "jollof rice" and "okra soup." Jollof rice is a style of cooking brought by the Wolof and Mandé peoples of West Africa.

  • The Gullah version of "gumbo" has its roots in African cooking. "Gumbo" is derived from a word in the Umbundu language of Angola, meaning "okra."

  • Gullah rice farmers once used the mortar and pestle and "fanner," a winnowing basket, similar to tools used by West African rice farmers.

  • Gullah beliefs about "hags," "haunts" and "plat-eyes" are similar to African beliefs about malevolent ancestors, witches, and "devils," meaning forest spirits.

  • Gullah "root doctors" protect their clients against dangerous spiritual forces using similar ritual objects to those employed by African medicine men.

  • Gullah herbal medicines are similar to traditional African remedies.

  • The Gullah "seekin" ritual is similar to coming of age ceremonies in West African secret societies like Poro and Sande.

  • The Gullah "ring shout" is similar to ecstatic religious rituals performed in West and Central Africa.

  • Gullah stories about "Bruh Rabbit" are similar to West and Central African trickster tales about the clever and conniving rabbit, spider and tortoise.

  • Gullah spirituals, shouts, and other musical forms employ the "call and response" method commonly used in African music.

  • Gullah "sweetgrass baskets" are almost identical to coil baskets made by the Wolof people in Senegal.

  • Gullah "strip quilts" mimic the design of cloth woven with the traditional strip loom used throughout West Africa. The famous kente cloth from Ghana is woven on the strip loom.

  • The folk song, “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” comes from the Gullah culture.

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Monday, March 10th 2008 at 4:07PM
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