The term “Gullah,” or “Geechee,” describes a unique group of African Americans descended from enslaved Africans who settled in the Sea Islands and lowcountry of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. Most of these slaves were brought to the area to cultivate rice since they hailed from the Rice Coast of West Africa, a region that stretches from modern Senegal to southern Liberia. Some ethnic groups, including the Mende, Kissi/Geessi, Susu, and Baga, cultivated rice well before European-African contact. The origin of the term “Gullah” (for residents of the South Carolina lowcountry) is uncertain. Some believe the term derives from “Angola”; alternatively, it could refer to the Gola people of Liberia and Sierra Leone. The term “Geechee” (for residents of the Georgia lowcountry) may come from the Ogeechee River or may refer to the Kissi/Geessi people of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. The Gullah/Geechee people of the South Carolina and Georgia lowcountry continue to manifest unique African cultural attributes that have survived for more than three centuries.
Most enslaved Africans in lowcountry South Carolina landed in the region at Sullivan’s Island outside Charleston. During the slave trade, Africans from different societies passed through this place and melded together to form a new African American people. They spoke different languages found between Senegambia and Angola, such as Mende, Vai, Kissi, Fula, Gala, Kikongo, Baga, Temne, and Mandinka. Thus, the process of combining different African peoples and languages in the lowcountry ultimately led to the emergence of Gullah or Geechee as a common language. Many words and phrases such as oonuh (you), day clean (dawn), how oonuh de do? (how are you?), and ooman (woman), remain in use among Gullah/Geechee speakers.
Until the end of the twentieth century, many looked at Gullah/Geechee as broken English, characteristic of those incapable of speaking standard English. In the 1940s, African American scholar Lorenzo D. Turner undertook a linguistic study to find out the origin and composition of the Gullah/Geechee language. He discovered the presence of many words and syntax of West African language origins in Gullah, especially in languages still spoken along the Rice Coast of West Africa. Linguists have also suggested that some West Africans who were transported to the lowcountry already spoke a creole language that became the ancestor of the Gullah/Geechee language. A strong linguistic similarity exists between Gullah and some creole languages in West Africa, such as Krio, spoken in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Turner’s research and other factors, including a growing popular and scholarly interest in the Gullah people and their culture and the visit of Joseph Momoh (president of Sierra Leone) to Gullah country in 1988, have changed the negative image of the Gullah language.
Apart from the development of this unique language, numerous unique African cultural survivals also developed among the Gullah people. The rice culture that developed in the lowcountry was similar to that of the Grain/Rice Coast of West Africa. Many African ethnic groups from the Grain Coast were known for their expertise in rice cultivation long before the initial European contact, and South Carolina’s wealth and fame in the eighteenth century owed much to the rice plantations of the lowcountry using African technological know-how and slave labor. Among these experts in rice cultivation were the Baga, Susu, Mende, Kissi, Vai, and their neighbors. Both West Africans from the Grain Coast and Gullah/Geechee people show a common dependency on rice as a dietary staple. Gullah foodways are similar to those of many West Africans, whose diet includes rice, greens, different kinds of beans, corn bread, sweet potatoes, banana cake, and ginger drinks. Gullah people and their African ancestors used rice in most of their ceremonies and rituals.
Gullah/Geechee people developed other unique cultural attributes that still connect them to their ancestral homeland, such as the folk art of sewing coiled grass into baskets and fans, which were generally used in rice harvest, rice storage, and for separating the rice seeds from the husks. Some of the finer baskets (such as suuku blaie, a Krio term for a specific kind of basket) were used for storing expensive jewelry. Gullah people are generally Christians, but the Geechee people of Sapelo Island, Georgia, have adopted some Islamic practices in their Baptist teachings, including the belief that God resides in the East, requiring believers to face the east during prayer. The Gullah/Geechee people also added many African rituals of worship, such as the ring shout and the offering of sacrifice. The belief in magic, conjuring, and mysticism played a significant role in Gullah religious practices.
The Gullah/Geechee people of the lowcountry have also developed a rich tradition in folklore. African and slave culture is mainly based on oral tradition. The history of the Gullah people is primarily derived from oral retellings by ancestors, elders, and oral historians. Stories and folklore using animals, such as Brer Rabbit or animal tricksters, representing human characters and behavior play significant roles in Gullah culture. Ron and Natalie Daise, Cornelia Bailey, Queen Quet, Jonathan Green, Philip Simmons, and others contributed to the rich tradition of Gullah/Geechee people especially in the areas of folklore, story telling, literature, and visual arts. Many Gullahs in the past adopted or continued to use African names and naming systems such as Monday, Tamba, Kadiatu, Samba, and Gallah.
Unfortunately the Gullah people, land, culture, and existence are under threat from modern developers. Motivated by profits derived from tourism, real estate developers have built resorts and are eagerly expanding beaches in the Sea Islands. A critical problem facing the Gullah/Geechee people will be mapping out a plan for the coexistence of their culture and coastal development. Federal legislation introduced by U.S. Congressman James Clyburn in 2004 called for the preservation of the Gullah/Geechee culture. The act also called for the creation of a Gullah/Gechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission to assist governments in managing the land and waters. Such developments can help protect this important aspect of South Carolina’s cultural landscape.
Daise, Ronald. Reminiscences of a Sea Island Heritage. Orangeburg, S.C.: Sandlapper, 1986.
Geraty, Virginia Mixson. Bittle en’ t’ing: Gullah Cooking with Maum Chrish’. Orangeburg, S.C.: Sandlapper, 1992.
Goodwine, Marquetta L., and the Clarity Press Gullah Project. The Legacy of Ibo Landing: Gullah Roots of African American Culture. Atlanta: Clarity, 1998.
Jones-Jackson, Patricia. When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Joyner, Charles W. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
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