“Gullah” (aka “Gullah Geechee” in Georgia), is a reference to descendants of enslaved African Americans living on the sea islands and in the coastal areas from South Carolina to Florida, to their culture and to the unique English-based Creole language they speak. (It has been recognized as an actual language rather than a dialect. A number of 19th-century East Africans, in fact, already spoke a form of English before they were captured and brought to America.)
The culture relates to everything from fishing, farming, cooking, weaving, spiritual, and artistic practices that had their roots in Africa but have been adapted to American locations, tools, ingredients, and culture. It was evidenced from the first years in which they were brought to the colonies and applied their century-old farming practices to growing crops such as rice and indigo, to their weaving of sweetgrass baskets, to the way they make fishing nets, to the themes and color patterns of their art, and to the food they cooked in plantation kitchens. And just as the plantation owners came to value these practices and skills and apply them on their own, so too have others who have been exposed to them, including American musicians and chefs.
Alphonso Brown’s Gullah Tour
Our introduction to Gullah began in Charleston South Carolina with Alphonso Brown’s Gullah Tour. After loading us onto a bus, he gave us a brief introduction to entry-level Gullah and explained the origins, vocabulary, and syntax of the Gullah language. He then drove us around a number of Charleston sights that had roles in the city’s Gullah history.
- Mansions of prominent slave owners and the quarters in which their domestic slaves lived, homes of prominent Gullahs and their nemesis, the arch-Segregationist John P Calhoun;
- Churches in which they worshipped and Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in which nine parishioners were killed in a 2015 mass shooting;
- Public facilities such as the City Market where they sold their fish, produce and crafts, and the Slave Mart in which many of their ancestors had been sold.
He took us to a number of other locations that were prominent in the city’s black history.
- Home of Denmark Vesey, a formerly enslaved carpenter who, along with several followers, was executed for allegedly planning an 1822 slave insurrection.
- Site of the Jones Hotel, a lavish hotel that was owned by a Black but only catered to Whites. Jones’s son, meanwhile, became the first Black from a slave state to graduate from college.
- Where the then-enslaved Robert Smalls hijacked a Confederate transport ship on which he worked. As discussed in our post on Beaufort South Carolina, he turned the ship over to the Union, became a Union war hero, and returned to the south (Beaufort) to buy the mansion of his former owner and serve five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Examples of the lovely ironwork (on gates and balconies throughout the city) and the former home and workshop of blacksmith Phillip Simmons, who has been designated a “National Treasure”.
- Catfish Row, the setting of Porgy and Bess, DuBose Heyward’s novel and play, and George Gershwin’s opera.
These, plus other visits and tours of South Carolina’s Low Country provided more context around the origins of the Gullah culture, the contributions they made to the operations of the plantations and to contemporary Southern culture. These included:
- Penn Center School was a school in a town just north of Beaufort, South Carolina. It was home to one of the first churches and schools that were built expressively for newly freed slaves in the later stages of the Civil War. (See our Penn Center-Educating the Gullah post.) Classes and accompanying child care, divided class days, with half focused on basic academic skills and the other half on practical home economic and vocational skills. The school’s focus evolved with the times, shifting academic education on children (rather than primarily on adults), vocational training to entrepreneurial education and eventually ceased its classes to focus on building and enabling a community.
- Camp Saxton in Port Royal created schools and hospitals for slaves who were freed by Union troops in the early stages of the war. More important for the continuing war effort, it as also discussed in the Penn Center post, was the site of the Port Royal Experiment in which it trained and commissioned more than 5,000 recently freed men to serve in the Federal army—an experiment that was duplicated at other camps and resulted in the recruitment of almost 200,000 other African Americans.
- Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island is the remains of a Sea Island plantation that explains much of the island’s history—including that of the generations of Africans who were enslaved on the then remote island and on which their culture developed in relative isolation from white culture and language or the rest of country. The museum how African slaves brought their own languages, skills, and cultures to the southern barrier islands and the coast and how their isolation living on an inaccessible island on which few whites lived combined with the prohibition of teaching slaves to read) led to the creation of an entirely new language and culture. It discusses how this gradually changed over the generations as their descendants were exposed to the English language, customs, and tools and how much of their culture they managed to retain them, especially in less touristed areas and small islands including Daufuskie Island which is only one mile from Hilton Head. It showed how the early end of slavery in this area (due to the early Federal capture of Hilton Head, Beaufort, and neighboring areas), how they were educated and given their own land to farm. They progressed through Reconstruction, up to about the turn of the 20th century when Jim Crow laws and vigilantes like the Ku Klux Klan and the Red Shirts managed to strip away many of their recently won rights. But with all of this, many of the descendants remained on many of the islands on which their ancestors were enslaved—continuing to grow food, fish, hunt, grow oysters, and maintain much of their traditional cultures. All this while remaining in relatively self-sufficient communities, with different people retaining skills that were passed down from generation to generation. The museum also discussed the importance of religion—often practiced in the community “praise houses”—remain to these communities, their longstanding connections to the water (from baptisms through burials next to water), their continued use of foods they ate in Africa (okra, rice, sweet potato, watermelon and so forth) and their ongoing practice of traditional crafts (basket weaving, net making, sewing, etc.). For more, see our post on this museum.