Do you all know anything about the Gullah people?
Funny story, lol I 1st learned about the Gullah people after watching Gullah Gullah Island as a child (please tell me you remember otherwise i feel old). I didn’t fully understand the culture and motive behind the show until last fall in my African Retentions in American course in college.
So here goes:
The Gullah people are the descendants of the slaves who worked on the rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. They still live in rural communities in the coastal region and on the Sea islands of those two states, and they still retain many elements of African language and cultureMany traditions of the Gullah and Geechee culture were passed from one generation to the next through language, agriculture, and spirituality. The culture has been linked to specific West African ethnic groups who were enslaved on island plantations to grow rice, indigo, and cotton starting in 1750, when antislavery laws ended in the Georgia colony.
A Board of Trustees established Georgia in 1732 with the primary purposes of settling impoverished British citizens and creating a mercantile system that would supply England with needed agricultural products. The colony enacted a 1735 antislavery law, but the prohibition was lifted in 1750. West Africans, the argument went, were far more able to cope with the climatic conditions found in the South. And, as the growing wealth of South Carolina’s rice economy demonstrated, slaves were far more profitable than any other form of labor available to the colonists.
Rice plantations fostered Georgia’s successful economic competition with other slave-based rice economies along the eastern seaboard. Coastal plantations invested primarily in rice, and plantation owners sought out Africans from the Windward Coast of West Africa (Senegambia [later Senegal and the Gambia], Sierra Leone, and Liberia), where rice, indigo, and cotton were indigenous to the region. Over the ensuing centuries, the isolation of the rice-growing ethnic groups, who re-created their native cultures and traditions on the coastal Sea Islands, led to the formation of an identity recognized as Geechee/Gullah. There is no single West African contribution to Geechee/Gullah culture, although dominant cultural patterns often correspond to various agricultural investments. For example, Africa’s Windward Coast was later commonly referred to as the Rice Coast in recognition of the large numbers of Africans enslaved from that area who worked on rice plantations in America.
Documentation of the developing culture on the Georgia islands dates to the nineteenth century. By the late twentieth century, researchers and scholars had confirmed a distinctive group and identified specific commonalities with locations in West Africa. The rice growers’ cultural retention has been studied through language, cultural habits, and spirituality. The research of Mary A. Twining and Keith E. Baird in Sea Island Roots: African Presence in the Carolinas and Georgia (1991) investigates the common links of islanders to specific West African ethnicities.
Enslaved rice growers from West Africa brought with them knowledge of how to make tools needed for rice harvesting, including fanner baskets for winnowing rice. The sweetgrass baskets found on thecoastal islands were made in the same styles as baskets found in the rice culture of West Africa. Sweetgrass baskets also were used for carrying laundry and storing food or firewood. Few present-day members of the Geechee/Gullah culture remember how to select palmetto, sweetgrass, and pine straw to create baskets, and the remaining weavers now make baskets as decorative art, primarily for tourists.
Aspects of West African heritage have survived at each stage of the circle of migration, with rice, language, and spirituality persisting as cultural threads into the twentieth century. The Geechee/Gullah culture on the Sea Islandsof Georgia has retained a heritage that spans two continents. Sapelo Island Cultural DayAt the end of the Civil War, lands on the coastal islands were sold to the newly freed Africans during the Port Royal Experiment, part of the U.S. government's Reconstruction plan for the recovery of the South after the war.
During the 1900s, land on some of the islands—Cumberland, Jekyll,Ossabaw, Sapelo, and St. Simons —became resort locations and reserves for natural resources. The modern-day conflict over resort development on the islands presents yet another survival test for the Geechee/Gullah culture, the most intact West African culture in the United States. Efforts to educate the public by surviving members of the Geechee/Gullah community, including Cornelia Bailey of Sapelo Island and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, help to maintain and protect the culture’s unique heritage in the face of such challenges.
The Gullah/Geechee have arguable preserved the heritage of their African ancestors better than any group in the United States.
Cornelia Bailey, with Christena Bledsoe, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
Margaret Washington Creel, A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community-Culture among the Gullahs (New York: New York University Press, 1988).