Geechee and Gullah Culture
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.
Most anthropologists and historians speculate but have not confirmed that the term Gullah —deemed the cultural name of the islanders—derived from any one of several African ethnicities or specific locations in Angola and on the Windward Coast. Other researchers speculate that Gullah and Geechee are borrowed words from any number of ethnic groups along the Windward Coast—such as Gola, Kissi, Mende, Temne, Twi, and Vai—that contributed to the creolization of the coastal culture in Georgia and South Carolina. Gullah is thought to be a shortened form of Angola, the name of the group first imported to the Carolinas during the early colonial period. Geechee, historically considered a negative word identifying Sea Islanders, became an acceptable term in light of contemporary evidence linking it to West Africa. Although the origins of the two words are not definitive, some enslaved Africans along the coast had names that were linked to the Kissi group, leading to speculation that the terms may also derive from that particular culture.
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.
Religious meetings in "praise houses" were the spiritual outlet for enslaved Africans on the plantation. Fast-paced rhythmic hand clapping accompanied ring shout (spiritual) songs while participants
In the early 1930s Lorenzo Dow Turner recorded a song that islander Amelia Dawley had been taught by her mother, Octavia "Tawba" Shaw, who was born into slavery. Dawley taught the song to her own daughter, Mary Moran, who became the last person in the United States to know the song, which would link her to a small village in Sierra Leone sixty years later. Anthropologist Joseph Opala,
Such corresponding practices as similar names, language structures, folktales, kinship patterns, and spiritual transference are but a few areas that suggest a particular link between the southeastern coastal culture of the United States and Sierra Leone in West Africa.
Thousands of slaves from Georgia and South Carolina who remained loyal to the British at the end of the American Revolution (1775-83) found safe haven in Nova Scotia in Canada and thus gained their freedom. Many returned to Sierra Leone in 1791 and the following year established Freetown, the capital city. Members of that group are identified today as Krio.
Runaway slaves from the Sea Islands were harbored under Spanish protection in Florida prior to the Second Seminole War (1835-42). Native American refugees from around the South formed an alliance with African runaways to create the Seminole Nation. The name Seminole is from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning runaway. The 1842 agreement between the United States and Spain, which ended the Seminole hold on Florida, caused a migration to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Some Seminoles followed Spanish protectors to Cuba and to Andros Island in the Bahamas.
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 Islands of Georgia has retained a heritage that spans two continents.
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.
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).
Fanny Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (1863; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984).
Philip Morgan, ed., African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009).
Lydia Parrish, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (1942; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992).
Savannah Unit, Georgia Writers' Project, Work Projects Administration, Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (1940; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).
Mary A. Twining and Keith E. Baird, eds., Sea Island Roots: African Presence in the Carolinas and Georgia (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1991).
Family across the Sea, exec. prod. Tom Fowler, prod. and writ. Tim Carrier (Columbia: South Carolina Educational Television, 1990), video.
The Language You Cry In, dir. and prod. Alvaro Toepke and Angel Serrano, writ. Alvaro Toepke ([Sierra Leone]: Inko Producciones, 1998), video.
Althea Sumpter, Georgia Institute of Technology
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.