The Gullah and Geechee culture on the Sea Islands of Georgia has retained ethnic traditions from West Africa since the mid-1700s. Although the islands along the southeastern U.S. coast harbor the same collective of West Africans, the name Gullah has come to be the accepted name of the islanders in South Carolina, while Geechee refers to the islanders of Georgia. Modern-day researchers designate the region stretching from Sandy Island, South Carolina, to Amelia Island, Florida, as the Gullah Coast—the locale of the culture that built some of the richest plantations in the South.
Many 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, enslaved Africans 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.
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.
Linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner researched and documented spoken words on the coast during the 1930s, traced similarities to ethnic groups in West Africa, then published the Gullah dialect lexicon, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949). His research confirms the evolution of a new language based on West African influences and English. Many words in the coastal culture could be matched to ethnic groups in West Africa, thereby linking the Geechee/Gullah people to their origins. Margaret Washington Creel in A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community-Culture among the Gullahs (1988) identifies cultural and spiritual habits that relate to similar ethnic groups of West Africans who are linked by language. Her research on the coastal culture complements Turner’s findings that Africans on the Sea Islands created a new identity despite the tragic conditions of slavery.
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.
The 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 the coastal 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.
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 moved counterclockwise in a circle, making certain never to cross their feet. Some aspects of the ring shout are thought to be related to the communal dances found in many West African traditions. The word shout is thought to be derived from saut, a West African word of Arabic origin that describes an Islamic religious movement performed to exhaustion. Since the Civil War (1861-65), ring shouts have been held after Sunday church services and on weeknights in community meeting houses. Few elders familiar with shout songs and the body movements associated with the spiritual practice are alive today, but the tradition is kept alive in Georgia through the McIntosh County Shouters.
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, ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt, and linguist Tazieff Koroma came across Turner’s tape recording in 1989 and began tracing its origin, not only to Moran, who was living in Harris Neck, Georgia, but also to Bendu Jabati of Senehun Ngola, Sierra Leone, who was the last person in her village with knowledge of the song.
In 1997 the two women met in the African village to share and reenact what was understood as a Mende funeral song, sung only by the women of Jabati’s family lineage, who conducted the funerals of the village. Evidence suggests that a female member of Moran’s family had been forced into captivity from the village nearly 200 years before. The return of the song and the visit from the Moran family led to a countrywide celebration that can be viewed in the documentary The Language You Cry In (1998). The discovery of the song and subsequent linguistic research confirmed yet another link between the cultures of West Africa and the Georgia coast.
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 enslaved laborers 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.
Fugitives from slavery were also 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 self-emancipated Africans 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. At 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.