The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor extends along the coast of the southeastern United States through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida in recognition of the Gullah (or Geechee) people and culture. The corridor is administered as a National Heritage Area in partnership between the National Park Service and local governments and cultural and tourism authorities.
Here are the ten prominent African-Americans you didn’t know have roots in the Gullah Geechee Corridor
1. Michelle Obama: First Lady of the United States
The first lady’s great-grandfather, Jim Robinson, was an enslaved African who lived and worked on a rice plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina. That region falls within the park services’ Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor.
2. Denmark Vesey: Freedom Fighter
Denmark Vesey organized one of the biggest slave rebellions in history, after Moses in the Bible. A residence located at 56 Bull St. in the Gullah Geechee Corridor is believed to be his home. In 1821, it served as a meeting place to discuss plans for the insurrection, which involved over a thousand free Blacks and those still in bondage. Details of the insurrection, which was set for July 12, 1822, were leaked and all those involved in the planning were hanged. The residence is now a National Historic Landmark.
3. Clarence Thomas: U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas grew up in poverty in the low country of PinPoint, Georgia, a Gullah Geechee community. The Supreme Court Justice’s first language was Gullah, not English. He spoke the language at home, but avoided speaking it at school or around whites, for fear of being labeled as poor or uneducated. This fear also kept him from speaking much on the Supreme Court bench.
4. James Brown: The Godfather of Soul
James Joe Brown Jr. was born on May 3, 1933 in the backwoods of Barnwell, South Carolina. His parents, Susie and Joseph “Joe” Gardner Brown, were of Geechee descent. He began singing as a young boy and enjoyed a successful music career that spanned six decades. Deemed the Godfather of Soul, Brown influenced the development of various music genres.
5. Joe Frazier: World Heavyweight Champion
Joe Frazier was born on Jan. 12, 1944 in Beaufort, South Carolina. His parents, Rubin and Dolly Frazier, made a living as farm workers and raised their 12 children in a small village known as Laurel Bay. From the Gullah community of South Carolina, the heavyweight champion’s family are descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the eastern coastal islands of the United States. Love and support from members of the community helped Frazier build his self-esteem and cope with financial hardship and racial bias he faced while living in the Deep South.
6. Chris Rock: Comedic Legend
Comedian Chris Rock was born Feb. 7, 1965 in Andrews, South Carolina. His parents, Julius and Rosalie, were of Gullah descent and moved their family to Brooklyn, New York. A recent DNA test revealed that Rock’s family descends from the Udeme people of the northern region of Cameroon. His great-great-grandfather, Julius Caesar Tingman, was enslaved for 21 years in South Carolina before he served in the United States Colored Troops. Rock says he was influenced by the performance style of his paternal grandfather, Allen Rock, who moved from South Carolina to New York City to become a cab driver and preacher.
Author and screenwriter Julie Dash. Photo courtesy of IndieWire.com
7. Julie Dash: Daughter of the Dust
Julie Dash, an African-American filmmaker and author, was born on October 22, 1952 in Queens, New York. She was raised by her father, who was a Gullah from the Sea Islands of Georgia. Dash admits she didn’t know much about her Gullah heritage as a child until she noticed her father’s unique accent. She also noted rituals performed by her nanny, who was Gullah as well. Well into her career, Dash wrote the screenplay “Daughters of the Dust,” which takes place on St. Helena Island and tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family in 1902. She followed up with a book titled “Daughters of the Dust: A Novel” in 1997. The sequel is set 20 years after the migration featured in the film.
8. Jim Brown: Record-Setting Fullback for the Cleveland Browns
Jim Brown was one of seven people inducted into the Gullah/Geechee Nation Hall of Fame. A native of St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, the football star grew up in the Geechee community. Brown fell in love with the game of football after moving to Manhasset, New York to live with his mother. He went on to play for the Cleveland Browns and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. After stepping away from football, Brown found a career in acting and appeared in over 30 movies.
9. Septima Poinsette Clark: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement
Septima Poinsette Clark was born on May 3, 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina. Known as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, she was an educator and played an important part in the push for voting rights for African-Americans. In her early career as a teacher, she worked in a rural schoolhouse on St. John’s Island because she wasn’t allowed to teach in Charleston. It was there that she founded the “Citizenship Schools” to increase literacy among students. She also educated people about their rights and encouraged them to vote and fight the laws of segregation.
10. Gullah Jack: The Conjure Doctor
Gullah Jack, sometimes referred to as Counter Jack or Gullah Jack Pritchard, was known for helping Denmark Vesey, a free Black man, plan a large slave insurrection. It would later become known as Vesey’s slave conspiracy of 1822. Born in the African country of Angola, Jack was shipped to America and enslaved by a man named Paul Pritchard in Charleston, South Carolina. Influenced by his African roots, he recruited enslaved Africans for Vesey’s revolt and made charms to protect then from the buckras (whites). It’s also believed that he conjured spirits to scare others into keeping quiet about the plan. Vesey’s plot was ultimately leaked and Gullah Jack was hanged, along with Vesey and 34 others involved in the uprising.