On the Sea Islands along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, a painful chapter of American history is playing out again. These islands are home to the Gullah or Geechee people, the descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to work at the plantations that once ran down the southern Atlantic coast. After the Civil War, many former slaves on the Sea Islands bought portions of the land where their descendants have lived and farmed for generations. That property, much of it undeveloped waterfront land, is now some of the most expensive real estate in the country.
But the Gullah are now discovering that land ownership on the Sea Islands isn’t quite what it seemed. Local landowners are struggling to hold on to their ancestral land as resort developers with deep pockets exploit obscure legal loopholes to force the property into court-mandated auctions. These tactics have successfully fueled a tourism boom that now attracts more than 2 million visitors a year. Gullah communities have all but disappeared, replaced by upscale resorts and opulent gated developments that new locals — golfers, tourists, and mostly white retirees — fondly call “plantations.”
Faced with an epic case of déjà vu, the Gullah are scrambling for solutions as their livelihood and culture vanish, one waterfront mansion at a time. Below are the 9 Interesting Facts About the Origins, Culture and People of the Gullah-Geechee:
Origins of the Gullah and the Geechee
Many of the current inhabitants originated from the Windward Coast in Africa along the Atlantic. There has been decades of intense research, which has led historians to believe that many people are from the Gola, Kissi, Mende, Temne, Twi and Vai ethnic groups. Elders in the corridor believed that the terms “Gullah” and “Geechee” may have originated from the two cultural groups Golas and Gizzis. These two groups are near present-day Liberia. The current inhabitants have managed to keep their cultural West African roots for 300-plus years.
Where are the Gullah and the Geechee?
The term “Gullah” applies to the name of the islanders living in South Carolina, while “Geechee” refers to inhabitants on the islands along the coast of Georgia. Present-day historians and researchers say the region stretches from Sandy Island, South Carolina, to Amelia Island, Florida, as the Gullah Coast or the Gullah Corridor.
The Gullah and the Geechee During Slavery
European slave owners captured and enslaved West African people in order to till their rice plantations along the eastern coast. The wealth acquired from this continuous rice cultivation brought millions to slave plantations operating in this region. While the enslaved west Africans brought their skills and were taken advantage of, they reaped no rewards. Now, the Gullah and Geechee fight for their land as tourism explodes.
The Civil War Comes to The Gullah Corridor
In South Carolina, the white slave owners and planters abandoned their plantations in 1861 as the Civil War broke out. They left behind scores of enslaved people waiting on the arrival of Union troops. As the Union came, many joined those forces as soldiers in the First South Carolina Volunteers. The Sea Islands or the Gullah Corridor were the first place in the South where enslaved Black people were freed. Many of these lands were sold to the newly freed Africans during the Port Royal Experiment during Reconstruction. After the Civil War and emancipation, former enslaved Black people settled the coastal lands looking for hope, freedom and prosperity.
Famous Gullah Descendants
The rich culture and strong values of the region has produce some of the country’s most successful Black people. Some of the most noticeable have been: First Lady Michelle Obama; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; “American Idol” season 12 winner Candice Glover; NBA legend Michael Jordan; NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown; filmmaker Julie Dash, and educator and civil rights activist Septima Poinsette Clark.
Tourist Hot Spots, Destinations, and Desecration
In the 1900s, companies began to exploit the exotic region and its people. Thus, some of the Georgia islands — Cumberland, Jekyll, Ossabaw, Sapelo and St. Simons — became resort locations and reserves for natural resources. Places like Hilton Head Island has become one of the major tourist destinations in South Carolina. People have gotten married there, held family vacations and much more. The island was a home to plantations, served as a port in the 1800s, and the Gullah-Geechee resided there as well. In recent years, the original Black residents have been pushed aside for the lavish resorts. This desecration of land has sparked many legal battles.
The Culture of the Gullah-Geechee
Tradition is valuable to the inhabitants of these exclusive islands. The culture revolves around a history of growing rice, indigo and cotton starting in 1750. When it comes to rice, the Gullah-Geechee cultivated it the same way for an estimated 300 years. The Sweetgrass basket seen above is the main tool for the process. Rice has a heavy presence in the diet as well.
The language is considered by most historians as a pidgin — meaning it is a combination of many. The region was made up of different people from various places, so a common language sprung up spontaneously. Gullah terms were very similar to the Krio language of Sierra Leone. For example, the Gullah word “de” is “the” in English and “di” in Krio. The Gullah word for “never” is nebbuh and in Krio it is Nohba. Many of the similarities were discovered by Linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner in 1930s.
Music and Religious History
When it comes to music and religion, the Gullah-Geechee’s centuries-old traditions are heavily West African inspired. On the islands, inhabitants have been documented using the west African inspired medicine men called “root doctors.” The inhabitants also practiced a “seekin” ritual which is similar to many coming-of-age rituals in West Africa. Spirituality is vital to the culture, and the center of their spirituality was the praise house. The Gullah frequently practiced the “ring shout.” Worshipers would move in a circle counterclockwise singing spirituals. These shouts are usually held after Sunday services. The song “Kum Bah Yah” — or “Come By Here” — and phrase came from the Gullah people as well.
The Battle for a Way of Life
In 2006, the Gullah Corridor became a National Heritage Area. It has been discovered that the land and its people are among one of the most endangered places in the United States. Atlanta Black Star reported last year that people of the region have endured extreme taxes and poor public service. They are also victim to property developers who create zoning laws and build vacation homes. This form of gentrification prices the locals out of the housing market. For this very reason, Georgia Gullah-Geechee residents filed a lawsuit against Georgia, McIntosh County and the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority.
Researchers in the past few decades have taken an interest in learning more about the region — starting in 1930s. In 2012, University of Connecticut music professors used a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to research the history and culture of the Gullah people. This research was transformed into learning/teaching material for elementary and secondary school teachers.
The culture has been documented in films, novels and most notably the Gullah Gullah Island children’s show on Nickelodeon in the 1990s.
Video credit: ViceNews
Sources: atlantablackstar , ViceNews