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Tue, 06.01.1526

The Gullah Community (in the United States of America), a story

*The Gullah community celebrated this date in 1526. They are African Americans who live in the Lowcountry region of the U.S. states of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, in both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands.

They developed a creole language called Gullah and a culture with some African influence. Historically, the Gullah region extended from the Cape Fear area on North Carolina's coast south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on Florida's coast. The Gullah people and their language are also called Geechee, which may be derived from the name of the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia.  Gullah is a term that was originally used to designate the creole dialect of English spoken by Gullah and the Geechee people. Over time, its speakers have used this term to formally refer to their creole language and distinctive ethnic identity as a people.

The Georgia communities are distinguished by identifying as either "Freshwater Geechee" or "Saltwater Geechee", depending on whether they live on the mainland or the Sea Islands. Because of a period of relative isolation from whites while working on large plantations in the Antebellum South, the Africans, enslaved from a variety of Central and West African ethnic groups, developed a creole culture that has preserved much of their African linguistic and cultural heritage from various peoples; in addition, they absorbed new influences from the region. The Gullah people speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and are influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure. Sometimes referred to as "Sea Island Creole" by linguists and scholars, the Gullah language is sometimes likened to Bahamian Creole, Barbadian Creole, Guyanese Creole, Belizean Creole, Jamaican Patois, and the Krio language of West Africa. Gullah crafts, farming and fishing traditions, folk beliefs, folk music, rice-based cuisine, and story-telling traditions all strongly influence Central and West African cultures. 


The origin of the word "Gullah" is unclear. Some scholars suggest that it may be cognate with the word "Angola", where the ancestors of some of the Gullah people likely originated. They created a new culture synthesized from the various African peoples brought into Charleston and other parts of South Carolina. Some scholars have suggested that it may come from the name of the Gola, an ethnic group living in the border area between present-day Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa, another area of enslaved ancestors of the Gullah people. British planters in the Caribbean and the Southern colonies of North America referred to this area as the "Grain Coast" or "Rice Coast"; many of the tribes are of Mandé or Manding origins. The name "Geechee", another common name for the Gullah people, may derive from the name of the Kissi people, an ethnic group living in the border area between Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. Still another possible linguistic source for "Gullah" is the Dyula ethnic civilization. They had territory that stretched from Senegal through Mali to Burkina Faso and the rest of what was French West Africa. The word "Dyula" is pronounced "Gwullah" among members of the Akan ethnic group in Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire. The primary land route through which captured Dyula people then came into contact with European slavers, was through present-day Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegambia, and Guinea.

The story of Gullah Jack (an African slave imported from Angola to the United States) may indicate that the word Gullah originated in Angola, as some commentators believe the word is a shortened version of the country's name. Gullah Jack's other name was Jack Pritchard because he was sold to a white man with the last name Pritchard. Some scholars have also suggested indigenous American origins for these words. The Spanish named the South Carolina and Georgia coastal regions Guale, after a Native American tribe. The name of the Ogeechee River, a prominent geographical feature in coastal Georgia and central to Guale territory, may have been derived from a Creek Indian (Muskogee language) word. Sapelo Island, the site of the last Gullah community of Hog Hammock, was also the principal place of refuge for Guale people who fled slavery on the mainland. The Gullah people have several West African words that survived despite centuries of slavery when Africans in America were forced to speak English. 

African Roots

According to Port of Charleston records, enslaved Africans shipped to the port came from the following areas: Angola (39%), Senegambia (20%), the Windward Coast (17%), the Gold Coast (13%), Sierra Leone (6%), and Madagascar, Mozambique, and the two Bights (viz., Benin and Biafra) (5% combined). Particularly along the western coast, the local peoples had cultivated African rice for over 3,000 years. African rice was originally domesticated in the inland delta of the Upper Niger River. Once Carolinian and Georgian planters in the American South discovered that African rice would grow in that region, they often sought enslaved Africans from rice-growing regions because of their skills and knowledge to develop and build irrigation, dams, and earthworks. Two British trading companies based in England operated the slave castle at Bunce Island, located in the Sierra Leone River.

Henry Laurens was their main contact in Charleston and was a planter and slave trader. His counterpart in Britain was the Scottish merchant and slave trader Richard Oswald. Many enslaved Africans taken in West Africa were processed through Bunce Island. It was a prime export site for slaves to South Carolina and Georgia. Slave castles in Ghana, by contrast, shipped many of the people they handled to ports and markets in the Caribbean islands. After Freetown, Sierra Leone was founded in the late 18th century by the British as a colony for poor blacks from London and black Loyalists from Nova Scotia, resettled after the American Revolutionary War; they did not allow slaves to be taken from Sierra Leone. They tried to protect the people from kidnappers. In 1808 Great Britain prohibited the African slave trade. After that date, the British, whose navy patrolled to intercept slave ships off Africa, sometimes resettled Africans liberated from slave trader ships in Sierra Leone. Similarly, Americans sometimes settled freed slaves in Liberia, a similar colony established in the early 19th century by the American Colonization Society.

As it was a place for freed slaves and free blacks from the United States, some free blacks emigrated there voluntarily for the chance to create their society. The Gullah people have been able to preserve much of their African cultural heritage because of climate, geography, cultural pride, and patterns of importation of enslaved Africans. Enslaved persons from the Central Western region of Africa, originating primarily from the Mende populations of Sierra Leone, were transported to some areas of Brazil (including Bahia), and the enslaved Gullah-Geechee people were traded in what was then Charlestowne, South Carolina. According to British historian P.E.H. Hair, Gullah culture developed as a creole culture in the colonies and the United States from the peoples of many different African cultures who came together there. These included the Baga, Fula, Kissi, Kpelle, Limba, Mandinka, Mende, Susu, Temne, Vai, and Wolof of the Rice Coast, and many from Angola, Igbo, Calabar, Congo, and the Gold Coast. 

By the middle of the 18th century, thousands of acres in the Georgia and South Carolina Lowcountry and the Sea Islands were developed as African rice fields. African farmers from the "Rice Coast" brought the skills for cultivation and tidal irrigation that made rice farming one of the most successful industries in early America. The subtropical climate encouraged the spread of malaria and yellow fever, both carried and transmitted by mosquitoes. These tropical diseases were endemic in Africa and had been carried by enslaved Africans to the colonies. Mosquitoes in the Lowcountry's swamps and inundated rice fields picked up and spread diseases to European settlers, as well. Because they had acquired some immunity in their homeland, Africans were more resistant to these tropical fevers than were the Europeans.

As the rice industry was developed, planters continued to import enslaved Africans. By about 1708, South Carolina had a black majority. Coastal Georgia developed a black majority after rice cultivation expanded in the mid-18th century. Malaria and yellow fever became endemic. Fearing these diseases, many white planters and their families left the Lowcountry during the rainy spring and summer months when fevers ran rampant. Others lived mostly in cities such as Charleston rather than on isolated plantations, especially those on the Sea Islands. The planters left their European or African "rice drivers", or overseers, in charge of the rice plantations. These had hundreds of laborers, with African traditions reinforced by new imports from the same regions. Over time, the Gullah people developed a creole culture in which elements of African languages, cultures, and community life were preserved to a high degree. Their culture developed in a distinct way, different from that of the enslaved Blacks in North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland, where the enslaved lived in smaller groups and had more sustained and frequent interactions with whites and British American culture. 

Civil War Period

When the U.S. American Civil War began, the Union rushed to blockade Confederate shipping. White planters on the Sea Islands, fearing an invasion by the US naval forces, abandoned their plantations and fled to the mainland. When Union forces arrived on the Sea Islands in 1861, they found the Gullah people eager for their freedom and to defend it. Many Gullahs served with distinction in the Union Army's First South Carolina Volunteers. The Sea Islands were the first place in the South where slaves were freed. Long before the War ended, Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania came to start schools on the islands for the newly freed slaves. Penn Center, now a Gullah community organization on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, was founded as the first school for freed slaves. After the American Civil War ended, the Gullahs' isolation from the outside world increased in some respects. The rice planters on the mainland gradually abandoned their plantations and moved away from the area because of labor issues. Free Blacks were unwilling to work in the dangerous and disease-ridden rice fields. A series of hurricanes devastated the crops in the 1890s.

Left alone in remote rural areas of the Lowcountry, the Gullah continued to practice their traditional culture with little influence from the outside world well into the 20th century. In the 20th century, some plantations were redeveloped as a resort or hunting destination by wealthy whites. Gradually more visitors went to the islands to enjoy their beaches and mild climate. Since the late 20th century, the Gullah people—led by Penn Center and other determined community groups—have been fighting to keep control of their traditional lands. Since the 1960s, resort development on the Sea Islands has greatly increased property values, threatening to push the Gullah off family lands they have owned since emancipation. They have fought against uncontrolled island development through community action, the courts, and political processes. The Gullahs have also struggled to preserve their traditional culture despite much more contact with modern culture and media. In 1979, a translation of the New Testament into the Gullah language was begun. 

The Gullah have also reached out to West Africa. Gullah groups made three celebrated "homecomings" to Sierra Leone in 1989, 1997, and 2005 where many of the Gullahs' ancestors originated. These dramatic homecomings were the subject of three documentary films—Family Across the Sea (1990), The Language You Cry In (1998), and Priscilla's Homecoming (in production). The American Bible Society published De New Testament in 2005. The Gullah achieved another victory in 2005 when the U.S. Congress passed the "Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act"; it provided $10 million over ten years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites in the Low Country relating to Gullah culture. The Heritage Corridor will extend from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. The US National Park Service will administer the project with extensive consultation with the Gullah community. In November 2011, Healin fa de Soul was released, a five-CD collection of readings from the Gullah Bible. This collection includes Scipcha Wa De Bring Healing ("Scripture That Heals") and the Gospel of John (De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa John Write). This was also the most extensive collection of Gullah recordings, surpassing those of Lorenzo Dow Turner. The recordings have helped people develop an interest in the culture because they get to hear the language and learn how to pronounce some words.

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