are African Americans
who live in the Low Country
region of South Carolina
, which includes both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands
. Historically, the Gullah region once extended north to the Cape Fear
area on the coast of North Carolina
and south to the vicinity of Jacksonville
on the coast of Florida
; but today the Gullah area is confined to the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country. The Gullah people are also called Geechee
, especially in Georgia.
The Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African American community in the United States. They speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and significant influences from African languages in grammar and sentence structure. The Gullah language is related to Jamaican Creole, Bahamian Dialect, and the Krio language of Sierra Leone in West Africa. Gullah storytelling, foodways, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming and fishing traditions, etc. all exhibit strong influences from West and Central African cultures.
The name "Gullah" may derive from Angola
where many of the Gullahs' ancestors originated. Some scholars have also suggested it comes from Gola, an ethnic group living in the border area between Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa, another region where many of the Gullahs' ancestors originated. The name "Geechee," another common name for the Gullah people, may come from Kissi (pronounced "geezee"), an ethnic group living in the border area between Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Some scholars have also suggested Native American origins for these words. The Spanish called the South Carolina and Georgia coastal region Guale after a Native American tribe, and the Ogeechee River, a prominent geographical feature in coastal Georgia, takes its name from a Creek Indian
word. Regardless of the origins of these names, though, it is clear that Gullah language and culture have strong connections to the African continent.
Most of the Gullahs' ancestors were brought to the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country
through the ports of Charleston
. Charleston was the most important port in North America for the Atlantic slave trade. Almost half of the enslaved Africans brought into what is now the United States came through that one port. Savannah was also active in the Atlantic slave trade
, but on a much smaller scale than Charleston.
The largest group of Africans brought into Charleston and Savannah came from the West African rice-growing region that stretches from what are now Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in the north to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia in the south. African rice had been cultivated in this section of West Africa for possibly up to 3,000 years. South Carolina and Georgia rice planters once called this region the "Rice Coast"—indicating its importance as a source of skilled African labor for their own rice industry—but modern historians call it the "Upper Guinea Coast." The second-largest group of Africans brought through these ports came from the Congo and Angola regions in Central Africa. Smaller numbers also were imported from the Gold Coast (what is now Ghana) and the West Indies.
Origin of Gullah culture
The Gullah people have been able to preserve so much of their African cultural heritage because of geography, climate, and patterns of importation of enslaved Africans. By the mid-1700s, the South Carolina
Low Country was covered by thousands of acres of rice
fields. African farmers from the "Rice Coast" brought the skills for cultivation and tidal irrigation that made rice one of the most successful industries in early America.
The semi-tropical climate that made the Low Country such an excellent place for rice production also made it vulnerable to the spread of malaria and yellow fever. These tropical diseases were carried by mosquitoes that were brought unintentionally aboard the slave ships that came from Africa. The mosquitoes bred in the swamps and inundated rice fields of the Low Country. Malaria and yellow fever soon became endemic in the region.
Africans were far more resistant to tropical fevers than the European slave owners. The white population of the Low Country grew at a slower rate than the black population because the land was devoted to large plantations. More and more enslaved Africans were brought as laborers into the Low Country as the rice industry expanded. By about 1708 South Carolina had a black majority. Coastal Georgia later acquired its own black majority after rice cultivation expanded there in the mid-1700s, and malaria and yellow fever became endemic. Fearing disease, many white planters left the Low Country during the rainy spring and summer months when fever ran rampant. They left their African "rice drivers," or overseers, in charge of the plantations. Working on large plantations with hundreds of laborers, and with African traditions reinforced by new imports from the same regions, the Gullahs developed a culture in which elements of African languages, cultures, and community life were preserved to a high degree. Their culture was quite different from that of slaves in states like Virginia and North Carolina where slaves lived in smaller settlements and had more sustained contact with whites.
Gullah customs and traditions
African influences are found in every aspect of the Gullahs' traditional way of life:
- The Gullah word "guber" for peanut derives from the KiKongo word "N'guba."
- Gullah rice dishes called "red rice" and "okra soup" are similar to West African "jollof rice" and "okra soup". Jollof rice is a style of cooking brought by the Wolof and Mandé peoples of West Africa.
- The Gullah version of "gumbo" has its roots in African cooking. "Gumbo" is derived from a word in the Umbundu language of Angola, meaning "okra."
- Gullah rice farmers once used the mortar and pestle and "fanner" (winnowing basket) similar to tools used by West African rice farmers.
- Gullah beliefs about "hags" and "haunts" are similar to African beliefs about malevolent ancestors, witches, and "devils" (forest spirits).
- Gullah "root doctors" protect their clients against dangerous spiritual forces using similar ritual objects to those employed by African medicine men.
- Gullah herbal medicines are similar to traditional African remedies.
- The Gullah "seekin" ritual is similar to coming of age ceremonies in West African secret societies like Poro and Sande.
- The Gullah "ring shout" is similar to ecstatic religious rituals performed in West and Central Africa.
- Gullah stories about "Bruh Rabbit" are similar to West and Central African trickster tales about the clever and conniving rabbit, spider, and tortoise.
- Gullah spirituals, shouts, and other musical forms employ the "call and response" method commonly used in African music.
- Gullah "sweetgrass baskets" are almost identical to coil baskets made by the Wolof people in Senegal.
- Gullah "strip quilts" mimic the design of cloth woven with the traditional strip loom used throughout West Africa. The famous kente cloth from Ghana is woven on the strip loom.
- The folk song Michael Row the Boat Ashore (or Michael Row Your Boat Ashore) comes from the Gullah culture.
Civil War period
When the U.S. Civil War
began, the Union rushed to blockade the 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 eager as well 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, Quaker
missionaries from Pennsylvania came down to start schools for the newly freed slaves. Penn Center, now a Gullah community organization on Saint Helena Island
, South Carolina, began as the very first school for freed slaves.
After the Civil War ended, the Gullahs' isolation from the outside world actually increased in some respects. The rice planters on the mainland gradually abandoned their farms and moved away from the area because of labor issues and hurricane damage to crops. 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 in the Low Country, the Gullahs continued to practice their traditional culture with little influence from the outside world well into the 20th Century.
In recent years 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 threatened to push Gullahs off family lands they have owned since emancipation
, but they have fought back against uncontrolled development on the islands through community action, the courts, and the political process.
The Gullahs have also struggled to preserve their traditional culture. In 2005, the Gullah community unveiled a translation of the New Testament in the Gullah language (a project that took more than 20 years to complete). The Gullahs achieved another victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the "Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act" that provides $10 million over ten years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture. The "heritage corridor" will extend from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. The project will be administered by the US National Park Service with strong input from the Gullah community.
Gullahs have also reached out to West Africa. Gullah groups made three celebrated "homecomings" to Sierra Leone in 1989, 1997, and 2005. Sierra Leone is at the heart of the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa where many of the Gullahs' ancestors originated. Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone, sent many African captives to Charleston and Savannah during the mid- and late 1700s. 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).
Over the years, the Gullahs have attracted many historians, linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists interested in their rich cultural heritage. Many academic books on that subject have been published. The Gullah have also become a symbol of cultural pride for blacks throughout the United States and a subject of general interest in the media. This has given rise to countless newspaper and magazine articles, documentary films, and children's books on Gullah culture and to a number of popular novels set in the Gullah region.
Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana recently held an event to showcase the Gullah culture. Purdue's Black Cultural Center maintains a bibliography of Gullah publications as well.
The media typically portray the Gullah people as living only on the Sea Islands, but Gullahs have always lived everywhere in the Low Country region—on both the Sea Islands and
the much larger coastal plain. The media also portray Gullah culture as being "near extinction" because of resort development on the islands. Many Sea Island communities are, indeed, under serious threat, but there are islands that have never been subjected to tourism development where the Gullah way of life is very much intact. Most Gullah people live in coastal areas where resort development is not an issue and where their culture also still thrives today.
Far from being near extinction, Gullah culture has proven to be particularly resilient. Gullah traditions are still strong in urban areas of the Low Country, like Charleston and Savannah. The old ways have persisted even among Gullahs who have left the Low Country and moved far away. Many Gullahs migrated to New York starting at the beginning of the 20th century, and these urban migrants have not lost their identity. Gullahs have their own neighborhood churches in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens. Typically they send their children back to rural communities in South Carolina and Georgia during the summer months to be reared by grandparents, uncles and aunts. Gullah people living in New York also frequently return to the Low Country to retire. Second- and third-generation Gullahs in New York often maintain many of their traditional customs and sometimes still speak the Gullah language.
Gullah historical figures
Gullah leaders, artists, and cultural activists
Famous African Americans with Gullah roots
* GULLAH BIBLIOGRAPHY
- Ball, Edward (1998) "Slaves in the Family,” New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
- Carney, Judith (2001) "Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas," Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Littlefield, Daniel (1981) Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina," Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
- Miller, Edward (1995) "Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915," Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Pollitzer, William (1999) "The Gullah People and their African Heritage," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Smith, Julia Floyd (1985) "Slavery and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia: 1750-1860," Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
- Wood, Peter (1974) "Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion," New York: Knopf. Gullah language and storytelling
- Bailey, Cornelia & Christena Bledsoe (2000) "God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island," New York: Doubleday.
- Geraty, Virginia Mixon (1997) "Gulluh fuh Oonuh: A Guide to the Gullah Language," Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing Company.
- Jones, Charles Colcock (2000) "Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Jones-Jackson, Patricia (1987) "When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Montgomery, Michael (ed.) (1994) "The Crucible of Carolina: Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Sea Island Translation Team (2005) "De Nyew Testament (The New Testament in Gullah)," New York: American Bible Society.
- Stoddard, Albert Henry (1995) "Gullah Animal Tales from Daufuskie Island, South Carolina," Hilton Head Island, SC: Push Button Publishing Company.
- Turner, Lorenzo Dow (2002) "Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect," Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. Gullah culture
- Campbell, Emory (2008) "Gullah Cultural Legacies," Hilton Head South Carolina: Gullah Heritage Counsulting Services.
- Carawan, Guy and Candie (1989) "Ain't You Got a Right to the Tree of Life: The People of Johns Island, South Carolina, their Faces, their Words, and their Songs," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Creel, Margaret Washington (1988) "A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community Culture among the Gullahs," New York: New York University Press.
- Cross, Wilbur (2008) "Gullah Culture in America," Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
- Joyner, Charles (1984) "Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community," Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Kiser, Clyde Vernon (1969) "Sea Island to City: A Study of St. Helena Islanders in Harlem and Other Urban Centers," New York: Atheneum.
- McFeely, William (1994) "Sapelo's People: A Long Walk into Freedom," New York: W.W. Norton.
- Parish, Lydia (1992) "Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Rosenbaum, Art (1998) "Shout Because You're Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Rosengarten, Dale (1986) "Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry," Columbia, South Carolina: McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina.
- Twining, Mary & Keigh Baird (1991) "Sea Island Roots: The African Presence in the Carolinas and Georgia," Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press.
- Young, Jason (2007) "Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery," Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University. Historical photos of the Gullah
- Georgia Writer's Project (1986) "Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Johnson, Thomas L. & Nina J. Root (2002) "Camera Man's Journey: Julian Dimock's South," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Minor, Leigh Richmond & Edith Dabbs (2003) "Face of an Island: Leigh Richmond Miner's Photographs of Saint Helena Island," Charleston, South Carolina: Wyrick & Company.
- Ulmann, Doris & Suzanna Krout Millerton, New York: Aperture, Inc. Children's books on the Gullah
* BIBLIOGRAPHY: CHILDREN'S BOOKS ON THE GULLAH
- Branch, Muriel (1995) "The Water Brought Us: The Story of the Gullah-Speaking People," New York: Cobblehill Books.
- Clary, Margie Willis (1995) "A Sweet, Sweet Basket," Orangeburg, South Carolina: Sandlapper Publishing Company.
- Geraty, Virginia (1998) "Gullah Night Before Christmas," Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company.
- Jaquith, Priscilla (1995) "Bo Rabbit Smart for True: Tall Tales from the Gullah," New York: Philomel Books.
- Krull, Kathleen (1995) "Bridges to Change: How Kids Live on a South Carolina Sea Island," New York: Lodestar Books.
- Seabrooke, Brenda (1994) "The Bridges of Summer," New York: Puffin Books.
- Raven, Margot Theis (2004) "Circle Unbroken," New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Works of fiction set in the Gullah region
- Conroy, Pat (1972) "The Water Is Wide," Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Dash, Julie (1999) "Daughters of the Dust," New York: Plume Books.
- Gershwin, George (1935) "Porgy and Bess," New York:Alfred Publishing.
- Heyward, Dubose (1925)"Porgy," Charleston, S.C.: Wyrick & Compnay.
- Hurston, Zora Neale (1937) "Their Eyes Were Watching God," New York: Harper Perennial.
- Naylor, Gloria (1988) "Mama Day," New York: Ticknor & Fields.
- Straight, Susan (1993) "I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots," New York: Hyperion.
Gullah Gullah Island
; Children's show on Nickelodeon.Films
* REVIEWS: FILMS ON THE GULLAH