African slaves arrived in the Americas with knowledge of a diverse range of traditional African skills, which included the cultivation of crops as well as various forms of skilled craft production. Some of the cultural knowledge brought from Africa figured prominently in the plantation economy as well as in the daily life of slaves in the American South; in the low country of South Carolina and Georgia, West African agricultural and cultural practices intersected to form the heart of rice production.
The coastal lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia were well suited to rice cultivation, and planters in the coastal low country paid premium prices for slaves from the windward coast of West Africa, from present-day Senegal to the Ivory Coast, who were familiar with rice cultivation. An important element of the traditional method of cultivation was the winnowing of rice (separating the grain from the chaff) in "fanning" baskets, which were made by slaves in the low country in the manner of West African basket makers.
There was undoubtedly a diverse range of baskets made by slaves in the Americas—probably reflecting, at least during the early years of the slave trade, the diversity of basket weaving among the African peoples who were captured. Baskets were used for various utilitarian purposes well into the nineteenth century, and basket weaving was one of the occupations of slaves on plantations and farms. For example, on Thomas Jefferson's plantation in Poplar Forest, Virginia, there is a record of basket making as a plantation enterprise. Advertisements in nineteenth-century newspapers for the return of runaway slaves mention basket making as an occupation, along with carpentry, blacksmithing, and other skills. For example, an advertisement in the Raleigh Register and North-Carolina Weekly Advertiser on November 12, 1807, offers a twenty-dollar reward for the return of Joe, an "excellent basket maker."
The basket that remains the best known of those made by slaves, however, is the fanning basket of the low country rice growers; its prominence may be attributed not only to its widespread use, but also to the preservation of this distinct craft tradition by African American basket weavers of South Carolina. Also called a winnowing basket or a rice fanner, the fanning basket is a coiled, tray-like basket. It is constructed by first creating a coil of either long-leaf pine needles or sweetgrass, a native grass that grows in the coastal dunes, or both. During slavery, it is thought that various rush plants, such as black rush (also called bulrush or needlegrass), were added to the coils for durability. In present-day versions of the fanning basket, sweetgrass is the preferred material. The coils are sewn together in a concentric design using strips of palm leaf; holes for the strips are made using a bone, nail, or needle. Both the methods of construction and the design of the fanning basket closely resemble those of West African fanning baskets, and it is certain that the traditional basket-weaving skills that West African slaves brought to the low country formed an important part of rice production there.
Low country slaves also made a "head tote" basket for carrying wood and other objects on the head. This basket as well had a distinctly West African form and purpose. And in addition to the utilitarian fanning basket, which was often made by men, lighter-weight baskets were made, often by women and children, for other purposes. These lighter baskets evolved into decorative baskets of various forms, including round baskets with shallow sides as well as taller storage baskets. This tradition of basket weaving has been preserved among African American basket weavers of South Carolina, whose practice has centered in Mount Pleasant since the early twentieth century. Though these practitioners weave a wide range of baskets, some still continue to weave a traditional fanning basket, similar in form and material to the baskets of West Africa.
Morgan, Philip. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Quimby, Ian, and Scott Swank, eds. Perspectives on American Folk Art. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980.
Raleigh Register and North-Carolina Weekly Advertiser, November 12, 1807.
Rosengarten, Dale. Row upon Row: Seagrass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Columbia: McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina, 1986.