Sea Islanders

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Sea Islanders

ETHNONYMS: Gullah-speaking African Americans


Identification. The name "Sea Islanders" refers to the African American inhabitants of the coastal islands of the southeastern United States. The population is characterized by a distinctive Creole language, Guiiah or Geechee, and by a long history of land ownership and autonomy from mainland authorities. The region is often cited as a repository of African cultural survivals among New World peoples of African descent.

Location. The Sea Islands are a series of over one thousand transgressive barrier islands extending from South Carolina to the northern border of Florida. Although most are small and uninhabited, the largest and most densely populated (including John's, St. Helena, Port Royal, and Hilton Head) lie between the cities of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. The major islands are today connected to the mainland by bridges, and, on many, the African American population has been displaced by White-owned resort and residential developments. The islands are topographically flat, climatically semitropical, and subject to periodic flooding during hurricanes and other storms. The maze of rivers, estuaries, and tidal marshes separating the islands from the mainland provide a rich wetlands environment for a variety of plant and animal species, some of them endangered.

Demography. The population of the islands has varied considerably through the years, along with economic cycles of prosperity and hardship. The region has, since the beginning of the eighteenth century, been characterized by an African American majority on the islands and in some coastal mainland communities. African slaves were imported into the area as early as 1682 and the trade had reached a peak of over eleven thousand by 1773. This high rate of importation, coupled with a tendency toward large, concentrated land holdings, resulted in a greatly unbalanced population. According to Rose, by 1861 almost 83 percent of the coastal population consisted of slaves. Entire islands and their populations belonged to single landowners and were worked under the supervision of one or two white overseers.

After the Civil War, much of the former plantation land passed into the hands of the freedmen in the form of small parcels (see below). Sea Islanders participated in the general trend of African American migration from rural to urban areas that characterized the early years of this century. St. Helena Island, for example, saw a population decline of approximately 45 percent between 1900 and 1930. Jones-Jackson reports that African Americans constituted more than 50 percent of Charleston County in 1930 but only 31.4 percent in 1970. Since resort development accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s, the White population has been growing rapidly. Hilton Head Island, which was almost entirely inhabited by African Americans in 1950, has undergone a particularly dramatic shift, with Whites now holding an eight-to-one majority.

Linguistic Affiliation. The distinctive Creole language spoken by Sea Islanders has long attracted researchers. The terms Gullah or Geechee are conventionally used to refer to this language (although not to Sea Islanders themselves, by whom they are taken as terms of abuse). Linguists believe that Gullah is the only surviving form of a generalized Plantation Creole which at one time was widespread in the southern United States. Creole undoubtedly originated as a pidgin, or trade language, from the practical necessity for communication between Africans and Europeans engaged in the West African coastal economy. Gullah is a true Creole in that it differs from other African American dialects of English, which do not vary from the standard in phonology, vocabulary, or syntax and are thus intelligible to speakers of the standard dialect. Creole languages, on the other hand, may be similar to the "primary" language in vocabulary but differ significantly in grammar and syntax; while the Gullah lexicon is composed of mostly English words, its grammatical rules are demonstrably closer to West African languages such as Ewe, Mandinka, Igbo, Twi, and Yoruba. It is on the basis of these grammatical features and on the lack of intelligibility to English speakers that Gullah is considered a language in its own right and not a regional dialect of English. Sea Islanders, however, speak a variety of English dialects as well as using Gullah as the first language at home. Choice of language used varies with social context, with "true" or "deep" Gullah reserved for the primary Community. Sea Islanders use various dialects of Black American English in their economic or bureaucratic dealings with non-Islanders. It is important to note that there is considerable ambivalence attached to the use of Gullah in public contexts at which outsiders are present. The use of the language is negatively sanctioned by mainlanders, both African American and White, as denoting backwardness, poverty, and rural lack of sophistication. To be called a "Gullah" or "Geech" is to be insulted, inferring that one can neither "talk right" nor understand what others say. With the recent increase in White tourism has come increasing curiosity about the language, and tourists often express surprise that Sea Islanders can "speak English." Islanders frequently find that visitors speak slowly, loudly, and deliberately to them, as if they were deaf or mentally incompetent, and they quite rightly resent such treatment. Yet Gullah remains the primary language associated with home, family, and an independent life-style, in spite of the obvious impact of mass media, schools, and out-migration. Children are still taught Gullah as a first language, and Jones-Jackson speculates that, for the near future at least, "some version of Gullah will probably continue to exist."

History and Cultural Relations

The strategic location of the Sea Islands is reflected in the history of conflict in the region. Port Royal Sound is the deepest and most accessible harbor on the east coast south of Chesapeake Bay; consequently, Spanish, French, and English colonizers all competed for control of the area. Fierce resistance by the indigenous Yemassee peoples made stable European settlement on the southernmost islands impossible until the early eighteenth century. Early British planters came from Barbados, bringing with them a plantation system based on monocrop agriculture and African slavery. The original cash crop, indigo, was replaced by long-staple cotton after the American Revolution. This Sea Island cotton produced huge fortunes for the White planters and the region developed a reputation for wealth and luxury.

All this came to an end on November 6, 1861, when the federal fleet, moving north to blockade Charleston, attacked the two small Confederate forts on Hilton Head. The planters evacuated inland, leaving behind their slaves and the year's cotton crop still in the field. This constellation of events set the stage for the famous "Sea Island Experiment" (or Port Royal Experiment), a federal program to determine whether or not ex-slaves could function as free, small-holding citizens. The experiment, sponsored by the secretary of the treasury and administered by a young abolitionist lawyer from Boston, envisioned freed slaves working for wages on government-owned cotton plantations while being prepared for eventual citizenship. Missionaries, teachers, and agricultural specialists were provided by northern benevolent societies, bringing an influx of young, well-educated, fiercely abolitionist men and women from the North behind the battle lines of the Civil War. As the Reconstruction promise of "40 acres and a mule" was revealed as a myth throughout the rest of the South, Sea Islanders, working with northern advisers, managed to gain legal title to most of the land they had formerly worked as slaves. In the words of Willie Lee Rose, the Sea Island Experiment was indeed a "rehearsal for reconstruction" and one of the few places in the South where African Americans emerged from the war with a secure land base.

Although many researchers have stressed the physical isolation of the Sea Islands and imply that their people have been "cut off" since the nineteenth century from mainland U.S. history, this is clearly not the case. In actuality, the islands have never been fully self-sufficient, and periodic male labor migration has been an important source of income since boll weevil infestations at the turn of the century destroyed small-holder cotton production. Sea Islanders have historically produced and sold agricultural products in the markets of cities like Savannah and Charleston, and the men have worked as commercial fishermen and longshoremen up and down the eastern seaboard for generations. What is unique to the island communities is not their geographic isolation but their economic and cultural autonomy. The ownership of land appears to be the crucial variable in Sea Islanders' ability to choose what off-island work they will accept and for how long. Many of the islands instituted their own legal and criminal codes, administered through the churches, allowing them to bypass the White-controlled "unjust law" of the mainland. Since the 1950s, much of the traditional land base has been eroded by out-migration, rising property taxes, forced sheriff's sales, and other coercive practices employed by White developers. As a result, the remaining African American population is increasingly dependent upon wages earned in the service sector of the seasonal tourist economy.


Settlement on the islands follows a dispersed pattern with few nucleated centers or villages. On some islands, notably St. Helena, the boundaries of former plantations remain important community markers and define local identity in significant ways. Adult sons strive to acquire land adjacent to their parents on which to build a house and raise their own families; this practice results, over time, in kin-based clusters or compounds of dwellings around a parental "yard." Guthrie has argued that households as social units (as opposed to physical structures) are defined by the presence of a stove and a woman to cook on it; families are defined as those who "eat from the same pot," regardless of where they physically reside. Mobile homes now provide a low-cost alternative to new home construction, although many of the older dwellings conform to the model of the shotgun house, indigenous to the American South. As waterfront property was the first to rise in value (with concomitant increases in taxes), most of the remaining land owned by African Americans is located in the interior, less desirable, portions of the islands.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities, After the Civil War and prior to the erosion of the land base, the islands supported a mixed economy of small farmers and fishermen who produced both for subsistence and for the urban markets of Savannah and Charleston. Infusions of cash were provided by the seasonal employment of men in off-island occupations such as commercial fishing, logging, and dock work. Outside employment was necessary for paying the all-important property taxes and for buying the staple foods of rice and grits, which were not produced on the islands. Fish, shellfish, game, garden vegetables, and domestic animals produced on the islands provided the rest of the diet. Industrial pollutants have seriously reduced marine resources (particularly the oyster and shrimp populations) and have placed severe limits on the ability of small, independent fishermen to meet subsistence needs. The identification of island men as "fishermen" or "rivermen," however, remains ideologically important. Full-time employment in the service economy, especially in the resort industry, has now become the major source of income.

Industrial Arts. A number of distinctive island crafts have recently become items of interest to tourists. The well-known coiled baskets, made of local materials like pine needles and sweet grass, are an especially popular art form for both domestic use and for sale. Some communities have become specialized in the production of distinctive foods and as destinations for urban excursion boats.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Marriage and Domestic Unit. Kinship among Sea Islanders generally follows American cognatic descent. A married couple constitutes the basic unit of the household, which may also contain their direct descendants, together or separately, and adopted and foster children and their partners. Formalized marriages are preferred and can be documented as far back as the census of 1880, clearly contradicting the popular notion of African American families as "destroyed" by slavery. Children are considered members of their parents' households until marriage, at which time residence is ideally virilocal. Newly married sons bring their brides into their parents' household until a new dwelling can be provided, preferably in the yard or nearby. Additional household members are added through informal adoption and fosterage and by the tendency of young adults working in mainland cities to send their small children to be raised by grandparents in relative rural safety. Households headed by single women typically represent the end of domestic group cycles and consist of widows living alone or with their grandchildren.

Inheritance. Inheritance descends to all children of a married pair equally, although "outside" children whose parents have not married inherit only from their mothers. The increasing number of off-island heirs who hold rights in small parcels of island property has contributed to the acquisition of formerly African American-owned land by White developers.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. On St. Helena Island, former plantations serve as important sociopolitical units. Island citizenship is determined through membership in a particular plantation, acquired not by birth or filiation but through "catching sense" in a specific community. Guthrie defines catching sense as a process by which children between the ages of two and ten begin to "understand and remember the meaning of social relationships." One's having caught sense on a particular plantation confers eligibility for participation in the system of dispute management and litigation that operates through the Baptist churches and their affiliated "praise houses." The church hierarchy, consisting of the ministers, deacons, and local praise house leaders and their committees, also functions as the politicojural structure.

Social Control and Conflict. Disputes between islanders can go through a series of levels within the religious court system; the goal is to achieve confession and reconciliation between the parties rather than punishment. Islanders who insist on taking cases before the secular courts or "unjust law" of the mainland authorities are sanctioned informally through gossip and general disapproval and may even lose membership in their congregation. Beyond the religious court system, social control is exercised primarily through informal means, such as respect for elders, beliefs in the ability of recently deceased relatives to punish social transgressions, and mechanisms of gossip, reputation, and respect characteristic of small, face-to-face communities.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Most Sea Islanders are at least nominal members of the Baptist or Methodist churches, although many of the smaller island congregations can no longer sustain a full-time minister. The praise house system, as described above for St. Helena, was once widespread on the islands and allowed for immediate, local-level participation in weekday praise meetings which supplemented Sunday services. Praise houses in former times were the settings for "ring shouts," a form of religiously inspired dance. With the decline in the African American population, most praise houses and many churches have fallen into disrepair.

Medicine. Local medical practitioners, primarily women who were also skilled as midwives, or "grannies," are also rapidly disappearing in the face of restrictive state regulations. The grannies are remembered with great affection and respect for their ability to "put you on your feet out of the woods" through the use of locally available herbal medicines. The general feeling is that White-run hospitals and doctors use the same "plants" in their pills as were known to the grannies, but charge much more for their services. The ability to cause others harm through illness as well as the ability to heal is likewise held to be available to skilled and knowledgeable people.

Death and Afterlife. Concepts of death and the afterlife depart from standard Christian doctrine in the belief in multiple souls. While the "soul" leaves the body and returns to God at death, the "spirit" remains on earth, connected to and still interested in its living descendants. Graves are decorated with favorite objects belonging to the deceased in life and elaborate funerals are planned and saved for by the living. Many of the practices relating to the treatment of dead bodies, graves, and burial grounds have clear West African origins. The historical continuity of practices still observable today has been documented by Creel.


Bascom, William R. (1941). "Acculturation among Gullah Negroes." American Anthropologist 43:43-50.

Creel, Margaret Washington (1990). "Gullah Attitudes toward Life and Death." In Africanisms in American Culture, edited by Joseph E. Holloway, 69-97. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dillard, J. L. (1970). "Non-standard Negro Dialects: Convergence or Divergence?" In Afro-American Anthropology, edited by Norman Whitten and John Szwed, 119-128. New York: Free Press.

Guthrie, Patricia (1977). Catching Sense: The Meaning of Plantation Membership among Blacks on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms.

Guthrie, Patricia (1980). Praise House Worship and Litigation among Afro-Americans on a South Carolina Sea Island. Purdue University Africana Studies Occasional Paper no. 80-5. West Lafayette, Ind.

Johnson, Guion Griffis (1930). A Social History of the Sea Islands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Jones-Jackson, Patricia (1987). When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Kiser, Clyde Vernon (1969). Sea Island to City. New York: Atheneum.

Moran, Mary H. (1981). "Meeting the Boat: Afro-American Identity on a South Carolina Sea Island." M.A. thesis, Brown University.

Moran, Mary H. (1986). "Using Census Materials in Ethnohistoric Reconstruction: An Example from South Carolina." In Ethnohistory: A Researchers' Guide, edited by Dennis Wiedman, 61-76. Studies in Third World Societies, no. 35. Williamsburg, Va.: Department of Anthropology, College of William and Mary.

Rose, Willie Lee (1964). Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill.