The Gullah are a community of African Americans who have lived along the Atlantic coastal plain and on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia since the late seventeenth century. Comprised of the descendants of slaves who lived and worked on the Sea Islands, Gullah communities continued to exist into the early twenty-first century, occupying small farming and fishing communities in South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullah are noted for their preservation of African cultural traditions, which was made possible by the community's geographic isolation and its inhabitants' strong community life. They speak an English-based creole language also called Gullah, or among Georgia Sea Islanders called Geechee.
The etymology of the term Gullah is uncertain. Among the most widely accepted theories is that it is a shortened form of Angola, a region of coastal central Africa with different boundaries from the contemporary nation-state and former Portuguese colony of the same name. Many of South Carolina's slaves were imported from the older Angola. Equally plausible is the suggestion that the term is a derivation of the West African name Golas or Goulah, who were a large group of Africans occupying the hinterland of what is present-day Liberia. Large numbers of slaves were brought to South Carolina from both western and central Africa, lending both explanations credibility. The word Geechee is believed to have originated from Gidzi,
the name of the language spoken in the Kissy country of present-day Liberia. Whatever the origins of these terms, it is clear that the Gullah community that developed in the Sea Islands embodied a mixture of influences from the coastal regions of West Africa.
The slave communities of the Sea Islands developed under unique geographic and demographic conditions that permitted them to maintain a degree of cohesion and autonomy denied to slave communities in other regions of the South. A geographical shift in the production of rice within the South Carolina low country during the mid-1700s brought a major shift in population. South Carolina's slave population had been concentrated in the parishes surrounding Charleston, but in the 1750s South Carolina rice planters abandoned the inland swamps for the tidal and river swamps of the coastal mainland. At the same time, new methods in the production of indigo stimulated settlement of the Sea Islands, where long-staple cotton also began to be produced in the late eighteenth century.
As a result, the coastal regions of South Carolina and the adjacent Sea Islands became the center of the plantation economy, and the demand for slave labor soared. Concurrent with this shift in agricultural production was a change in the African origins of the slaves imported into South Carolina. During the last half of the eighteenth century, imports from the Kongo–Angola region declined, and the majority of slaves introduced into the Sea Islands came from the Windward Coast (present-day Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Gambia) and the Rice Coast (part of present-day Liberia). South Carolina planters apparently preferred slaves from these regions because of the Africans' familiarity with rice and indigo production. These African bondsmen and -women brought with them the labor patterns and technical skills they had used in Africa. Their knowledge of rice planting had a major impact in transforming South Carolina's methods of rice production.
The geographic isolation of the Sea Islands and the frequency of disease in the region's swampy, semitropical climate kept white settlement in the area to a minimum. Meanwhile, a growing demand for slaves and their concentration on tremendous plantations created a black majority in the South Carolina coastal region. In 1770 the population in the South Carolina low country was 78 percent black, and the proportion of blacks along the coast and the Sea Islands probably was even higher.
The relative isolation and numerical strength of the slaves and their freedom from contact with white settlers permitted them to preserve many native African linguistic patterns and cultural traditions. The constant influx of African slaves into the region throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century likewise permitted the Gullah to maintain a vital link to the customs and traditions of West Africa.
The Post-Civil War Era
The end of slavery brought significant changes to the Gullahs' traditional way of life, but the unique geographic and demographic conditions on the Sea Islands ensured that the Gullah community would retain its distinctiveness well beyond the Civil War. Blacks remained a majority in the South Carolina low country. In 1870, the population was 67 percent black; by 1900 it had decreased only marginally.
The Gullahs' experiences during and after the Civil War differed from those of blacks across the South. Although the Port Royal Experiment, established on the Sea
Islands during the Union's wartime occupation to provide the Gullah with experience in independent farming, was ultimately a failure, many Gullah in the decades following the Civil War nevertheless were able to become independent farmers.
Due to the declining market for the Sea Islands' long-staple cotton, many white landowners began to desert the area shortly after the war's end. Agricultural production in the low country first suffered from war-related devastation of the land; then, in the early 1900s, competition from rice plantations in the western United States further crippled South Carolina's market position. As whites abandoned their former plantations and blacks took over the land, some cotton production for the market continued, but subsistence farming and fishing dominated the Sea Island economy.
Whites' abandonment of the coastal region and the Sea Islands left the Gullah even more isolated than before. During the first half of the twentieth century, black residents of the Sea Islands, like other African Americans across the South, were denied basic civil rights, but they benefited from their geographic isolation and numerical dominance. Unlike blacks in most other regions of the South, the Gullah were able to maintain cohesive, largely independent communities well into the twentieth century.
Most of what we know of the Gullah comes from studies conducted by anthropologists and linguists in the 1930s and 1940s. The Gullah culture described by these observers reflects a blending of various African and American traditions. Gullah handicrafts such as basket weaving and wood carving demonstrate African roots, both in their design and their functionality. Wooden mortars and pestles, rice "fanners," and palm-leaf brooms were introduced into the Sea Islands by the Gullah and were used in ways that reflected African customs. The Gullah, for example, used their palm-leaf brooms to maintain grass-free dirt yards—a tradition they still maintained early in the twenty-first century. The Gullah diet is based on rice and similarly reflects the African origins of the original community. The Gullah make gumbos and stews similar to West African dishes such as jollof and plasas.
The distinctiveness of the Gullah community is perhaps best reflected in its language. Gullah, or Geechee, a predominantly oral language, is the offspring of the West African pidgin English that developed along the African coast during the peak of the slave trade. The pidgin was a merger of English and the native languages spoken on the African coast and served as a means of communication among Africans and British slave traders. Many of the slaves from the coastal regions of West Africa who were brought to South Carolina in the eighteenth century were familiar with pidgin English and used it to communicate with one another in the New World. Over time, the pidgin mixed with the language spoken by the South Carolina planter class and took on new form. Gullah, the creole language that developed, became the dominant and native language of the slave community of the Sea Islands. Like most unwritten creole languages, Gullah rapidly evolved, and by the time it was first seriously studied in the 1930s it undoubtedly had more in common with standard English than with antebellum or eighteenth-century Gullah.
The Gullah language derives most of its vocabulary from English, but it also incorporates a substantial number of African words, especially from the Krio language of present-day Sierra Leone. The Gullah used names, for example, that reflected personal and historical experiences and that carried specific African meanings. Naming practices of the Gullah served, as they do for West Africans, as symbols of power and control over the outside world. The pronunciation of Gullah and its sentence and grammatical structures, moreover, deviate from the rules of standard English, reflecting instead West African patterns. Gullah is spoken with a Caribbean cadence, reflecting the common African background of the Gullah and West Indian slaves.
Gullah, though less widely spoken by the end of the twentieth century, remains prevalent throughout the Sea Islands. Lorenzo Dow Turner, the first linguist to study Gullah speech in the 1940s, found a number of African words and phrases being used among the inhabitants of the Sea Islands in the 1940s. In 1993, William A. Stewart, a linguist at the City University of New York, estimated that 250,000 Sea Islanders still spoke Gullah and at least a tenth of this number spoke no other language. Gullah also has had a significant impact upon the language spoken across the southeastern region of the United States. Such Gullah words as buckra (a white person), goober (peanut), and juke (disorderly) can be found in the vocabulary of black and white southerners.
Other aspects of Gullah language observed by Turner and such scholars as Ambrose E. Gonzales and Guy B. Johnson also exhibit African roots. Gullah proverbs demonstrate an adaptation of the African tradition of speaking in parables, and the oral tradition of storytelling among the Gullah also has been identified with African patterns. Trickster tales such as those about Brer Rabbit, which were popularized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the white folklorist Joel Chandler Harris, are still part of Gullah and Geechee folklore. These tales, often moral in tone and content, are an important form of entertainment.
Religion and Community
Religion played a dominant role within the Gullah slave community and continued to regulate community life into the twentieth century. Church membership predicated membership in the community at large, and one was not considered a member of the plantation community until one had joined the "Praise House." Praise Houses, originally erected by planters in the 1840s as meetinghouses and places of worship for slaves, functioned as town halls among the Gullah well into the late twentieth century, possibly as late as the 1970s. The Praise House essentially took the place of the white-controlled Baptist churches as the slave community's cultural center. Even after blacks assumed control of their churches during and after the Civil war, the Praise House remained the locus of community power.
Everyone in the community was expected to abide by the Praise House customs and regulations, enforced by a Praise House committee, which held them to certain standards of behavior and trust. This method of defining the borders of the community reinforced the Gullahs' close-knit community structure; some argue that it mirrored West African traditions of establishing secret societies.
This utilization of the Praise House to fit the needs of the Gullah community illustrates the adaptive nature of the Gullah's religious practices. Gullah slaves applied a mixture of African customs and beliefs to the Christian principles introduced by their masters, creating a religion that served a vital function within their community. Even as they accepted Christianity, for example, they maintained their belief in witchcraft, called wudu, wanga, joso, or juju, and continued to consult "root doctors" for protection and for their healing powers.
The Gullahs' physical forms of worship also continued to follow West African patterns. Gullah spirituals, both religious and secular in nature, for example, incorporated a West African pattern of call and response. In addition to being sung in church and at work, these highly emotional spirituals were often used as accompaniments to the Gullah "ring shout," a syncretic religious custom that combined Africanisms with Christian principles. During the ring shout, onlookers sang, clapped, and gesticulated, while others shuffled their heels in a circle. The performance started slowly but gained speed and intensity as it progressed. The ring shout, which had largely disappeared by the late twentieth century, served as a religious expression linked to natural and supernatural forces. While the trancelike atmosphere of the ring shout is believed to be of West African origin, the practice itself and the way it functioned within the community are Gullah creations.
The strength and endurance of the Gullah community and culture is evident in the cultural traditions of the Seminole Blacks, a group strongly tied to the original Sea Island Gullah community. From the late 1700s to the early nineteenth century, Gullah slaves escaped from the rice plantations and built settlements along the remote, wooded Florida frontier. Over time, these maroon communities joined with other escaped slaves and surrounding Native Americans to form a loosely organized tribe with shared customs, food, and clothing. Along with the Native Americans, the escaped slaves were removed from Florida in the nineteenth century and were resettled on reservations in the West. During the late twentieth century, groups of these Seminole Blacks were found throughout the West, especially in Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico. Some of them, who have retained numerous African customs, continue to speak Afro-Seminole, a creole language descended from Gullah.
Loss of Isolation; Loss of Cohesion
While Gullah communities still exist in the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, they have begun to disintegrate in recent decades. The social cohesion of the community
was first threatened in the 1920s, when bridges were built between the mainland and the islands. Outmigration from the Sea Islands accelerated during World War II as defense spending created new economic opportunities. During the 1950s and 1960s, outside influence increased as wealthy developers began buying up land at cheap rates and building resorts on Hilton Head and other islands. This development opened some job opportunities for black Sea Islanders, but the openings tended to be in low-paying service jobs with little opportunity for advancement.
One benefit of this development has been to break down the Gullahs' isolation and to increase their awareness of trends within the larger African-American community. In the 1940s, Esau Jenkins, a native of Johns Island, led a movement to register voters, set up community centers, and provide legal aid to members of the island's African-American community. In an effort to register black voters, Jenkins, with the help of Septima Clark, of Charleston, established the South's first citizenship school on Johns Island in 1957. Jenkins' efforts helped break down the isolation of black Sea Islanders and involved them more directly in the struggle for civil rights among African Americans across the country.
The modernization of the Sea Islands and the Gullahs' subsequent loss of isolation, however, has caused the community to lose some of its cultural distinctiveness and cohesion. From a predominantly black population on Hilton Head in 1950, whites came to outnumber blacks five to one by 1980. Many Gullah traditions, such as the ring shout, have largely disappeared, and many community members criticize the now predominantly white public schools for deemphasizing the history and culture of the Gullah people. In response to the negative impact of these modernizing changes, efforts have been made to increase public awareness of Gullah traditions and to preserve them.
In 1948, the Penn Center on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, formerly a school for freed slaves, was converted into a community resource center. It offers programs in academic and cultural enrichment and teaches Gullah to schoolchildren. In 1979, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a professional society of linguists, and the nondenominational Wycliffe Bible Translators undertook projects on Saint Helena Island to translate the Bible into Gullah, to develop a written system for recording Gullah, and to produce teaching aids for use in schools. In 1985 Beaufort, South Carolina, began an annual Gullah Festival to celebrate and bring recognition to the rich Gullah culture.
Increasingly, national attention has been focused on the Sea Islands. In 1989, In Living Color, a dance-theater piece about Gullah culture on Johns Island, South Carolina, premiered in New York City at the Triplex Theater. Set in a rural prayer meeting, the piece offers a memoir of life among the Gullah during the late 1980s. Daughters in the Dust, a 1992 film about a Gullah family at the turn of the century, perhaps provided the greatest national recognition for the Gullah. Written and directed by Julie Dash, whose father was raised in the Sea Islands, the film's dialogue is primarily in Gullah, with occasional English subtitles.
Such projects have helped increase public awareness of the importance of understanding and preserving Gullah traditions, and in 1994 the children's network Nickelodeon began work on a new animated series called Gullah Gullah Island, which focused on a black couple who explored the culture of the Sea Islands. The show ran for three years. Black Sea Islanders hope that these efforts will bring the necessary national recognition to help protect the Gullah community from further cultural erosion.
Burch, Audra D. S. "Threatened by Change, Gullah Fighting to Preserve their Culture." The Miami Herald (November 30, 2003).
Burden, Bernadette. "A Bible to Call Their Own: Gullah Speakers Put Verses in Native Tongue." Atlanta Journal and Constitution, June 11, 1993.
Crum, Mason. Gullah: Negro Life in the Carolina Sea Islands (1940). New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968.
Curry, Andrew. "The Gullah's Last Stand?" U.S. News & World Report (June 18, 2001): 40.
Glanton, Dahleen. "Gullah Culture in Danger of Fading Away." Chicago Tribune (June 3, 2001).
Jacobs, Sally. "The Sea Islands' Vanishing Past." Boston Globe, March 24, 1992.
Joyner, Charles. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Pollitzer, William S. The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.
Rose, Willie Lee. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.
Turner, Lorenzo D. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.
Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Knopf, 1974.
louise p. maxwell (1996)
Gul·lah / ˈgələ/ • n. 1. a member of a black people living on the coast of South Carolina and nearby islands.2. the Creole language of this people, having an English base with elements from various West African languages. It has about 125,000 speakers.• adj. of or relating to this people or their language.