Thursday, October 17, 2013

This past weekend, I visited Edisto Island, South Carolina, to take a historic home and church tour. At one of the local churches, I learned of an amazing project: the Smithsonian Museum moved a slave cabin from the island to DC to restore and place on permanent display (read more here). A descendent, who remembers her great grandmother babysitting her as a young girl in the cabin, spoke proudly of her heritage getting so much attention. The presentation grew into a larger discussion of the Gullah-Geechee culture.

Having family in Low Country South Carolina and spending quite a few summers there, the Gullah-Geechee culture has always been known to me. Sweet grass basket stands were always lingering on the sides of highways and orka stew was a staple in many family dinners. But in Florida, I've found the culture less known, even though it stretched as far south as St. Johns County and had impacts far beyond.

Examples of African words that made their way into English language through Gullah.
Gullah is the name of to the pidgeon language spoken by Africans who were brought to the plantations in the Low Country. The word 'Gullah' is derived from the word 'Angola,' a coastal area of West Africa that many people came from. The word 'Geechee' is comes from the Ogeechee River in Georgia. Generally, folks in the Carolinas were Gullah and folks in Georgia Geechee, though the culture is similar throughout coastal areas from North Carolina to Florida.

Many of the Gullah/Geechee brought the culture with them as they sought a better life in Florida, running away from the bondage of their plantation lives. Fort Mose, in St. Augustine, was a large community of these free Africans. When Florida joined the Union and became a slave state, the free black people continued to seek new refuges, leaving with the Spanish to Cuba or fleeing to the swamps with the Seminole.

Map of colonial St. Augustine, showing a "Fuertz Negro," Fort Mose, north of town.

Some of the Black Seminole moved west, ending up in Texas. Many Gullah customs, including a similar language are still found there today.
The Gullah/Geechee culture is a combination of African traditions blended with customs from life in the Low Country. Basket weaving was brought with the enslaved Africans but changed with the new materials and experiences available in the New World.  Traditional foods include those brought with them, like sweet potatos, okra, benne (sesame seeds) and watermelon, blended with what was here: rice, seafood and corn. Tabby, cement made from oyster shells, became a common building material throughout the barrier islands, the technology stemming from African traditions.

Sweet grass baskets, made from sweet grass, sable palm and pine straw.

Baskets made by the Black Seminole using a similar technique.
For an opportunity to see the culture in person, check out the Ritz Theater and Museum's current exhibit, "Word, Shout Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner, Connecting Communities Through Language." The exhibit features a display about Turner's life as well as videos, artifacts and panels about the Gullah-Geechee and the Black Seminole. The museum is also sponsoring special events including a sweet grass basket weaving demonstration and workshop and several speakers. Visit their website for more information.

To learn more about Gullah-Geechee culture, please visit the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website. To learn more about the Black Seminole, including current efforts to find their archaeological footprint, check out USF's Looking for Angola project.

Text and images by Emily Jane Murray, FPAN staff

One Response so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    You can find a photography project about the Gullah Geechee Culture as it is today here:

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