The Gullah (known as Geechee in Georgia and Florida) are descendants of West African slaves, whose numbers today range from 200,000-500,000.
The Gullah region traditionally extends along the coast from SE North Carolina, through Georgia to Northern Florida, including the Lowcountry region and its Sea Islands (see map at bottom left).
Geographic isolation, a marshy, malarial environment that often led to absentee plantation owners, and the fostering of close community ties allowed a distinct creole culture to develop. After the Civil War and emancipation, the Gullah's isolation increased as few outsiders were attracted to the area, and labor issues and a series of devastating hurricanes caused rice planters to abandon their farms. Thus, the Gullah were left alone to practice their traditional culture with little influence from the outside world well into the 20th century (the first bridges from the islands to the mainland were not built until the 1950s). As a result, the Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States.
The Gullah language, which linguists consider as a separate language rather than a dialect of English, draws from African dialects as well as 17th-18th century English. Gullah is heard increasingly rarely, but determined groups in the community are working to preserve the language. The Gullah are also defending their land rights and achieved a 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.
In the words of Sam Gadsen (b. 1882, quoted in a study by the National Park Service), "If you get the full Gullah, it's a song language. That's the deep Gullah. It is a song language and not a deaf language like English. The speaker of a song language doesn't mean exactly just the words alone, but when he has once spoken them, he really couldn't have said it any better. If you catch the song, you can tell exactly what he means."
Other notable features of the culture include crafts, such as quilting and coiled basketry made from sweetgrass, music, as well as a renewed interest in the performing arts. The Gullah culture has extended to urban areas such as Charleston and Savannah and also farther afield to New York where the Gullah have their own neighborhood churches in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens.
Did you know?
A map of the Gullah region. Click the image for a close up
of a different map showing the South Carolina Sea Islands in detail.
Interesting Link: CNN Dec 10, 2012
This article was originally published in October 2010, and has been updated for the
October 2011 paperback release.
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