Admittedly, the first thing many people think of when they hear the term “Gullah,” is a memory from the popular 90s Nickelodeon children’s show, Gullah Gullah Island. Although, this was a show made for kids it was based on the real life experience of the star and creator, Ron Daise’s hometown in St. Helena Island, South Carolina.
The coastal islands along the Southeastern part of the United States is home to one of most distinct societies in North America- The Gullah Geechee. The Gullah Geechee are descendants of West Africans who were brought across the Atlantic as slaves to work on plantations.
The Gullah Geechee people have their own unique creole language known as ‘Geechee’ or ‘Sea Isand Creole English.’ The dialect is similar to that of which is spoken in the Bahamas. It is said that around 250,000 people in South Carolina still speak the Gullah language today. Fun fact: Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas was raised a Gullah speaker and is often known to not have much to say during court proceedings as he was ridiculed for his speech.
Shortly after the historic Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, the now-free Gullah Geechee of the Southeastern Islands took over the lands of their former masters, who had abandoned their plantations en masse.
In 2004, The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Gullah Geechee Coast as one of 11 most endangered historic places:
Until fairly recently, the coastal region of islands, marshes, placid rivers and oak-shaded roads had seen relatively little change — but now change is widespread, often overwhelming and sometimes devastating. Unless something is done to halt the destruction, Gullah/Geechee culture will be relegated to museums and history books, and our nation’s unique cultural mosaic will lose one of its richest and most colorful pieces.
Now, the Gullah are being driven out of their homes. With the values of coastal property steadily increasing, so does the property tax. The addition of greedy developers planning expensive condos, golf courses and hotel resorts in the area also plays a part in the area’s disintegration. Because much of the land is owned communally between family members are often subjected to Heirs Property Law. This law was created specifically in response to African American land ownership post-Civil War. According to heirsproperty.org this law was a way to govern property not properly probated in a court of law:
Heirs’ Property owners were routinely denied access to the legal system; could not afford to pay for legal services, and didn’t understand or trust the legal system. As a result, much of this land was passed down through the generations without the benefit of a written Will, or the Will was not probated within the 10 years required by law to make it valid – so the land became heirs’ property.
Heirs’ property is land owned “in common” (known as tenants in common) by all of the heirs, regardless of whether they live on the land; pay the taxes or have never set foot on the land. In the case of heirs’ property, any owner can sell their portion of the land to a buyer who could easily force the sale of the entire property in court. Developers used this tactic on many Gullah, by pitting family members against each other with the promise of a short-term profit.
It has been said that the Gullah Geechee were able to maintain African ancestral traditions more than any other black Americans in the United States. In an interview with CNN, Carlie Towne, minister of information of the Gullah Geechee nation had this to say:
“We have the highest retention of African tradition in America,” says Towne. “African-Americans have assimilated more so they don’t have those African traditions that we have — they don’t treasure them, they don’t honor their tradition like we do. And we’ve been able to hold onto that because of isolation, because of the strong will and our self-determination. We still eat the same foods [as] our ancestors [when they] came from Africa.”
From basketmaking to the trade of shrimping the Gullah Geechee hold steadfast to what they’ve known for centuries:
They gather sweet grass to practice the ancient African art of basket making; they pay homage to their West African traditions by keeping alive the ring shout music folk tradition; they make a living by fishing shrimps and harvesting oysters, using handmade nets and casting them the way their ancestors did centuries ago.
All photos used are by Pete Marovich who sought to raise awareness of the threatened way of life for the Gullah Geechee. Many other images will be published in Marovich’s upcoming book, Shadow of the Gullah Geechee.
Did you know about the Gullah Geechee culture? Do you have family residing in the region?