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Unique Gullah/Geechee culture at risk

Lesson Plan

February 26, 2002 Posted: 10:13 AM EST (1513 GMT)
Marquetta Goodwine. Goodwine, a historian and founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, is known as Queen Quet.  

By Shelley Walcott
CNN Student News

(CNN) -- St. Helena Island is a rural, isolated spot. Located just off the coast of South Carolina, it is one of several tiny tidewater communities in the Southeastern United States -- as draped in moss as it is in history.

You don't have to go far on St. Helena to hear echoes of this small island's past. More than nine thousand people live here, and most of them are Gullah.

"The Gullah people have a very rich cultural history," says Marquetta Goodwine. Goodwine, a historian and founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, is known as Queen Quet, chief priestess of the Gullah/Geechee nation. It is an honor bestowed on her by members of the community in appreciation of her preservation work.

Take a glimpse at the Gullah basket-weaving tradition. Click here for a gallery of images 

"From the time that our ancestors were enslaved here, most of us still live in that exact same location," Goodwine says. "So we can go to a graveyard, burial area, sacred area, and put our hands on generations and generations of history."

Gullahs, also referred to as Geechee in some parts of the South, are the descendants of African slaves brought to the United States by European planters during the 18th and 19th centuries. Many still live on or near islands off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and North Florida.

The Gullah represent a unique branch of black history. Because they have preserved so much of their African cultural history, they are arguably the most authentic African-American community in the United States.

For example, you don't have to go far on the island to find someone selling sweetgrass baskets, a thousand-year-old art form. In fact, many of the basket weavers still use tools made of bone as they practice this ancient craft.

Gullah food is also reminiscent of African cooking. Traditional fares include such incredients as rice, okra, shark, and field and pigeon peas.

And then there is the Gullah language. Gullah is the only surviving English-based creole in North America. It is part Elizabethan English and part African, spoken very quickly and rhythmically, making it difficult to understand, even to those who grew up around it.

Here's an example of a sentence written phoneticaly in Gullah:

"Ef oona dey frum de lowcountree an de islandt, lookya, e da time fa go bak. Disyah da wey fa cum togedda wid wi people fa hold on ta de tings wa wi peepol lef wi."

An English transliteration would be:

"If you are someone that is concerned about the preservation of the branch of Africa's tree that has grown in America, this is a way for you to assist in nurturing and protecting that branch."

The story of the Gullah people can be traced as far back as the year 1520. That's when a Spanish explorer named Vasquez de Allyon found a cluster of islands off the coast of South Carolina. He named the islands Santa Elena.

He realized the marshed climate and texture of the soil was very similar to conditions in West Africa.

A historical market on Sullivan's Island, where many African slaves were brought into America.  

A historical market on Sullivan's Island, where many African slaves were brought into America.  

This meant it would be possible to grow, among other things, rice, cotton and spices in the Sea Islands. These were all goods which, at the time, brought a high price on the European market.

De Allyon also know the inhabitants of the West African country of Sierra Leone and surrounding nations were experienced in growing these crops. 1526 marked the year West Africans started to be brought to the sea islands against their will, signaling the start of 335 years of slavery in the lowcountry.

The Gullah people are the descendants of various African ethnic groups torn from their own flourishing cultures and forced to live together on plantations in America.

The Africans came from a wide variety of tribes: Ashantis, Fantes, Mandigos, Yorubas, and many more. Together, these tribes developed a new culture, one that combined their African traditions with those of their captors.

Slaves in the lowcountry greatly outnumbered whites, and many lived on plantations that were on small, isolated islands. This made their newly developed culture even more distinct from slaves in other parts of America who lived in close proximity to their owners.

After the Civil War, when slaves were emancipated, many Gullah people began to assimilate into Southern black society. During the next century, large numbers of the Gullah became part of a great migration of blacks to the north, to cities like Philadelphia and New York City.

"The Gullah people who remain in the South are fighting to keep our culture alive," says Goodwine.

An endangered way of life

Highways, golf courses and hotels have replaced traditional graveyards and farms. Many Gullah people were forced to sell their land and move away, unable to afford the rising taxes that came with resort and suburban development.

"The tourism industry has created this dire need for resorts and what people call developments, but we call 'destruction-ment,'" says Veronica Gerald, director of the Penn Center, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Gullah culture.

Another factor in the migration out of the lowcountry -- a tradition called "heirs property."

"Heirs property really is an ironic situation," Gerald says. "Gullah people really base a lot of their beliefs on an African worldview. And one of the things that came to the new country was the belief that land cannot be owned. It is shared by people. And most often by family members."

But often, family members who have left the lowcountry are willing to sell valuable land to the highest bidder, while heirs still on the land desperately want to hold on to property that has been in the family for generations.

Gerald and others say it is impossible to hold on to the culture if you don't have the land.

A coalition of community activists has approached local, state and federal governments with their concerns. They have even made their case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland.

But they say their most effective preservation efforts are the ones that take place within the community.

• Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition
• Beaufort, SC Champer of Commerce
• Penn Center
• National Parks Conservation Association: Gullah/Geechee Culture

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Updated September 21, 2002

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