The Gullah Geechee culture, highlighted in Carrie Mae Weems’ “Sea Islands Series, 1991-1992,” is among the most studied in the United States. The culture and its modern-day diaspora continue to attract attention for several reasons, including that Gullah Geechees show more African influences than any other long-established American population. They helped build and survived the forced labors of one of the richest plantation regimes in the Americas; their music, dance, and art forms are powerful and evocative; and until a century ago before the Great Migration, theirs was the largest overwhelmingly African American area of the United States.
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor runs from Pender County, North Carolina, to St. Johns County, Florida, and extends 30 miles inland to include coastal communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The culture originated in the enslaved communities built on these islands in the 18th century. Upon arriving to the South Carolina coast from Africa, groups speaking different languages were mixed on plantations, making it difficult to communicate. They developed their own language from their various native tongues that many Europeans could not understand, which helped their efforts to resist enslavement.
Today “Gullah” refers to descendants of the people from the West African rice coast who were enslaved and brought to America; it also refers to the descendants of blacks who settled in Southeastern coastal areas after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1862. The derivation of the word “Gullah” has been lost; however, a couple of explanations survive. It may be shortened form of “Angola,” the region from which a large number of Africans were imported to the Sea Islands. Or it may be a version of the name of a specific Liberian group or ethnic group called the Golas. Some sources say the term “Geechee” refers to Gullah people who lived in the area of the Ogeechee River south of Savannah, and possible origin is the Kizzi tribe, from the same regions as the Gola in present-day Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
Importance of Protecting Gullah Geechee Culture
“We are the endangered species,” says Emory Campbell, Chair of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. The culture’s traditions, practices, and communities face many threats to their survival, including development on the sea and barrier islands along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina where they have traditionally lived. The Gullah Geechee culture was born out of isolation, creating a cultural incubator that has allowed its unique existence to flourish for so long. As the outside world increasingly pushes farther in, the need to support efforts to protect, sustain and preserve Gullah Geechee culture become even more urgent.
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and Commission were designated by an act of Congress in 2006 to recognize the important contributions made to American culture and history by these Africans and their descendants. The Corridor is one of the country’s 49 National Heritage Areas and the only one that has a group of people as its subject. Throughout the Corridor today are Gullah Geechee communities made up of direct descendants of West and Central Africans who survived the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean and were enslaved for almost two centuries to labor on coastal plantations. To learn more about the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, visit www.gullahgeecheecorridor.com.