By Jordan K. Boxley, Historical Interpreter
The abolishment of slavery initiated the relative isolation of formerly enslaved black people to waterfront properties from Jacksonville, FL to Charleston, SC. The 1865 field order that redistributed acres of land to free African families was quickly revoked, leaving them to exercise a deed system called “heirs’ property.” This isolation became the catalyst for a blending of African cultures and traditions. Since then, descendants of these communities have named this African diaspora the Gullah Geechee Nation, showing genetic admixtures from Central West Africa, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Bights of Benin & Biafra.
The Gullah Geechee culture is marked by its unique language and living styles. Recent studies show linguistic origins linked to the Krio language used among the people of Sierra Leone in West Africa. The Gullah Geechee people still live in large familial or social groups occupying the same acreage, while sustaining these communities by farming, often earning wages through coastal industries like shrimping, crabbing, and oyster harvesting. While it is difficult to decipher the originating regions of certain customs, reciting folk tales, quilting, basket weaving, and wood carving are still observed. Gatherings like “Ring Shouts,” that were once held in secret, have since become annual festivals held in honor of their culture and its African ancestors.
Figure 1. The Gullah Geechee flag came into existence on July 2, 2000. This flag uses three colors in representation for their heritage. Blue represents the waters that carried enslaved Africans to the Americas. Gold signifies various shipping manifests, dating as early as the late 1520s, describing enslaved Africans as “black/gold” to avoid apprehension by anti-slavery colonies. And green symbolizes the land that the enslaved people surrendered their lives to cultivate and construct.
Figure 2. The Gullah Geechee flag was updated in 2018. This flag uses symbolic imagery to represent the Gullah heritage. The flag was updated to become inclusive to all Gullah Geechee natives regardless of geographical location. The downward pointing triangle represents the determination of the African diaspora in America. The color blue above the color green indicates the land that has been protected by sacred waters. The crab shell represents the coastal industries that made room for modern currency. And the wheat crop honors the prior skill and knowledge of land harvesting.
The Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters is the only house museum of Savannah’s Historic District to display the intact quarters designated for enslaved people. Examining their living quarters provides the opportunity to explore how African spirituality and tradition has continually been practiced and evolved over time. The vibrant blue paint on the ceiling of the slave quarters, while previously referred to as Haint Blue, is in fact a synthetic ultramarine limewash believed to serve the same spiritual purpose with West African spirituality of warding off harmful or negative spirits. The home’s last original light fixture located in the foyer, though made in England, shows the Sankofa Adinkra symbol: a form of writing, pictography, and logograph used in Akan and Ghanian heritage. Perhaps utilized unwittingly by the manufacturer and patron, this symbol was, and is, highly meaningful in Gullah Geechee culture, and prevalent throughout Savannah’s Historic District on many cast iron fixtures made by those enslaved of African descent. It is instances like these where we observe the birth of the Gullah Geechee culture by decoding the symbolic craftmanship that tells the story of their perseverance.
Figure 3. Haint blue came to Savannah via voodoo belief. Traditionally a mixture of buttermilk, lime, and indigo, the color represented water that could not be crossed by enemies or evil spirits. Haint blue also played a significant role in the 1820s yellow fever epidemic and contributed to the survival population rates, as the lime acted as a natural insect repellent. The synthetic ultramarine limewash on the ceiling of the slave quarters has several layers, indicating that this was reapplied throughout the years. Though not the traditional buttermilk-based paint referred to as haint blue, some of the earliest layers do have small traces of indigo. For more information on haint blue’s impact on the yellow fever read more at https://www.forestgrove-or.gov/sites/default/files/fileattachments/historic_landmarks_board/page/18981/2009-3_summer.pdf.
Figure 4. Adinkra symbols are based in Asante oral history, prevalent throughout Ghana. Each symbol represents an ideal, belief, or proverb held by the Asante people. Adinkra symbols were carved into stencils from gourds and used with handmade dye to design fabrics worn by spiritual leaders and high-ranking military officials.
Myers, Barton. “Sherman’s Field Order No. 15” New Georgia Encyclopedia. Field Order No.15 declared that confiscated land on the coastline from Charleston, SC to Jacksonville, Fl be redistributed to people freed from slavery in 40-acre parcels. The order was later revoked leaving the people to exercise a deed system called “heirs’ property”; U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library. Heirs’ property refers to a homeland that passes from generation to generation without a legally designated owner, resulting in ownership among all descendants in a family.
Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “diaspora”. Diaspora refers to the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established ancestral homeland.
National Park Service. Low Country Gullah Culture Special Resource Study and Final Environmental Impact Statement. Atlanta, GA: NPS Southeast Regional Office. The Ring Shout is the oldest known African American tradition performed for the purpose of worship, through the fusion of dance, song, percussion.