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Black History: Who are the Gullah Geechee?

culture AMS FulfillmentFebruary is a month dedicated to Black History. Why do we appreciate Black History Month at AMS? Because the more we know of each other’s history, the more we appreciate the struggles and lessons and victories. Most of us have learned little of Black history in our schooling and in general, which is the reason a month is dedicated to learning.

In this blog series we will publish several interesting treasures of Black history – stories most of us have never heard, giving us greater understanding of a family of Americans we love and appreciate. In our first blog we will learn about the yearning of the enslaved Africans to remember and retain some of their culture and language. Since the enslavement was trans-generational, for all but a tiny few, the language, culture, religion and family history is gone and cannot be recovered. While tracing the genetic journey is possible, the loss of identity is felt as a great loss.

As we know, African families were torn apart and the people were transported to and enslaved in South, Central and North America and the Islands of the Caribbean. In early 2000, at the request of Black leaders from a number of countries including the US, the United Nations recognized the descendants of these families collectively as Afrodescendants.

Our first Black History story will focus on one of three groups that managed to retain some of their language and culture. There is a group called the Garifuna, who live on the coastline of Honduras, and one called the Maroons who escaped slavery and lived for some time in southern Jamaica. The family we will learn about is called the Gullah Geechee. The Gullah Geechee are living on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, on the coastal plain and the Beaufort Sea Islands. For more, we will quote from the Gullah Geechee Corridor website. [LINK]

The Gullah Geechee People

The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast. Many came from the rice-growing region of West Africa. The nature of their enslavement on isolated island and coastal plantations created a unique culture with deep African retentions that are clearly visible in the Gullah Geechee people’s distinctive arts, crafts, foodways, music, and language.

“Gullah Geechee is a unique, creole language spoken in the coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The Gullah Geechee language began as a simplified form of communication among people who spoke many different languages including European slave traders, slave owners and diverse, African ethnic groups. The vocabulary and grammatical roots come from African and European languages.  It is the only distinctly, African creole language in the United States and it has influenced traditional Southern vocabulary and speech patterns.”

The article goes on to say that today’s descendants have continued some traditions, arts, foodways and music that come from their ancestors, such as making cast nets for fishing, basket weaving for agriculture and textile arts for clothing and warmth. The music arose out of the conditions of slavery and its influence and evolution of musical forms can be heard in many musical genres.

The article speaks about the foodways as follows: “The traditional Gullah Geechee diet consisted of items available locally such as vegetables, fruits, game, seafood, livestock; items imported from Europe, items imported from Africa during the slave trade (okra, rice, yams, peas, hot peppers, peanuts, sesame “benne” seeds, sorghum and watermelon), and food introduced by Native Americans such as corn, squash, tomatoes and berries. Rice became a staple crop for both Gullah Geechee people and whites in the southeastern coastal regions. Because plantation cooks were primarily enslaved women, much of the food today referred to as “Southern” comes from the creativity and labor of enslaved cooks.”

The spiritual practices of the Gullah Geechee family are made up of Christian practices incorporated into an African rooted system of beliefs. “These values included belief in a God, community above individuality, respect for elders, kinship bonds and ancestors; respect for nature, and honoring the continuity of life and the afterlife. Lowcountry plantations frequently had a praise house or small structure where slaves could meet for religious services.”

The Loss of Land to Developers

Since the land occupied by the Gullah Geechee people is in a beautiful spot on the beach, sure enough there are developers wanting to build hotels and golf courses. One of the means of obtaining the land has been for the County to claim the land due to delinquent property tax and sell it. An article in The Guardian explains as follows:

“Across the low country, land once owned by formerly enslaved people and their descendants is being lost rapidly to development. With that land loss comes the degradation of Gullah culture, which once flourished in places like Beaufort, Hilton Head and other islands off the eastern coast of the US.”

There is a movement to keep these sales from being done, and the County government is responding. “As a means to help preserve Gullah land from this tide of coastal development, officials in Beaufort county allow heirs, as the descendants are called, to claim their land when it comes up for bid at auction. The hope, in explaining to attendees that the county’s practice is deference to the owners, is that would-be bidders will respect the custom and not make offers on the historic land.

“Of the more than 250 properties featured in the October auction, at least 10 belonged to heirs. When a Gullah heir kept their land, promising to pay the delinquent taxes, the crowd in the gym clapped. Some non-heirs bid anyway, effectively taking the properties out of Gullah hands. “The land loss we are dealing with now is due to predatory development and greed,” said Luana Graves Sellars, a director at the non-profit Lowcountry Gullah Foundation, which helps Gullah families hold on to their land by raising money to pay the outstanding taxes on their behalf.”

The struggle goes on, with property value rising and property tax rising as well. Readers can view the full story at this [LINK].

Gullah Geechee Corridor

There are efforts being made to involve the US National Park Service in protecting the people and their land by making it a National Heritage site. Apparently some land is now being protected. Quoting from the Gullah Geechee Corridor website, we hear this encouraging news:

“The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is a National Heritage Area managed by the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.  The National Heritage Area program is managed by the U.S. National Park Service. National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. The purpose of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor NHA is to preserve, share and interpret the history, traditional cultural practices, heritage sites, and natural resources associated with Gullah Geechee people of coastal North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.”

People Before Profit

In a world where people are put before profit, the Gullah Geechee heirs would not have to be engaged in such a struggle to remain in their homes. We appreciate the organization helping the heirs pay their property tax in order to retain their homes, the Lowcountry Gullah Foundation [LINK].

Well, there we have it – Black History story #1 in our series. Our next story will be on “Black Wall Street,” and our third will be on “Ebeneezer Creek.” The final blog will be about the abolitionist heroes. We hope you enjoy these glimpses into Black History.

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A B Corporation is a business that does put people before profit in their business practices. AMS Fulfillment is a Certified B Corporation. We aim to B the Change we wish to see in the world.




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