The Gullah Geechee history runs deeper than the roots of the ancient live oaks that sweep across the Lowcountry. From their unique language to folklore, crafts to food, these coastal people laid a foundation for generations to come built upon their traditional roots from their African homeland.
It has certainly played a large role in the overall development of Coastal Georgia. The people known as the Gullah Geechee came to the area after being taken from their homeland in central and western Africa, primarily Senegal, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Heather Hodges is the executive director of Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, a 12,000 square mile, federal national heritage area that spans the coastlines of Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas. She says that Gullah Geechee are descendants of those slaves forced to work the rice plantations found region.
“People from (western Africa) had the technical and managerial skills — and agricultural experience — that were critical to the successful, commercial cultivation of tidal rice in the colonies,” Hodges said.
The rice plantations fueled a booming industry in the 1770s along the eastern coast. Sea Island cotton plantations also were formed in Georgia around 1790, Hodges added. While these plantations were growing, more Africans were brought in and forced to work the fields. Strong and resilient, the Gullah Geechee developed a thriving culture within their own communities, even in amidst of the horrors of slavery.
“These plantations were fairly isolated and the numbers of enslaved Africans greatly outnumbered whites. The result was an intense interaction among Africans from different societies and language groups in isolated plantation settings where enslaved Africans and their descendants formed the majority,” Hodges said.
“Over time, they developed the unique creole Gullah Geechee language as a means of communicating with each other, and they were also able to preserve many African practices in their language, arts, crafts, spiritual expressions and foodways.”
The language is one of the most distinctive elements of the culture, she adds.
“It began as a simplified form of communication among people of different languages including European slave traders, slave owners and diverse African ethnic groups. The vocabulary and grammatical roots come from both Western European and African languages,” Hodges said.
“The Gullah Geechee language is the only distinctly African creole language in the United States and has influenced traditional Southern vocabulary and speech patterns.”
The arts and music of the Gullah Geechee people are also very distinctive. Their baskets and textiles are some of the most recognizable pieces of their culture today.
“Their arts and crafts were products designed by necessity for activities of subsistence and daily living such as making cast nets for fishing, basket weaving for agriculture and textile arts for clothing and warmth,” Hodges said.
“For example, there are the famous sweetgrass baskets. Originally designed for rice production and processing and other domestic uses in Africa, they were used here also for agricultural purposes such as planting and harvesting of coastal crops. Made of bulrush, sweetgrass and split oak, the African art of basket making was significant as a traditionally passed down handicraft practiced by both Gullah Geechee men and women using similar materials from their homeland.”
Their musical traditions were also fused in the bonds of slavery, but the influence can be seen in many popular styles today in gospel, jazz, blues and even hip hop.
One of the most notable performances is the “ring shout.” The method involves call-and-response chanting as the participants stomp their feet and move in a circle. Today, many groups like the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, McIntosh County Shouters and the Georgia Sea Island Singers share this tradition.
For Helen Ladson, preserving this culture is critically important. That is why the local Georgia Sea Islands Festival was created more than 40 years ago.
Ladson, who volunteers with the Harrington Historic School House on St. Simons Island, says festival is the longest running African American program in the nation.
“Developed and started by Bessie Jones and Mable Hillery, the very first Georgia Sea Islands Festival took place Aug. 20 to 21, 1977, at the (St. Simons Island) Casino grounds. Both Bessie Jones and Mable Hillery were great teachers of the Gullah Geechee culture in addition to being gifted singers. Although Ms. Mable Hillery died before the initial festival, Ms. Bessie Jones forged forward with the festival,” she said.
“Bessie Jones continued to spearhead the festival until her death in 1984, at which time Mrs. Frankie Sullivan Quimby agreed to take the helm.”
In 2002, the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition took over the Georgia Sea Islands Festival. Since then, they have continued the event which features musicians, cuisine, basket weaving and other relevant demonstrations.
“In the early beginnings of the Georgia Sea Islands Festival, there were many demonstrations of how the African Americans on the coast lived, worked and played. Visitors were able to see cotton and flax spinning, crab trap making, traditional arrow carving and basking weaving,” Ladson explained.
“They were also able to enjoy Gullah Geechee delicacies such as smoked mullet and old-fashioned barbecue.
Throughout the festival, music of the Gullah Geechee culture could be heard by the Georgia Sea Islands Singers, The Sensational Tones and The Old Plantation Singers.”
This year, the event will return, but there will be a new element for the 42nd annual installment — a Taste of Gullah, which will feature some of the culture’s signature dishes. It will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Harrington School, 291 S. Harrington Road, St. Simons Island, followed by a dessert tasting from 9 to 11 p.m. at Village Creek Landing, also on St. Simons Island.
Much of the Gullah Geechee cuisine is often confused with what has become known as “soul food.” But rather than deep fried delicacies, the traditional foods include fresh, accessible items like seafood paired with vegetables such as greens, peanuts, sweet potatoes and okra spiced with African seasonings. The following day the traditional festival will take place. It will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Gascoigne Bluff on St. Simons Island.
“(It) will feature storytelling by Tina McElroy Ansa and JoAnn Ross, performances by the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, Smooth Journey and many more. There will be many food, arts, crafts and other vendors with items for sale,” Ladson said.
The event will be a free opportunity for all to develop a better understanding of the rich Gullah Geechee heritage. It is also a of way connecting the past to the present in a tangible way.
“The festival presents the artistry, music and food that brilliantly illuminates our beautiful Golden Isles and demonstrates the many traditions that have been preserved through generations by written and oral storytelling,” Ladson said.
“The purpose of the Georgia Sea Islands Festival is to acquaint and educate all about the rich culture and heritage of the African American Gullah Geechee people who have contributed to the beautiful legacy of Coastal Georgia and the world abroad.”