Black History Spotlight: The Roots of Gullah

“The Old Plantation,” South Carolina, about 1790. This famous painting shows Gullah slaves dancing and playing musical instruments derived from Africa

By Prof. Damon L. Fordham, MA

If you’re from the South Carolina Lowcountry or from the rural Georgia coast, you may have been to other parts of the country where you’ have been told, “You sound like a Jamaican.”

If you have, there are reasons for this.

To take this explanation further, the answer begins in the West African countries that we now know as Sierra Leone and Liberia. These counties were home to rice growing tribes that included the Mendes, the Gizzes, and the Golas. In the 1700s, an English slave trader named Richard Oswald entered a partnership with a South Carolina plantation owner named Henry Laurens, who owned Mepkin Plantation near Moncks Corner. Oswald and Laurens learned about the rice-growing abilities of these particular tribes and captured and sold many of these Africans as slaves to Lowcountry rice plantations.

The Africans from this region had a number of unique characteristics along with their rice-growing skills. They were known to weave complex baskets for “fanning” rice. Their language included words like udat, which means “who is that,” baba for “father,” and yahya for “mother.” They also had interesting religious practices which included going into trancelike states of ecstasy during worship services, putting favored items of the deceased on burial sites, and the pouring of liquids in memory of the deceased (now referred to as “libation”).

The Africans of the Lowcountry and Coastal Georgia would share another unique characteristic. They tended to outnumber the Whites on the plantations of these areas, and thus had lesser contact or influences from White Americans, as was also the case in West Indian islands such as Jamaica and Barbados. This explains the similarity in speech.

As a result, the Blacks in these areas kept more of their African speech, folkways, and religious practices than most of the other Africans that were brought to North America. Over the years, the resulting culture became known as Gullah, based loosely on the word for the Gola tribe, or Geechee, which some say is either from the Gizze tribe or the Olgeechee River near Savannah, Georgia.

Unfortunately, the speakers of this dialect and the practitioners of these folkways were dismissed and ridiculed for many years.

Because Gullah speech does not meet what is considered “The King’s English” or the rules of English grammar, Gullah speakers have been mocked as “ignorant, “countrified,” or “backward.” Even scholars of the time considered Gullah to be a sign of “baby talk” and poor English. Many Blacks from these regions who attended college or aspired to middle class status did what they could to disguise any trace of Gullah background, and others suffered from self-esteem issues once they left their native regions for other areas.

This did not begin to change until the advent of Dr. Lorenzo Turner, the first Black who obtained a degree in Languages. In 1932, Dr. Turner taught at what was then South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. During this time, Dr. Tuner became fascinated with the speech of his Lowcountry students, and as a scholar of languages immediately recognized similarities with the speech of various West Africans. He went to the South Carolina Sea Islands and Coastal Georgia to study the speech of the Black residents and a lady named Amelia Dawley in Harris Neck, Georgia proved his theory to correct. She sang a song to Dr. Turner that she learned from her African grandmother that he recognized as being of the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone. This established the fact that Gullah was not a sign of ignorance and backwardness, but a cultural connection between Africans and Black Americans.

Dr. Turner wrote of his findings in Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, which was published in 1949, but this book was not known outside of the scholarly community. In the 1980s, President Joseph Momoh of Sierra Leone visited St. Helena’s Island (near Beaufort, SC) and spoke with a strong native dialect that the residents of St. Helena immediately understood as similar to their own! This led to a number of local residents touring Sierra Leone and being awed by the similarities in rice baskets, language, and folkways. A documentary of this visit was fittingly titled Family Across the Sea. Several years later, scholar Joseph Opala arranged for Mary Moran, the granddaughter of Amelia Dawley, to visit the Mende people of Sierra Leone. Not only were they able to sing the same song, Mrs. Moran learned that her grandmother’s song was the funeral song of the Mendes.

So whenever you hear people make comments about Gullah again, you may respond with pride of the connections it makes with the African roots.

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