One of the devastating effects of slavery in the United States was the loss of culture, language and sense of place, for the Africans held in bondage.
It has been estimated that as many as 75% of all enslaved Africans that came to America came in through Beaufort; making the area culturally significant. From this number, 40% of the newly arrived Africans were then transported to Charleston, SC. and most were quarantined on Sullivans Island. Millions of Africans were brought from the West African countries of Sierra Leone and what is now called Liberia because of their special knowledge of rice farming.
“Slave markets developed much like the stock market,” said Eric Snyder, a guide and lecturer at Drayton Hall, a former plantation on the Ashley River in Charleston. “There were investors and specialty auctions for people who could work best in rice or cotton.”
Africans brought copper and blacksmith skills, but the skill that provided the most value to the Carolinas and transformed South Carolina into one of the wealthiest colonies was the knowledge of rice cultivation. Much of the rice farming was on isolated low country barrier islands such as Sapelo, Sullivans, James, Hilton Head and Daufuskie. However, the Gullah Geechee culture stretched from the southern part of North Carolina to coastal Georgia.
Due to their isolation, the black populations were mostly left alone after the Civil War and hence maintained their African culture and customs. A particular language developed among the people who are called Gullah or Geechee, a term that wasn’t always flattering.
“I was told to be proud of whom I was and refused to lose my Geechee accent,” said Anita Singleton-Prather , an actor, educator and community activist immersed in the Gullah culture.
A native of Beaufort, South Carolina, Singleton-Prather is the founder of Aunt Pearlie Sue and the Gullah Kinfolk, a theater troupe that tells the stories of the Gullah Geechee people. The troupe was started in 2000 out of her love of history and a need to preserve and share the history of the Gullah People.
Prior to forming the Gullah Kinfolk, she partnered with Marlena McGee and formed the Hallelujah Singers, a renowned singing group who performed across the country including a performance for Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Singleton-Prather stayed with The Hallelujah Singers for 10 years, before she stepped out on her own and formed the acclaimed Aunt Pearlie Sue and the Gullah Kinfolk. Eventually, Singleton-Prather was introduced to Ron Small, a video producer in Charleston, by her business attorney. Small produced a video, “Tales from the Land of Gullah,” with Singleton-Prather in 2001, which further heightened knowledge of the Gullah culture.
The importance of unique Gullah Geechee culture was given a boost in 2006 with the formation of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Cultural Corridor. It was led by U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, who sponsored a bill to create the corridor with a goal of improving the quality of life for Gullah Geechee people and increasing respect for Gullah Geechee culture so that future generations could experience and celebrate the valuable contributions to the mosaic of U.S. history. A management plan has been approved by the Department of the Interior to fund Gullah Geechee programs across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
In April 2014, a new video, “Circle Unbroken: A Gullah Journey from Africa to America,” was produced by Small. The powerful and entertaining video begins with the story of the pageantry and royalty of Sierra Leone, to the horrors of the Middle Passage and the slavery auction blocks of Charleston. The story transitions to plantation life and the beginnings of the Civil War, to the Emancipation Proclamation and right on up to Decoration Day,which was celebrated in South Carolina by the newly freed Africans and by northern whites. Decoration Day is a forerunner to Memorial Day. When it began, it was the largest celebration in the U.S., and the largest gathering always took place in Beaufort. Today, Decoration Day is celebrated as the Gullah Festival, a four-day event held each May in Beaufort. Several thousand people attend the festival each year.
The islands which allowed the Gullah Geechee culture to survive have been transformed through high-priced development, a “progress” that has forced many of those original residents to relocate. However, descendants of a people who were once ridiculed continue to press forward to maintain their heritage.
Renowned artists such as James Denmark, Jonathan Green and Cassandra Gillens paint beautiful scenes of their native low country landscape and people. Women and men command thousands of dollars for Sweetgrass baskets made in the African traditions passed down through generations and sell them in the very markets where their ancestors were sold. And tourists from all over the world visit to experience this unique way of life, which will hopefully help preserve the Gullah Geechee culture.
When you go:
Beaufort, S.C., is located about 30 miles from Hilton Head, S.C., one of the South’s major destinations for beachgoers.
The video “Circle Unbroken” is perfect for Christmas or Kwanzaa gifts and especially important for viewing for schools and Black History Ministries. To order copies of “Circle Unbroken,” visit http://www.gullah.tv/store.html where you can find information about “Circle Unbroken,” along with all things Gullah.