A St. Helena's island resident sews a net. He learned when he was a boy, saying, "In those days, the only way you could get a net was to sew one." (Photo from Coastal Heritage magazine) What a great photo!This area of the United States has optimum conditions for growing rice, a crop that came to the United States from Africa during the colonial period and made white farmers in the region extremely wealthy. However, the region was rampant with mosquitos carrying malaria and yellow fever (diseases that came over on the slave ships and to which Africans had built up a strong resistance). To avoid the mosquitos, whites often left the plantations in the hot summer months. Because the environment of the region was similar to West Africa and because the whites were often absent, the Africans and their descendents were able to maintain more of their African culture than in other parts of the United States, especially linguistically, agriculturally, and through craft and folklore traditions.
From the article, “Living Soul of the Gullah”:
In just four years [1804-1808], 40,000 slaves were brought into South Carolina- one third of all the legal, documented slave trade through Charleston since import records were established. Of the documented slaves in those four years, 60 percent were from Angola, says Rowland. It was common for Angola to be called “N’Gulla”. Many historians believe that the term “Gullah people” originally referred to Angolans. But the Lowcountry Gullah were not just Angolans; they were a mix of different ethnic groups.
Following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the sea islands were highly self-sufficient and independent of the larger towns and cities. In some places, bridges to the mainland were not constructed until the 1950s. Again, this allowed the community to better resist assimilation, but Gullah culture was often looked down upon by those outside of it.
Today, the heart of Gullah country lies on the southern South Carolina coast, especially St. Helena and Wadmalaw islands. But like any small local community, younger generations often leave to find better jobs or because they are not interested in traditional activities. The culture is also threatened by the proximity of tourist resorts like Hilton Head island and subsequent high taxes.
Marquetta Goodwine, a vibrant, energetic leader and the Queen of the Gullah, is struggling to preserve the Gullah cultural traditions. She has even brought her mission to the United States Congress, and recently helped pass a bill that will work to preserve Gullah culture.
A rice winnowing demonstration by Ms. Goodwine.(Photo from Coastal Heritage magazine)A few years ago, Amina, Franny Fran, and I, along with a bunch of Fran’s students, went down to St. Helena Island to meet Marquetta and learn about the Gullah culture and her efforts to preserve it. We toured the beautiful countryside, learned about local culture and traditions, saw a wonderful community presentation, and ate a lot of soul food. Marquetta was interested in capoeira and its relation to kicking & knocking, the martial art form developed by Africans and their descendents in the United States that has since pretty much disappeared.
You can find various articles about the Gullah-Geechee in our archives as well as on the web, but if you have the chance, you will really enjoy and learn a lot from a visit to the area.