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Gullah History

SPECIAL TO THE PACKET

The Sea Islands are a cluster of islands that stretch along the coasts of South Carolina and northern Georgia. Amid the resorts, the tourists, and the new communities that have sprung up along the beaches of these beautiful islands, one can find the distinct language and culture of native islanders called Gullah.

Gullah (or Geechee in northern Georgia) is a word used for both the native islanders and the language they speak. These islanders, former slaves from the West African coastal countries of Senegal and Sierra Leone, have been here for generations, and their unique culture remains largely intact.

In the early 1800s with business booming in the South, there was a great influx of slaves from Africa. Many of these new slaves were from the same tribal communities in Senegal and Sierra Leone - the Rice Coast or Windward Coast of West Africa. These people were picked for their knowledge of how to cultivate rice, as the moist, semitropical climate along the South Carolina coast was thought to be perfect for such a crop. Thus, they came with their own traditions, beliefs and skills, which they were able to maintain given the relative isolation that came with living on the islands.

There are various speculations as to where the term "Gullah" originated. Immigration records for this group of Africans list Angola, Congo, or "Congo and Angola" as the port of origin for many of them. Many historians have speculated that the term "Gullah" might have derived from Angola or "N'gulla" as it would have been pronounced. Perhaps, these historians say, the term "N'gullah" or "Gullah" may have come to mean any African of recent arrival.

The slaves endured hardship, abuse and injustice under the slave system. But there were a few things that set this group apart from other slave communities across the country. First, the tremendous size of the rice plantations and the amount of work involved led to the development of the "task system," a different type of labor system that involved dividing work among slaves.

This new system gave the slaves of the Sea Islands a sense of independence and personal contribution, and an attachment to the land that slaves inland did not have. Slaves of the "lowcountry" took pride in having created prosperous plantations out of wilderness and marshland.

On November 7, 1861 - less than six months after the Civil War began -- Union troops invaded the lowcountry and the Sea Islands of Port Royal, Hilton Head and St. Helena quickly became Union strongholds.

The former Sea Island slaves, now free, were among the first in the nation to own their own land and to serve in the Union Army. The first school for freed slaves, Penn School, was established here on St. Helena Island, giving the Gullah a sense of empowerment that would grow stronger through the years.

Today's Gullah community is a direct descendant of these black immigrants from the West African coast. The relative isolation of the islands allowed the Gullah to pass their beliefs, traditions and language down through the generations.

It is a people, a language, and a culture that have survived through years of slavery, oppression and development. Even today, Sierra Leoneans can look to the Gullah of South Carolina and Georgia as a kindred people sharing many common elements of speech, custom, culture and cuisine.

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