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GENEALOGY: Gullah Geechee embody unique African American culture

with 9 comments

by Tamie Dehler,

The Gullah Geechee people embody a unique African American culture made up of the descendants of West African slaves. They occupy the islands and coastal regions of the eastern United States from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. The largest groups live in South Carolina, where they are called Gullahs, and in Georgia, where they are called Geechees. Their culture and language represent a unique blend of African and American elements.

About 300 years ago, slaves were captured from the “rice coast” of west Africa that is now Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. They were brought to the coastal areas of the colonies to exploit their skills in growing rice. By the mid-1700s these low country coastal areas and sea islands in the colonies were covered by rice fields. Besides having rice cultivation skills, the Africans were resistant to many of the tropical fevers like malaria and yellow fever and could withstand the humid climate.

The white plantation owners in the low country often left the area during the rainy season (spring and summer) to go inland to their summer homes. They left their rice plantations in charge of black overseers called “rice drivers,” who ran the operation without much intervention from the whites. In time, the slaves on these isolated plantations developed their own culture that reflected their west African heritage.

During the Civil War, the white plantation owners abandoned the islands and fled to the mainland. The Union forces arrived on these islands in 1861 and found the Gullahs there. These were the first places where slaves were freed in the South. Many Gullahs subsequently served in the Union Army with the 1st SC Volunteers.

After, the Civil War, the islands and low country again became isolated as the white plantation owners did not return. The freed slaves purchased the land that their ancestors had been working on because no one else wanted these flooded and swampy areas. They practiced their unique culture without interruption until the middle of the 20th century, when development and tourism started encroaching.

Their language is called Gullah and it is a mixture of Elizabethan English (16th and 17th century) and various African dialects. In the 1930s, a linguist visited the area and studied their language. He found Gullah people who could recite many African words and phrases, and one woman knew four lines of a Mende funeral song that she had learned from her grandmother. Gullah was identified as a creole language that includes elements of the Via, Mande, Twi, Ewe, Housa, Yourba, Ibo, and Kikongo dialects from Africa.

Today, there are 750,000 Gullah Geechee people along the southeastern coast. Most live south of Charleston, SC-in south Carolina and Georgia. 250,000 of these people can speak the Gullah language. They live peaceful and simple lives close to the environment, practice wood carving, needlework, fishing, shrimping, crabbing, and growing rice, tomatoes, okra, and yams. Their diet is healthful and they are known for their longevity. Their religion is a mixture of Baptist and Methodist combined with African beliefs. They have translated the New Testament into their language.

Today, the Gullah Geechee people are threatened by big developers on the east coast. Some are having problems proving ownership to the land that was passed on from one generation another without written wills. Others have migrated to Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens, in New York, where they try to keep their culture intact and often visit home. The Gullahs are led by Queen Quet and are trying to save their unique culture. They want to be recognized as a nation and to have self-determination, similar to the status of Indian tribes. In 2006 the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor was established by the National Park Service in an effort to preserve this unique African and American culture.


Written by Symphony

August 31, 2008 at 6:16 am

Posted in Arts, history

9 Responses

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  1. How do you find out if you have relatives of this descent? I am told that the Geechee tribe is part of my heritage. Robinson is supposed to be a part of this tribe.

    Imogene Knott

    November 26, 2011 at 4:11 am

    • hw will u knw if ur part of gullah geechee tribe my g ma said her mom and dad are from this tribe hw will i knw if shes tellin the truth


      November 30, 2011 at 10:19 pm

      • i too wondered if my people were truthful about my heritage to the gullah geechee black seminole tribe. but after much convers. about our family line; things are making sense, too many relatives saying the same thing.I spont a few months in NJ, where there’s a haitian population. The haitians thought i was a sister. i couldn’t figure until i talked the older relatives.More blacks should about their heritage, this generation i mean

        angelica Underwood Winzy

        January 2, 2013 at 2:16 am

  2. i want to know if i’m apart of the tribe , my mother told me that her great grandfather was part of this tribe and i wanted to know where would i or how could i find out about that.


    March 29, 2012 at 10:32 pm

  3. I was told my ppl are apart of the Geechee tribe. I’ve been reading about it and find it rather interesting. I am planning on relocating to Miami and plan on learning the Cereo language. I am really looking forward to it. After researching I’ve also found that my bloodline runs deep throughout the Carolina states, “Upchurch all thoughout”.

    Andrea Upchurch

    August 31, 2012 at 5:17 pm

  4. I found out today from my grand mother that her father was geechee. People called him,Meme because he never said the word I. When he spoke of himself he said me this or me that,so thats what people called him.

    Lavar warren king

    April 14, 2013 at 4:27 pm

  5. its funny how now they say gheechi indians are really gullah. as long as they been teaching us slavery never have they mentioned gheechi as a language. my uneducated indian black domestic granny use to tell me they can not take her education aka knowledge but they can take evrything else. to be correct on slavery and indians. i am vry black and proud and well educated when did the indians arrive in africa and how did they get there. it was called in indian expedition act and indiand were being sold just as blacks. they were put in concentration camps and that is not were they originated. i am very thankful that we have been given recognition but no we are not all foreingers and all blacks did not come from africa maybe they ancestors. and gullah has always been recognized as a language. thanks for telling me where you sent my ancestors to breed and produce offsprings like myself!!!! QueTriva.

    QueTriva Bergen

    August 2, 2013 at 9:03 am

  6. wow…im happy, my great granny said we were gheechi i had no idea knowing what that meant…til now. im very dark complicated with very unique features that would suggest different mixures..that would explain by island and creole blood…apart of me feels more complete

    nina hill

    September 1, 2013 at 1:02 pm

  7. I am never one to leave text or reply to a subject of any nature except in this case my belief in who I am has cause me to reply . I feel very strong about the Gullah and Geechee nation of people. I too was raise in believing that my grandmother was from the island of West Islands of something because people did not believe my grandmother was from South Carolina. but we are, it only wanted me look and search farther to find our roots. So through the years I have and the more I search the more I find that we are a proud and resourceful people. keep looking ,keep trying to seek. America did not give us much but still we survive so you will fine that you have a rich strong people that is there to back you …

    Charlena Onyeabor

    September 17, 2014 at 2:27 pm

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