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PBS: African American World

Gullah sunset
1.24.03
Arts and Culture:
Gullah Culture
More on This Story:
Gullah History Primer

Recently, historians, anthropologists, and preservationists have come together to realize that preserving a culture is akin to preserving an ecosystem. There are many interlocking parts to the whole. The Gullah Culture of the Lowcountry is such a system. It has a language, history, economic system and artistic vision found nowhere else. It is indeed, a heritage so rich no price tag can measure its value.

The United States Congress has acknowledged the very special nature of the Sea Island way of life by authorizing The Lowcountry Gullah Geechee Culture Special Resource Study by the National Park Service. Its goal is "to analyze the multi-faceted components of this living, breathing culture" and make a recommendation on how to keep it alive as part of our national heritage.



Gullah Coast
THE GULLAH AREA

The coastline from South Carolina to Northern Florida is home to an estimated 300,000 Gullah people. The Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina among them Edisto Island, Coosaw Island, Daufuskie Island, and St. Helena Island have provided Gullah roots of millions to African Americans.

The climate and isolation of this area were integral to the development of Gullah culture. The rice plantations of the Lowcountry were deemed unhealthy for white owners and their families. Relatively autonomous, the Lowcountry slaves were freer to converse in their own languages and dialects, and to preserve more of their African culture. Lowcountry slaveowners also tended to purchase slaves from the same areas of West Africa who also spoke similar languages.

  • Listen to examples of Geechee/Gullah dialects from the Library of Congress.

  • Freedman's School, Sea Islands
    GULLAH HISTORY

    The Lowcountry area was also the nexus for several critical movements in American history. Coming under Union control early in the Civil War, the Sea Islands were experiments in a new life for freed people. Among the first Freedmen's schools were those set up on the Islands in a program called The Port Royal Experiment. And, it was here in 1865 that Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued his special Field Order Number 15, the famous "Forty Acres and a Mule" directive. Later that year, the order was rescinded and the black-held land was returned to the Confederate owners who had fled when the Union Army came. Through sacrifice and hard work some former slaves were able to buy land, especially in the Sea Islands. By 1868 half of Beaufort County was owned by Gullah. But ownership here meant something very different than it meant to the rest of the country.

  • Learn more about Sea Island history
  • Learn more about American Education History

  • Queen Quet
    GULLAH FUTURE

    As shown in the NOW feature "Gullah Culture," the survival of Gullah culture as known may be in danger. There are many groups working to preserve different aspects of Lowcountry life.

    Marquetta L. Goodwine who has been designated at the official liaison and spokesperson for Gullah/Geechee people and is therefore referred to as "Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gulllah/Geechee Nation" works with the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition to keep the culture alive and vibrant. February marks a month-long celebration of Gullah/Geechee culture, which includes an appears by Queen Quet at the Smithsonian Black History Month celebration.

    Other groups, like The Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition tackle cultural preservation through economic means, — in this case by helping preserve historically-black-owned lands and farms.


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