Gullah/Geechee culture thrives across the southeastern coast
Words by Jonathan Shipley
Photos by Madelynn Ross, Eley Photo
The price for rice was their lives.
For some 3,000 years on the coast of West Africa, those from nations such as Angola and Senegambia, the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, grew rice. They knew how to grow rice quite well. They had skills and knowledge about growing patterns and irrigation systems. They knew how to create a bounty of it for their families and for their communities.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, colonial planters in the American South discovered that rice could grow in that region. They needed help, however, to cultivate it. They looked across the Atlantic to get it, with the help of British trading companies and slave traders.
So began the enslavement of West Africans. They were shipped to the Americas to grow the rice. Today, an estimated 40 percent of all African Americans can trace their entry into North America to the Port of Charleston, South Carolina. That’s where the first African Americans went—to the Lowcountry to grow the rice. They were sent to the coastal plains, to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, to grow the rice.
Because the rice plantations were so expansive and isolated—being surrounded by water—the enslaved soon began to develop their own culture. It was a creole culture in which they created their own language, while upholding the traditions they carried with them from Africa—their stories, crafts, beliefs, and foodways—and while absorbing new influences from the region in which they now toiled. The Gullah/Geechee culture came to be.
One might think that the culture has come and gone like the fog on Charleston Harbor, an ephemeral culture now lost to the mists of time, a culture now a mere echo, like the wind rattling through the oaks, a culture to be read about only in history books. But that is not the case. Just ask the queen.
Queen Quet is the Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. “I am ready to sing the answer to your question about the community today,” she says. “It is a vibrant thing.” Queen Quet was elected and enstooled on Sullivan’s Island in 2000 before United Nations observers and thousands of others. She is also the founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition. She is also an author, computer scientist, mathematician, historian, preservationist, environmental activist, “art-ivist,” and much more. “‘Mannas gwine tek hunnah when monee can’t,’ is a Gullah/Geechee proverb that I state often,” she says. “You will find with manners, it will take you places that money never will. Believe me, I am a living testament to the truth of that phrase!” It has taken her and countless others from their Gullah/Geechee homeland around the world and they have taken their culture with them for others to experience. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Chris Rock, football legend Jim Brown, and Michelle Obama, all have Gullah roots.
“Gee” Smalls also has Gullah roots. He’s the owner of Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar in Atlanta. His menu includes okra soup, fried shrimp, and collard greens. “The food is the culture,” Smalls says. “It’s all about the food. It’s how soul food came to be!” Wanting a safe, welcoming, and affirming space for Atlanta’s Black LGBTQ community, he opened the space wondering what he should serve. He started cooking up Gullah food, the food that he was raised on, to the clientele. “It’s all about celebrating our culture. It was a divine opportunity.” He has thoughts now of opening a second location.
Michiel Perry knows something about celebrating, as well. “I fully appreciate my family heritage. I not only embrace it but can display my ancestry through my own home, the food I make, the family traditions I set, and how I will pass this on to my kids.” Perry is the founder of Black Southern Belle, a lifestyle brand that highlights diverse Southern tastemakers. “The Gullah/Geechee culture is a bridge,” she says, between Africa and America. “Food, art, music, holiday celebrations, church traditions—there are so many ways to celebrate and embrace being both African and American.”
It’s a Friday night—a night of celebration. The food’s being slung at Virgil’s and the music is thumping. Smalls is excited, day in and day out, to showcase how rich Black culture is. The music emerges onto the sidewalk and down the street. “Our music emerged from the spirits of our ancestors,” Queen Quet says. “In the bush arbors and praise houses.” Voices. Hands. Feet patting the floorboards.
Where would music be without the Gullah/Geechee? Gullah/Geechees created The Spirituals, which has directly influenced gospel, R&B, and jazz music. Even the Motown Sound was shaped by a native Gullah/Geechee, James Jamerson of the Funk Brothers. Those genres have influenced countless others, such as blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and hip hop. The songs “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and “Kumbaya” can be traced directly back to the Gullah people.
So much is connected to that particular region in the South, to those particular people—those enslaved who forged, while shackled, their own collective identity that has become, in part, America’s identity. “I would encourage people to travel and experience the culture for themselves,” Perry suggests. The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is a federal National Heritage Area that extends along the Southeastern Coast from North Carolina down into Florida, focusing primarily on 79 Atlantic barrier islands where many of the first enslaved worked the land.
Sites include The Harrington School on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Built in the 1920s, it is an educational hub serving three Gullah communities. Pin Point Heritage Museum is right outside Savannah, Georgia, in an old oyster factory. The museum tells the story of the Gullah/Geechee community on nearby Ossabaw and Skidaway Islands that were founded by freedmen in 1890. Caw Caw Interpretive Center in Ravenel, South Carolina sits upon what was once part of a large rice plantation.
“We are a living culture that is a nation like other nations in the world,” Queen Quet says. “The future holds many blessings for the Gullah/Geechee Nation and the continuation of our traditions for future generations.” The Gullah/Geechee are not relegated to history books. They are not the mist along the water’s edge nor the echo in the trees. As the Queen declares, “WEBE Gullah/Geechee Anointed People!” And so it is. And so it’s been. And so it shall be.