You hold in your hands an intricate basket made of woven sweetgrass, palmetto and pinegrass and you marvel at the artistry. You listen to the murmur of a language that challenges the lexicologist’s analysis, for it is a melding of many ancient cultures into a unique and musical tongue. A burial by the sea so that the spirit of the lost one can return to the home beyond the waves, the exhilaration of a “ring shout” as the Lord is praised… these are the precious traditions of the Gullah/Geechee: a world, people and history that was pivotal in the formation of this country. Now, as “progress” alters the face of the Sea Islands, knowledge and awareness are all that stand between a treasured reflection of human courage and the mere ghost of a forgotten time.
And now the Gullah/Geechee community on Sapelo Island is being threatened.
Visiting Sapelo (a 16,000-acre barrier island) is like taking a step back in time – a time before high-rise condos, malls, traffic lights and the clamour of “civilization.” The Island’s natural beauty is stunning – from the seemingly endless stretch of the (usually) deserted beach to the regal live oaks draped with Spanish moss.
The island community of Hog Hammock includes a general store, bar, two churches and some small businesses. Most inhabitants of the town (pop. 47) are members of the Gullah/Geechee community, and have been living on the island for generations. The residents bring over all supplies from the mainland or purchase them in the small store on the island while the children of Hog Hammock take the ferry to the mainland and take a bus to school.
The Gullah/Geechee culture has persevered along the South Carolina and Georgian Sea Islands since its roots in the early 1700s. (Although the wider society itself is comprised of the same mixture of West Africans, Gullah has come to represent those of South Carolina while Geechee refers, specifically, to the Georgian inhabitants).
Modern day researchers consider the stretch of land from Sandy Island, South Carolina to Amelia Island in Florida the “Gullah Coast” – the locale of the people who’s labor created some of the richest plantations in history – and work assiduously to explore and preserve these diminishing remnants of a turbulent and often painful past.
A Board of Trustees established Georgia in 1732, primarily as a method of providing land for impoverished British citizens while supplying England with much-needed agricultural products. Though the colony, in 1735, enacted an anti-slavery law this ban was lifted in 1750 when the need for labor became crucial. It was thought that the peoples of the West African coast would be well suited for the challenging climate and, as the rice economy grew increasingly powerful, so too did the lucrative slave trade.
Plantation owners sought the men and women of the Windward Coast of West Africa, specifically Senegal, Sierra Leone and Liberia: an area already deeply involved with the indigenous rice, indigo and cotton crops. Over the centuries that followed these displaced and isolated peoples recreated their home cultures – retaining, blending and adapting – until the whole became known as “Gullah” (a word that is thought to be a variation of “Angola”, though its true genesis remains unclear).
The Gullah language itself is a monument to survival and adaptability for it merges the various terms and words of the diverse West African peoples with the English language of their new (enforced) surroundings. Many aspects of the language bear great similarities to the patois of the Dominican Creole, The Bahamian dialects and others created through the blending of cultures. The result is a fascinating amalgam of past and present: a reflection of two worlds that collided, causing the tragic loss of one and the success of the other.
The music of the Gullah/Geechee culture has been studied extensively for it gives deep insight into the language, traditions and spirituality of these extraordinary people. “Praise houses” served as safe locations for the celebration of the soul and this continuation of the religious community supported, united and nourished an enslaved culture. “Ring shouts”, a rapid, rhythmic, hand clapping accompanied by spiritual songs while dancing counterclockwise, are intimately connected to the “old ways” of the West African coast.
Though few elders remain who know the songs and movements, there are groups such as The Macintosh County Shouters of Georgia who strive to keep the traditions alive today. These are echoes that reach out across the time and tide: that create a bridge between the people who were torn from their land, transported and enslaved and those who followed. The notes weave though generation after generation, creating a living memory of shared heritage.
In the early 1930s renowned ethnomusicologist, Lorenzo Dow Turner, recorded the voice of islander Amelia Dawley as she sang a song that her mother, Octavia “Tawba” Shaw (a slave) had taught to her. Dawley then taught the song to her own daughter, Mary Moran who would become the final individual in the United States to guard the ancient words and rhythms.
In 1989 this song was traced to Benju Jabati of Senehun Ngola, Sierra Leone who was the last person in her village to know the piece. Moran and Jabati were introduced and, together, performed what was revealed to be a Mende funeral song. The past and the present were finally reunited in one extraordinary moment of cultural truth and honor.
After the American Civil War, the rice planters of the mainland gradually abandoned their farms for the freed blacks were, for the most part, unwilling to work in the cruel conditions of the rice fields. With the exodus from the Sea Islands, the Gullah/Geechee peoples were increasingly isolated in remote areas of the Low County and were free to continue their religious, social and cultural traditions with little influence from outsiders. This period of calm lasted well into the 20th century.
Since the 1960s however, on-going development of the Sea Islands has threatened the Gullah people and they have fought, through public awareness and government intervention, to retain the land that they have owned since the Emancipation Proclamations of 1862 and 1863.
In 2005 a 20-year project was, at last, completed and the New Testament – translated into the Gullah language – was made available. In 2006 a ground-breaking initiative was made real when the U.S. Congress passed “The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act” that guarantees over 10 million dollars directed toward the preservation of, and research into, historic Gullah sites.
But now we return to Sapelo Island, the settlement of Hog Hammock (on the National Register of Historic Places) and a future that is looking increasingly bleak for the Gullah/Geechee culture there.
The inhabitants of Sapelo have fought fiercely to prevent their home from becoming similar to over-developed “vacation areas” such as Hilton Head and St. Simons Island. But now, staggering county tax increases caused by a fluctuating economy and bureaucratic incompetence may prove to be a fight that they cannot win. (The people of Hog Hammock own the only private land left on Sapelo, almost 97% of which is owned by the state).
Consider the case of Jasper Watts: her 73-year-old mother still owns the three-room house that she grew up in. Last year she paid $362 in property taxes for the acre she lives on. This year, McIntosh County wants $2,312 – an increase of nearly 540%.
(The county has approximately 14,000 permanent residents and thousands more with vacation homes. It has put off reviewing its taxable property and the last evaluation was in 2004. In fact, during a June meeting, Paul Griffin, the chairman of the Board of Tax Assessors, called the work “very, very sloppy”).
Senator William Ligon has suggested that residents file a lawsuit if they do not find relief. But, until then, what of the people of Hog Hammock who face massive tax bills? Is this ancient culture to be wiped out by the stroke of a tax assessor’s pen?
Please contact Senator Ligon. Something must be done to right this grievous wrong.
More info: Sapelo Festival