In the wake of last week's massacre at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, there have been a few rare media mentions of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands, a barrier chain that stretches from South Carolina to Florida. Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, head of state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, spoke to the Charleston City Paper after the massacre, saying that many members of Mother Emanuel are Gullah—as were some of the nine shooting victims. The church had once hosted a traditional Gullah libation ceremony to honor the people's ancestors. "Mother Emanuel has embraced me as a mother for many, many years on my journeys to Charleston," Queen Quet said, but added that after the bloodshed, "It will be difficult for me to re-enter those doors." She said she counted massacre victim Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church's pastor and a state senator, as a friend. WJCL of Savannah, Ga., also noted that the Gullah Geechee Commission of Johns Island, SC, expressed shock at the massacre and offered condolences to the survivors.
The website of the Gullah/Geechee Nation calls it an internationally recognized "nation within a nation" that extends from Jacksonville, NC, to Jacksonville, Fla., encompassing all the Sea Islands and stretching some 30 miles inland at places. The Gullah/Geechee officially organized as a nation on July 2, 2000. According to the Georgia Encyclopedia, Gullah is the accepted name of the islanders in South Carolina, while Geechee refers to the islanders of Georgia. The Gullah language (or Sea Island Creole English) draws on several tongues of the Windward Coast of West Africa (now the nations of Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Liberia), including Gola, Kissi, Mende, Temne, Twi, and Vai. The Gullah/Geechee are the descendants of Africans brought to the islands as slaves starting around 1750 to grow rice, indigo and cotton. The Windward Coast was also known as the Rice Coast, and these enslaved laborers were preferred because they were already experienced rice cultivators (as the National Parks Ethnography Program notes).
Gullah is thought to be a shortened form of Angola, the name of one of the peoples first brought to the Carolinas as slaves in the early colonial period. Linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner researched the Gullah tongue and its links to West African languages in the 1930s, publishing the lexicon, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949).
Yale anthropologist Joseph A. Opala's page The Gullah finds that the Gullah/Geechee tongue is "strikingly similar" to that of Sierra Leone's Krio. His page on the Origin of the Gullah notes that they continued to grow rice on the islands following emancipation in the Civil War, when the plantations were abandoned and broken up. The Gullah had a dignified and self-sufficient life in those years, even as African Americans elsewhere in the South were disenfranchised and reduced to share-cropping in the aftermath of Reconstruction.
A study from George Mason University calls what happened in the Sea Islands after emanicpation "An Experiment in Land Redistribution." On Jan. 12, 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman, under pressure from the Black freedmen swelling his army, issued Special Field Order #15, mandating that the plantations of the Sea Islands be broken into 40-acre parcels for settlement by freedman families. The islands became the one place where Sherman's "forty acres and a mule" plan was actually instated.
The rice farms of the Sea Islands declined as new rice plantations opened further west (Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas), and by 1900 the fields were returning to swampland. The first bridges were not built until the 1920s, and a decade later there were still adults on the islands who had never visited the US mainland. Youth began to migrate, and the Gullah/Geechee communities dwindled until the cultural revival of the past generation.
The Black Seminoles are a small offshoot of the Gullah who escaped from the rice plantations in the days of slavery and joined the Seminole Indians in the Florida swamplands. In the 1840s, they were deported by the US military from Florida to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), but their leader Wild Cat fled with a band of followers to Mexico, where they became a border militia, defending their new homeland from white filibuster invasions. After slavery was abolished in the US, many returned and joined the Union army, becoming the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts, a unit of the famous Buffalo Soldiers.
And a little-known Gullah contribution to American culture is the old folk standard "Kumbaya" (Come by Here), which has been covered by everyone from Pete Seeger to Joan Baez to The Seekers the Soweto Gospel Choir.
It's a slightly shameful irony that the title of the song has become a popular shorthand for artificial sincerity (as Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary note). The history of the Gullah is a revolutionary one, and (as the Black Then history site outlines) so is that of Mother Emmanuel. The church was originally formed by both free and enslaved Blacks in the 18th century. It broke with the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816 following a dispute over Black access to burial grounds, and affiliated with the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal denomination under the leadership of Rev. Morris Brown. The church was burned to the ground in 1822 after the arrest of Denmark Vesey for planning a slave rebellion. Vesey, a class leader at the church, was hanged along with 36 co-conspirators. The church was rebuilt, but was forced to close its doors in 1834 under a law prohibiting Blacks from worshiping without white oversight. The congregation met secretly throughout the Civil War, finally returning to its building in 1872. The church was severely damaged in an 1886 earthquake, and rebuilt in its current form in 1891. Booker T. Washington spoke at Mother Emanuel in 1909, and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962. Coretta Scott King led a march starting from the church in support of striking Charleston hospital workers in 1969.
Not much artificial sincerity here. On the contrary, about as real as it gets.