Gullah – Geechee tour
By Rev. Michele Fischer
One of the faith practices offered on Monday afternoon at the South Carolina Lutheran Synod Assembly was a two hour history tour, focusing on the Gullah/Geechee community.
Gullah is both a language and a culture. The word Gullah is used interchangeably with “Geechee”. Officially recognized as a language in the early part of the 20th century, Gullah is a creole language based in English, with over 400 words and phrases borrowed from various African languages.
Gullah is found primarily in the southeastern United States, along the coast lands from Jacksonville to South Carolina. The language is heavily influenced by African grammar and syntax. Once viewed as uneducated, research in the 1940s proved its close relationship to the original slaves brought here from West Africa.
For many years, the residents of James Island, Johns Island, Wadmalaw Island and Edisto Island were mostly African Americans, and part of the Gullah culture. Fifty years ago, many of the residents were fishermen or farmers. Interest in seaside homes and development has changed the demographics, and the Gullah culture is threatened by the development and gentrification.
The Africans who were brought here as slaves brought with them the knowledge of growing rice. Rice was unfamiliar to most Europeans but quickly became a lucrative crop. For over 90 years, Charleston was one of the richest cities in the country because of the rice crop. Slaves who were brought in to farm the rice were frequently worked to death. Once a slave was sent into the rice fields, he or she had an average of seven years of life remaining.
In 1822, Denmark Vesey attempted to lead his fellow slaves in a revolt. Unfortunately, the plot was discovered, and many of those involved in the planning were hanged.
Our tour also stopped at the James Island Presbyterian Church cemetery. A grave marker for Samuel “Goat Cart Sam” Smalls is there, memorializing the real life man who inspired the opera Porgy and Bess. The real grave for the disabled man is unknown, but a marker has been placed in the cemetery to honor his life. In homage to the Jewish tradition (opera composer Ira Gershwin was Jewish), visitors often leave a stone on the marker.