By Nancy Gadzuk
Sean Palmer, Director of the Upperman African American Cultural Center at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, was the speaker at the February 18, 2019 meeting of the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society. Sean spoke on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Corridor.
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Corridor is a stretch of land about 30 miles wide that follows the Atlantic coastline from Pender County, North Carolina down to St. Johns County, Florida. Geographically, this area is very similar to coastal west Africa, where rice was already being cultivated in the 17th century.
Enslaved Africans were brought to what is now the southeastern U.S. coast because they had the knowledge, techniques, and skills in irrigation and rice cultivation to work the rice plantations and make them profitable for their wealthy owners.
Life was hard for these enslaved people. The average life span of a worker in the rice plantations was only five to seven years. Children were brought as slaves because they were young enough to survive the treacherous ocean voyage from Africa, and then do back-breaking work in the rice fields.
Only recently has the “brain trust” of enslaved Africans been acknowledged for the skills and knowledge they brought to tame the swamp for growing and processing rice and indigo.
Ivey Hayes, Harry Davis, and Jonathan Green are three African American artists who have featured Gullah Geechee culture and people in their art. Sweetgrass baskets are unique to the Gullah Geechee and the intricate designs and fine handwork make them prized collectors’ items.
Gullah Geechee language forms the framework for Ebonics and African American linguistic traditions and rhythms that show up in preaching, folklore, and hip hop.
Spiritual beliefs infuse all of Gullah Geechee life. One example is the belief that the color blue attracts the spirit world. Porch roofs may be painted “haunt blue” to attract spirits, and bottle trees decked with blue bottles are designed to attract the spirits the porch might miss. Enslaved people built praise houses or prayer houses on plantations to maintain and enrich their humanity despite the inhuman and inhumane system of slavery that bound them.
Each year, the Upperman Center runs an alternative spring break for students, tied to their larger thematic program. The 2018 spring break was “Travelin Round De Bend” and students got to explore the Gullah Geechee corridor, visiting museums, restaurants, and waterways in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Students learned about the complexities of language, slavery, land, and traditional Gullah cuisine in their five-day trip.
Fortunately for the rest of us, their complete itinerary is available online, and it provides some great road trip ideas for learning more about the Gullah Geechee. There are also links to all the museums they visited:
Gullah Geechee culture is built on the back and blood of slavery, and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging and understanding all of our history, the negative as well as the positive. What would be wrong is repeating certain parts of this history.