The Gullah Geechee Cultural Corridor

By Nancy Gadzuk

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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.

Of course these enslaved people brought more than their environmental engineering knowledge to the Americas. They brought arts, language, food, music, and spiritual beliefs.

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:

https://uncw.edu/upperman/Travelin-Around-De-Bend.html

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.

 

Sean Palmer talks on the Gullah Geechee Culture

Monday, February 18, 2019 – 7:30 PM

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The Federal Point Historic Preservation Society will hold its monthly meeting on Monday, February 18, 2019 at 7:30 pm at the Federal Point History Center, 1121-A North Lake Park Blvd., adjacent to Carolina Beach Town Hall.

[This is the program we were supposed to have last September, but we got “Florence-d” out]

Our speaker this month will be Sean Palmer from the UNCW Upperman African American Cultural Center. He will be speaking on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Corridor which is a Federal National Heritage Area that was established by the U.S. Congress to recognize the unique culture of the Gullah Geechee people who have traditionally resided in the coastal areas and the sea islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida  — from Pender County, North Carolina, to St. Johns County, Florida.

Sean Palmer has served as Upperman Center Director since March 2016. Palmer earned his Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School, a master’s degree in African and African American Studies from Clark Atlanta University and a bachelor’s degree in English with double minors in African American studies and religious studies from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.

He previously served as the assistant director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke University. While at Duke, Palmer advised several student organizations, managed and advised the National PanHellenic Council, planned academic lectures and events, and was a mentor to undergraduate and graduate students. He has also served as director of student activities and residence life at Paine College in Augusta, GA.

More:  The Gullah Geechee People

 

Read More About It — Blackbeard

The January program on the Queen Anne’s Revenge recovery was one of our best attended ever.  Clearly there is much interest in Blackbeard and other North Carolina pirates.  If you would like to read more about them, here are a few recommended books.

Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times by Robert E Lee. (Blair, 1974) Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was one of the most notorious pirates ever to plague the Atlantic coast. He was also one of the most colorful pirates of all time, becoming the model for countless blood-and-thunder tales of sea rovers.

 

Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate by Angus Konstam. (Wiley, 2007) Interesting and exciting . .  a thoroughly enjoyable chronicle of an interesting life and interesting era.

 

 

Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. By Colin Woodward (Mariner Books, 2008)

 

Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America’s Most Notorious Pirates by Eric Jay Dolin (Liveright, 2018) An entertaining romp across the oceans that shows how piracy is an inseparable element of our past… Mr. Dolin has a keen eye for detail and the exiciting episode. Readers will learn fascinating tidbits of language, habits and cultural assimilation.

 

Mark Wilde-Ramsing talks about Pirate Ship

January Meeting

Monday, January 21, 2019

7:30

The Federal Point Historic Preservation Society will hold its monthly meeting on Monday, January 21, 2019 at 7:30 pm at the Federal Point History Center, 1121-A North Lake Park Blvd., adjacent to Carolina Beach Town Hall.

Our speaker this month will be Mark Wilde-Ramsing, now retired, Director of the Underwater Archaeology Unit at Fort Fisher.  Mark was intimately involved in the recovery of artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of Blackbeard the pirate. Mark will be talking about his new book, Blackbeard’s Sunken Prize:  The 300-Year Voyage of Queen Anne’s Revenge, recently published by UNC Press, and available now in both print and ebook editions.  Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing.

Mark says: “As a historical archaeologist who specializes in material culture, I am most interested in those artifacts (or artifact categories) that relate directly to people, like their dishes and cookware, and personal gear like clothing items and adornment. In the lab, as I carefully handled each item, I had a constant thought that I was holding something 300 years old and previously touched or used by pirates, slaves or French captives.

Additionally, I continue to be fascinated by the artifacts that reflect the state of science of that period, like the medical equipment and the items used for metrology (all types of measurements). Studying these items has increased my knowledge of 18th century material culture in so many ways. This was a period of great transition for European cultures—this early period was before The Great Enlightenment of the mid-1700.”

In 1717, the notorious pirate Blackbeard captured a French slaving vessel off the coast of Martinique and made it his flagship, renaming it Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Over the next six months, the heavily armed ship and its crew captured all manner of riches from merchant ships sailing the Caribbean to the Carolinas. But in June 1718, with British authorities closing in, Blackbeard reportedly ran Queen Anne’s Revenge aground just off the coast of what is now North Carolina’s Fort Macon State Park.

What went down with the ship remained hidden for centuries, as the legend of Blackbeard continued to swell in the public’s imagination. When divers finally discovered the wreck in 1996, it was immediately heralded as a major find in both maritime archaeology and the history of piracy in the Atlantic. Now the story of Queen Anne’s Revenge and its fearsome captain is revealed in full detail.

 

Cap’n John Recalls The Past

Picture from Winner Collection, NHCPL.
Carolina Beach Jacyees lobbied hard for the Fort Fisher/Southport Ferry

By:  Jack Loftus
From: Wilmington Star-News

 

When the new Fort Fisher-Southport ferry made its debut recently, one of the passengers was John H. Bowen, 93, one of the last of the old Cape Fear River boat captains.

While making the 45 minute journey from Fort Fisher to Southport, John Bowen vividly recalled his own experiences as a ferry boat captain on the Cape Fear.

Like most good river captains, Bowen was born and raised along the river, and soon it became a way of life.  Bowen was born July 15, 1872, son of a Cape Fear River pilot.  Long before the Wilmington – Brunswick ferry service began, Bowen was a river captain, navigating tugs up and down the Cape Fear and from Wilmington to Baltimore.

When in 1910 New Hanover and Brunswick counties decided to jointly finance and operate a ferry service to connect the two counties across the Cape Fear, John Bowen was named as the first captain of the new ferry called the John Knox.

Bowen vividly remembers ferrying the first passengers across the river aboard the John Knox, as well as some of the men who worked with him on the ferry.  Bill Register and John Brinkley were the engineers, while George Dickie was the other captain.

Talking with Captain Ira Spencer of the new Fort Fisher-Southport ferry, Bowen said that the speed of the new ferry was much faster than that of the old John Knox, but that the John Knox was just as sturdy.  He also mentioned the difficulty he had navigating the John Knox in the strong current of the Cape Fear.  “The current was bad enough,” he recalled, “but the short distance between Wilmington and Brunswick made it even tougher.”

After several years the two counties bought a new ferry, the Menantic – a side wheeler, and steam powered.  Bowen was also the first to navigate this ferry, because he was the only captain in New Hanover County with a steamboat license.

Both ferries docked at the foot of Market Street and soon 20 minute round trip service was established.  “This made things a little hectic,” said Bowen.  “On slack water the ferry could head right for the opposite slip, but on flood tide the ferry had to travel in an arc.  There was not enough water pressure on the rudder of the Menantic to make her come around fast enough, and this was always a problem getting the ferry into the slip on each side.”

Bowen served as captain of the ferry service until the construction of the Cape Fear River bridge and the subsequent ending of the ferry service.

It has been years since the ferries shuttled between Wilmington and Brunswick, but many people from this area still recall them vividly from their childhood.  And if, in comparison to the new Fort Fisher-Southport ferry, the John Knox and the Menantic seem to be things of the past.  Bowen recalled that in their day “these ferries were just as new and convenient as the new one of today.”  Indeed the only ferry service connecting Wilmington and Brunswick before the John Knox and the Menantic was the old hand operated ferries which had been in use off-and-on since 1764.

After the ferry service was discontinued Bowen remained a river captain navigating tugs along the Cape Fear and between Wilmington and Baltimore until after World War I.

“One of the most interesting experiences I can recall after the ferries, was in 1916 when I was bringing a barge down the Chesapeake to Wilmington when I almost ran into a German U boat.  I saw him coming and I just couldn’t believe it,” Bowen mused.

Recalling his days as a river captain, Bowen said that the only drawback was the time he had to spend away from home.  Yet he feels that in a way he would like to be piloting a boat again.  “If my eyes were better, I could be a captain of the new ferry,” Bowen laughed.

John Bowen now lies with his daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Summerlin at 6037 Wrightsville Avenue.

 

Storm of 1899

[Editor’s Notes:  Since most of us are recovering this month from the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, we thought it might be interesting to you to read about one of the most disastrous storms on record on this coast.]

It was the Caribbean Storm of November 1, 1899, which reached Wilmington in full force Monday night at 10 o’clock.  Telephone connections had been cut off and no details could be secured from Carolina Beach, but the ocean made almost a clean wreck of the cottages.  Mr. Tom McGee, who is in charge of the beach, wrote to Captain John. W. Harper, general manager of the New Hanover Transit Company, that nearly every cottage was washed away.

It is said that in all eighteen cottages were either washed clean away or totally wrecked.  The hotel, Sedgeley Hall Club House, Hanover Seaside Club House, Mr. D. McEachern’s cottage, and Mr. Hans A. Kure’s cottages were about the only houses left standing on the beach.  The railroad track was also washed away in places.  The damage at Carolina Beach is estimated at about $12,000.  Carolina Beach pier sustained very little damage.

New Hanover Transit Co.’s pump house turned over and water tank undermined and tilted.  New Hanover Transit Co.’s pump house turned over and water works destroyed.

The bridges and gangways on the beach are all gone.  The New Hanover Transit Co.’s railroad track from the Kure Cottage No 2, up the beach to Sedgeley Hall Club, totally destroyed and washed over into the sound.  The track from the Curve near Mr. Kure’s club house to the beach is ruined.

Telephone connection had been cut off and as the beach could not be reached, nothing definite could be secured for publication yesterday morning.

The most intense anxiety was felt by the cottage owners, and many of them went to the beach yesterday, expecting, however, to find little to give them hope.  A party went down in a wagonette, others went in buggies, and some went on the steamer Wilmington and reached the beach from the pier by means of a hand-car.  Among those who went down were Major D. O’Connor, and Messrs. J. A. Springer, H. C. McQueen, J. C. Stevenson, D. McEachern; Major Croom, G. W. Linder, J. J. Fowler, A. D. Brown, R. C. Stolter, J. G. L. Gieschen, Dr. Webster, and others.  They returned to the city in the afternoon.

Capt. J. W. Brock, who with his party of fishermen consisting of three other men, were thought to have been lost during the recent storm on Zeke’s Island, arrived in the city yesterday afternoon from Federal Point all safe and sound.

It will be remembered that on Tuesday his trunk was found floating with the tide up the river by J. W. Howard, janitor at the Custom House, and this gave rise to apprehensions for his safety.  The trunk was restored to him upon his arrival yesterday and this with a small boat in which he and party escaped to Federal Point, constituted all his earthly possessions, the waves having demolished his houses on the island and swept all his household goods, fishing tackle and other property up the river, on the occasion of last Tuesday morning’s storm.

On the island were two cottages in which he and companions lived.  The tide began rising at 8 o’clock Monday night, he said, and reached a climax at 4 o’clock Tuesday morning, when the entire island was covered and the breakers were rolling high over their heads.

He and companions managed to hold a boat between them by steadying themselves with a few bushes, which were above water.  They were then standing in water waist deep and remained so until Tuesday afternoon, when they managed to bail the water from the canoe, clear it of sand and by desperate effort reach the land at Federal Point.

Besides houses and household belongings, Capt. Brock lost two fishing shacks, five nets, and a large interest in between twenty and twenty-five barrels salt mullets.  He said it was the roughest experience of his life and he had given up hope at one time of escaping alive.

Capt. Brock says that the jetties built from the island to Federal Point to throw the current in Cape Fear channel are cut in twain in nearly a dozen places.  Zeke’s Island is now a sand bar, not enough soil being left, as a member of the crew expressed it “to raise a row on.”  Formerly vegetation grew upon the land and gardens were cultivated by fishermen.

The other fishermen on the island are reported safe and there is known to have been no loss of life at this point.

 

The above excerpts were taken from an article published in the Wilmington Star News, November 1899.

 

October Meeting – Ben Wunderly, Surfing History in North Carolina

Monday, October 15, 2018   7:30 pm

The Federal Point Historic Preservation Society will hold its monthly meeting on Monday, October 15, 2018 at 7:30 pm at the Federal Point History Center, 1121-A North Lake Park Blvd., adjacent to Carolina Beach Town Hall.

Our speaker this month will be Benjamin Wunderly from the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Beaufort. He will be speaking on the history of surfing in North Carolina.

When one thinks about the words history and surfing together, the mind may conjure up images of surfers challenging the big waves off Hawaii, or perhaps even of Samoans or Australians riding a lonely beach in the remote Pacific. Then, when one considers the famous surfing locations along the East Coast of the United States, one might dream up images of Cocoa Beach, Florida or Atlantic City, New Jersey.

One might not be inclined to include North Carolina among such hallowed surfing locales, but that would be a mistake. Although it is impossible to determine who rode the first wave or made the first surfboard at any of these places, we do know that surfing has been taking place in the Old North State for more than a century.

Benjamin Wunderly is originally from southern Virginia. He had his introduction to North Carolina on the Outer Banks. His fascination with the ocean has led him to spend the past 30 years exploring the beaches, sand bars, tidal creeks and waterways of coastal North Carolina from Currituck to Brunswick County.

He takes pride in researching and sharing all things maritime from Tar Heel country. Having spent 20 years working under the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources at educational centers in Dare, Onslow and Carteret Counties, he has learned extensively about the rich history, culture and environment of eastern North Carolina.

Currently, a Museum Curator at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, Wunderly’s latest project has been a collaboration with fellow curator, John Hairr, to uncover the history of the sport of surfing in North Carolina. They have received help from numerous folks along the way, including the Cape Fear region’s own surfing history experts Joseph Funderburg and Peter Fritzler.

Surfing NC – A Timeline of the History of the Sport of Surfing in North Carolina (pdf)
by John Hairr and Ben Wunderly
North Carolina Maritime Museum – Beaufort

 

September Meeting — Sean Palmer on Gullah Geechee Cultural Corridor

[Note: Hurricane Florence closed Pleasure Island and the meeting was postponed.]

Originally scheduled for Monday, September 17, 2018 @ 7:30 pm

The Federal Point Historic Preservation Society will hold its monthly meeting on Monday, September 17, 2018 at 7:30 pm at the Federal Point History Center, 1121-A North Lake Park Blvd., adjacent to Carolina Beach Town Hall.

Our speaker this month will be Sean Palmer from the UNCW Upperman African American Cultural Center. He will be speaking on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Corridor which is a Federal National Heritage Area.

Gullah Geechee Cultural Corridor was established by the U.S. Congress to recognize the unique culture of the Gullah Geechee people who have traditionally resided in the coastal areas and the sea islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida  — from Pender County, North Carolina, to St. Johns County, Florida.

Sean Palmer has served as Upperman Center Director since March 2016. Palmer earned his

Sean Palmer, Director of Diversity and Inclusion PHOTO BY: JEFF JANOWSKI/UNCW

Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School, a master’s degree in African and African American Studies from Clark Atlanta University and a bachelor’s degree in English with double minors in African American studies and religious studies from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.

He previously served as the assistant director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke University. While at Duke, Palmer advised several student organizations, managed and advised the National PanHellenic Council, planned academic lectures and events, and was a mentor to undergraduate and graduate students. He has also served as director of student activities and residence life at Paine College in Augusta, GA.

 

The Gullah Geechee People

Excerpts from the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website

THE PEOPLE

The Gullah Geechee people are the descendants of Central and West Africans who came from different ethnic and social groups.

They were enslaved together on the isolated sea and barrier islands that span what is now designated as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor – a stretch of the U.S. coastline that extends  from Pender County, North Carolina to St. John’s County, Florida and for 30 miles inland.

The result was an intense interaction among Africans from different language groups in settings where enslaved Africans and their descendants formed the majority.

Over time, they developed the Creole Gullah Geechee language as a means of communicating with each other and they were also able to preserve many African practices in their language, arts, crafts and cuisine.

LANGUAGE

Gullah is a unique Creole language spoken along the Sea Islands and adjacent coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia.  The residents in Georgia are typically referred to as “Geechee.” Gullah language began as a simplified form of communication among people of different languages including European slave traders, slave owners and diverse African ethnic groups. The vocabulary and grammatical roots come from European and African languages.

Gullah Geechee language is the only distinctly African Creole language in the United States and has influenced traditional Southern vocabulary and speech patterns.

ARTS, CRAFTS AND MUSIC

 

Enslaved Africans brought a rich heritage of cultural traditions in art, foodways and music.  ​Arts and crafts are the result of products designed by necessity for activities of subsistence and daily living such as making cast nets for fishing,  basket weaving for agriculture and textile arts for clothing and warmth.

The art of making cast nets for fishing has been passed down by enslaved Africans brought to the southeastern shores of the United States.  Gullah Geechee people continue to use the nets to harvest from the Sea Island waterways, but the tradition is labor intensive and artists are dwindling in numbers as younger generations have lost interest.

African textile traditions that included sewing strips of cloth into larger patterns were combined with European quilting methods and a Creole art form emerged. Quilts with bright colors and designs were originally made for necessity. These traditions also allowed women a  time for social interaction.

Sweetgrass baskets, originally designed for rice production and processing and other domestic uses in Africa, were used for agricultural purposes such as planting and harvesting of coastal crops. Made of bulrush, sweetgrass and split oak, the African art of basket making was significant as a traditionally passed down handicraft practiced by both men and women using similar materials from their homeland.  Baskets also gained recognition for the skill of an artist and uniqueness in style. Even in historic times, baskets were sold to non-Gullah Geechee people and were a source of additional income.

African songs are the foundation for what may be referred to as Gullah music. Deeply rooted in music traditions brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, the music evolved out of the conditions of slavery that characterized their lives.  The influence and evolution of musical forms that arose out of Gullah music can be heard in many musical genres such as spirituals and gospel music,  ragtime, rhythm and blues, soul, hip hop  and jazz.

FOODWAYS

Food has always played an important role in social traditions in many cultures. Gatherings, celebrations, and religious rituals are often accompanied by food.

The Gullah diet consisted of items available locally such as vegetables, fruits, game, seafood, livestock; items  imported from Europe,  items imported from Africa during the slave trade  (okra, rice, yams, peas, hot peppers, peanuts, sesame “benne” seeds, sorghum and watermelon),  and food introduced by  Native Americans such as corn, squash, tomatoes and berries.  Rice became a staple crop for both Gullah and whites in the southeastern coastal regions.

Although a bounty of food types existed, there was not always a bounty of food available for enslaved Gullah people or their descendants. Making use of available food (or rations), making a little go a long way, supplementing with fish and game, leftovers from butchering and communal stews shared with neighbors were African cultural practices.

African cooking methods and seasonings were applied in the Gullah homes and plantation kitchens.  Because plantation cooks were primarily enslaved women, many of the African cooking traditions were employed along with creatively incorporating foods introduced by European, Spanish and American Indian influence, much of the food today referred to as “Southern” comes from the creativity and labor of enslaved African cooks from the plantations.

 SPIRITUAL EXPRESSION

 

Religion and spirituality have a sustaining role in Gullah family and community life. Enslaved Africans were exposed to Christian religious practices in a number of ways and incorporated elements that were meaningful to them into their African rooted system of beliefs.  These values included belief in a God, community above individuality, respect for  elders, kinship bonds and ancestors; respect for nature, and honoring the continuity of life and the afterlife.

Some plantation owners had regular religious services on the plantation and required slaves to attend. Some plantations had separate services for blacks with black preachers. Plantations frequently had a praise house or small structure where slaves could meet for religious services, but these also had significance in maintaining community cohesion, social structure and conflict resolution.