The Culture of Gullah
Exhibit by: Cindy Ensminger
Origin of the Gullah People
The largest group of enslaved Africans brought into Charleston, South Carolina came from the West African rice-growing region centered primarily in Sierra Leone. It’s estimated these people had cultivated African rice in this section of West Africa for up to 3,000 years. Once it was discovered that rice would grow in the southern U.S. regions, it was assumed that enslaved Africans from rice-growing regions in Africa would be beneficial because of their knowledge of rice-growing techniques. The Gullah people of Charleston are directly descended from these slaves who labored on rice plantations.
Historically, the Gullah region once extended north to the Cape Fear area on the coast of North Carolina and south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on the coast of Florida; but today the Gullah area is confined to the states of South Carolina and Georgia.
In the past, the Gullah lived primarily in small farming and fishing communities along the Atlantic coastal plain and on the chain of Sea Islands which run parallel to the coast.
Because of their early geographical isolation and strong community life, the Gullah people have been able to preserve more of their African cultural heritage than other groups of African-Americans. Increased expansion into their homeland, as well as economic opportunities, have brought the Gullah people and their culture into urban Charleston and the city is alive with the unique heritage of this distinct community.
Sweetgrass basketry is one of the oldest art forms of African origin in the United States. Sweetgrass is a fine bladed grass that grows behind coastal sand dunes. Rather than using the weaving technique of most basket makers, Gullah basket makers bundle dried sweetgrass and coil it into baskets held together by sewing the coils with thin strands of palmetto leaves. Dark reddish-brown bulrush and pine needles are often woven in to add color and patterns.
Sweetgrass baskets have become a cherished and sought after Gullah art form. Residents and visitors to Charleston buy and display sweetgrass baskets in their homes as they would any other piece of fine art. Large, complex baskets can take months to complete and are increasingly being purchased by collectors and museums around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution Museum of American History.
Gallery Chuma, located in downtown Charleston, specializes in the art of the Gullah people of coastal South Carolina.
“Phillip Simmons is a poet of ironwork. His ability to endow raw iron with pure lyricism is known and admired throughout, not only in South Carolina, but as evidenced by his many honors and awards, he is recognized in all of America” – John Paul Huguley
Phillip Simmons (1912-2009) is one of the most celebrated of Charleston’s ironworkers of the 20th Century. As a nationally renowned African-American artisan and blacksmith, Simmons’ intricate ironwork can be found on historic properties throughout the city – over 500 creations of ornamental wrought iron gates, window grills, fences, doors, balconies and more. The city of Charleston from end to end is truly decorated by his hand.
Both the gate and fence along Anson Street entrance to St. John’s Heart Garden were designed by Phillip Simmons.
From Gullah folklore come tales of Hags and Haints. Hags are witches who live normal lives during the day but by night they shed their skin and haunt people in their sleep. Haints are spirits of the dead.
The origin of the word “haint” comes from the Gullah culture that referred to evil spirits as haints which is thought to have a dialectic connection to the word ‘haunt’. The color Haint Blue or Gullah Blue was first used in Charleston in the early 1800s. The Gullah believed that by painting their porch ceilings, doors, window frames and shutters haint blue, the evil spirits would be fooled into perceiving it to be the sky. It was thought that by tricking the spirits, it would cause them to rise through the ceiling and back into the sky where they could no longer harm the home owners. Many private homes in urban Charleston as well as popular restaurants in the city incorporate the haint blue ceilings on their porches.
An Example of Gullah Linguistics
“De Fox en de Crow” tells the story of a crafty fox who manages to trick a lady crow into dropping a piece of meat clenched firmly in her jaws. The crow stole the meat from a white man, who was going to give it to his dog, and then flew to safety on the limb of a nearby tree.
The fox reasons that, as a woman, the crow must like to talk; and, if he can persuade her to open her mouth and speak, she will have to drop the prize. The fox flatters the crow in various ways, praising her theft of the meat, her flying abilities, her “stylish” plumage, etc.—but the crow pretends not to listen and holds on tightly to the meat.
The fox finally discovers the bird’s weakness when he praises her singing voice, notoriously bad in crows. The crow lets out a long, ugly screech, trying to impress her suitor, and drops her prize to the ground. The fox picks it up and says: “Tengky fuh de meat, tittuh”… “your voice is very good because it’s my breakfast bell, but, as for your common sense, it ain’t worth much.”
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“Den, Fox staat fuh talk. E say to eself, a say, “Dish yuh Crow duh ooman, enty? Ef a kin suade um fuh talk, him haffuh op’n e mout, enty? En ef e op’n e mout, enty de meat fuh drop out?”
Fox call to de Crow: “Mawnin tittuh, ” e say. “Uh so glad you tief da meat fum de buckruh, cause him bin fuh trow-um-way pan de dog… E mek me bex fuh see man do shishuh ting lukkuh dat.”
Crow nebbuh crack a teet! All-time Fox duh talk, Crow mout shet tight pan de meat, en a yez cock fuh lissin.”
“Then, Fox started to talk. He said to himself, he said, “This here Crow is a woman, not so? If I can persuade her to talk, she has to open her mouth, not so? And if she opens her mouth, isn’t it true the meat will drop out?”
Fox called to the Crow: “Morning girl,” he said. “I am so glad you stole that meat from the white man, because he would have thrown it away to the dog… It makes me vexed to see a man do such a thing as that.”
Crow never cracked open her teeth! All the time Fox was talking, Crow’s mouth was shut tight on the meat, and her ears were cocked to listen.”
The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston was established in 1985.
Through its research facilities, museum exhibits, tours of its historic site, and cultural center, Avery tells the story of African-Americans from their origins in Africa through slavery, emancipation, segregation, migration, the civil rights movement, and the ongoing struggle for social and political equality.
Avery’s public programs convey the importance of collecting and preserving the records and documents of not only public figures, but also ordinary people whose stories reveal the “grassroots” experience of everyday low country life. Avery’s regional focus distinguishes it from other archives in South Carolina and the nation and it is the only collection of its kind in the country.