Notes for Newcomers: Gullah Culture & Customs

By Phil La Borie

Notes for Newcomers: Gullah Culture & Customs

I grew up in Webster, New York, on the shore of Lake Ontario. Irondequoit Bay lay to the West and a centuries-old Seneca Indian trail (now paved over and predictably called Bay Road) was located about a 1/4 mile away from our house. The Trail ran south from the lake to what is now Victor, New York; some 30 miles away. It was a major north/south route for both the Seneca and French fur traders in pre-and Colonial times and I sometimes found various small artifacts from those years (or so I thought) in the woods behind our house. Those little discoveries started me on a lifelong interest in finding out more about native people and their customs.

So, when our esteemed editor Leslie Moore suggested that newcomers to the Grand Strand area might be interested in learning about the Gullah people, who were some of the first inhabitants in our area, I jumped at the chance.

Here’s what I found out*

The Gullah people are descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to this country to work on the huge rice plantations in the Carolinas during the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, 23,773 Africans were transported to South Carolina between 1804-07 alone. They were enslaved and brought here mainly because of their extensive knowledge of growing rice in their native Africa – a practice that had been in place for nearly 3,000 years!

According to Mrs. Zenobia Harper, **, who is herself Gullah and whose ancestors worked on the Arcadia, Hobcaw and Kensington plantations, “The living conditions during that era were appalling and the work was much more demanding and harder than picking cotton. Since the Gullah are an oral culture, the stories of my ancestors’ hardships and successes have formed an important part of our family history.”

Because of the fear of Malaria and Yellow Fever, which were wide-spread during the rainy spring season, many white plantation owners left the South Carolina Lowcountry at that time of year. The planters often left their African “rice drivers” or overseers in charge of the plantations during their absence. These temporary “bosses” oversaw hundreds of laborers in each location and the influx of a nearly continual stream of new workers from Africa helped to shape and reinforce the Gullah people’s culture and beliefs.

Historically, the Gullah region extended from Cape Fear to the area around Jacksonville, Florida. However, today the Gullah area is limited to South Carolina and the Georgia Lowcountry. In South Carolina, the Gullah are mainly concentrated on the Sea Islands. Beaufort is the access point to this marvelous part of the Lowcountry.

Because of their relative isolation in rural areas, the Gullah developed a unique culture that has preserved much of their African heritage. In addition to honoring their ancient roots and customs, they speak an English-based Creole language that has been influenced by African grammatical and sentence structure.

Here’s just one example:

English: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Gullah: Dey bless fa true, dem people wa ain hav no hope een deysef, cause God da rule oba dem.

The Gullah people and their language are also called Geechee, a name which may have originated from the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia.

Gullah recipes are as fascinating as the history of the Gullah people. And since I like to cook, I decided to try one myself. I have to admit that I avoided some of the more complex and challenging ones like Frogmore Stew (for 30 people!) and those calling for “raw (cow) field peas” or “a mess of fresh collard greens.”

Instead, I opted for Sweet Potato Pone.

BTW: Pone is usually referred to as corn pone and was a staple of the early American colonies from New England to Virginia. If you don’t already know, Pone is a flattened cake that is baked on a griddle or in an oven. If you’re really adventurous, you might try cooking it in ashes as early Native Americans did. I opted for the oven.

Ingredients:

2 large sweet potatoes 2 eggs, beaten
½ cup sugar 1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons margarine, melted ½ teaspoon salt
1 cup dark cane sugar

Instructions:

Peel and grate sweet potatoes. Add other ingredients and mix thoroughly. Pour into greased baking dish and cook in slow oven at 300 degrees F. until done, about an hour. Source: Catherine Carr’s recipe in The Legacy of Ibo Landing: Gullah Roots of African American Culture (1998).

I have to say that the Pone turned out mighty fine! Try the recipe yourself.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Gullah people, there are any number of sources available online or in our local libraries. You might also want to pick up Julie Nash’s wonderful novel, Daughters of the Dust. The book traces the history of a large and extended Gullah family back to their slave roots.

Also, see Nash’s acclaimed film of the same name. The Surfside Library is trying to obtain a copy for their collection.

That’s all for this edition of Notes for Newcomers, but I’ll be back in future Sasee editions with more features and finds. Meanwhile, if you’d like to leave me any feedback on previous articles or suggested future topics, I’m all ears.

*My thanks to the Beaufort County Library for much of the information included in this article.

**Zenobia is an accomplished doll maker/artist and Program Director of Frameworks: A New Generation of Storytelling; a program designed to help young people explore and express their true inner feelings.

About this writer

  • Phil La Borie Phil La Borie is an award-winning writer/artist based in Garden City, South Carolina. His work has been published in AdWeek, The Kaiser-Permanente Journal, Westworld Magazine and online at smilesforall.com. Phil is the 2015 winner of the Alice Conger Patterson Award offered through the Emrys Foundation. He can be reached at plaborie@voxinc.net.

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