This article is about the people. For the language, see Gullah language.

The Gullah are the descendants of enslaved Africans who lived in the Lowcountry regions of Georgia and South Carolina, which includes both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands.

Historically, the Gullah region extended from the Cape Fear area on North Carolina's coast south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on Florida's coast, but today the Gullah area is confined to the Georgia and South Carolina Lowcountry. The Gullah people and their language are also called Geechee, which may be derived from the name of the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia.[1] Gullah is a term that was originally used to designate the variety of English spoken by Gullah and Geechee people, but over time it has been used by its speakers to formally refer to their creole language and distinctive ethnic identity as a people. The Georgia communities are distinguished by identifying as either "Freshwater Geechee" or "Saltwater Geechee", depending on their proximity to the coast.[2][3][4][5]

Because of a period of relative isolation in rural areas, the Gullah developed a culture that has preserved much of the African linguistic and cultural heritage from various peoples, as well as absorbed new influences from the region. The Gullah people speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure. Properly referred to as "Sea Island Creole", the Gullah language is related to Bahamian Dialect, Barbadian Dialect, Belizean Creole, Jamaican Patois, Trinidadian Creole, and the Krio language of Sierra Leone, in West Africa. Gullah crafts, farming and fishing traditions, folk beliefs, music, rice-based cuisine, and story-telling traditions all exhibit strong influences from Central and West African cultures.[6][7][8][9]


The origin of "Gullah" is unclear. Some scholars suggest that it may be cognate with the word Angola,[1][10] where the ancestors of some of the Gullah people likely originated. They created a new culture synthesized from that of the various African peoples brought into Charleston and South Carolina. Some scholars have suggested that it may come from the name of the Gola, an ethnic group living in the border area between present-day Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa, where many ancestors of the Gullah people originated.[11][1] This area was known as the "Grain Coast" or "Rice Coast" to British colonists in the Caribbean and the Southern colonies of North America; most of the tribes there are of Mande or Manding origins. The name "Geechee", another common name for the Gullah people, may derive from the name of the Kissi people, an ethnic group living in the border area between Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.[1]

Some scholars suggest that the origin of the Gullah people can be traced to the Dyula ethnic group of West Africa. The Dyula civilization had a larger scope that stretched from Senegal through Mali to Burkina Faso and the rest of French West Africa. These were Savannah lands that were vast and had lower population densities and as such, made slave raiding more common than in other areas with forest cover and other forms of physical defenses against slave raids. The word "Dyula" is pronounced "Gwullah" among members of the Akan ethnic group in Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire. The main source of connection the Dyula people had to Europeans was through the "Grain Coast" and "Rice Coast" (present-day Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea).

Some scholars have also suggested indigenous American origins for these words. The Spanish called the South Carolina and Georgia coastal region Guale after a Native American tribe, and it is possible that the name of the Ogeechee River, a prominent geographical feature in coastal Georgia, was derived from a Creek Indian word.[12][13]

African roots

According to Port of Charleston records, enslaved Africans shipped to the port came from the following areas: Angola (39%), Senegambia (20%), the Windward Coast (17%), the Gold Coast (13%), Sierra Leone (6%), and Madagascar, Mozambique, and the two Bights (5% combined) (Pollitzer, 1999:43).[14] It should be noted, however, that the term "Windward Coast" often referred to Sierra Leone,[15] so the figure for that region is higher than just 6%.

Particularly along the western coast, the people had cultivated African rice for possibly up to 3,000 years. Once British colonial planters in the American South discovered that rice would grow in that region, they often sought enslaved Africans from rice-growing regions because of their skills and knowledge needed to develop and build irrigation, dams and earthworks.[11]

Two British trading companies based in England operated the slave castle at Bunce Island (formerly called Bance Island), located in the Sierra Leone River. Henry Laurens was their agent in Charleston and was a planter and slave trader. His counterpart in England was the Scottish merchant and slave trader Richard Oswald. Many of the enslaved Africans taken in West Africa were processed through Bunce Island. It was a prime export site for slaves to South Carolina and Georgia. Slave castles in Ghana, for instance, shipped their people to sites in the Caribbean islands.

After Freetown, Sierra Leone, was founded in the late 18th century by the British as a colony for poor blacks from London and black Loyalists from Nova Scotia, resettled after the American Revolutionary War, they did not allow slaves to be taken from Sierra Leone and tried to protect the people from kidnappers. In 1808 both Great Britain and the United States prohibited the African slave trade. The British, which patrolled to intercept slave ships off Africa, sometimes resettled Africans freed from slave trader ships after that date in Sierra Leone. Similarly, Americans sometimes settled freed slaves at Liberia, a similar colony established in the early 19th century by the American Colonization Society as a place for freed slaves and free blacks from the United States.

Origin of Gullah culture

The Gullah region once extended from SE North Carolina to NE Florida.

The Gullah people have been able to preserve much of their African cultural heritage because of climate, geography, and patterns of importation of enslaved Africans. Taken as slaves from the Western region of Africa in primarily the Mende populations of what is today Sierra Leone, and transported to some areas of Brazil (including Bahia), the enslaved Gullah-Gheechee people were traded in what was then Charlestowne, South Carolina. According to British historian P.E.H. Hair, Gullah culture was formed as a creole culture in the colonies and United States from elements of many different African cultures who came together there. These included the Baga, Fula, Kissi, Kpelle, Limba, Mandinka, Mende, Susu, Temne, Vai, and Wolof of the Rice Coast, and many from Angola, Igbo, Calabar, Congo Republic, and the Gold Coast.

By the middle of the 18th century, thousands of acres in the Georgia and South Carolina Lowcountry, and the Sea Islands were developed as rice fields. African farmers from the "Rice Coast" brought the skills for cultivation and tidal irrigation that made rice farming one of the most successful industries in early America.

The subtropical climate encouraged the spread of malaria and yellow fever, carried by mosquitoes. These tropical diseases were endemic in Africa and had been carried by slaves to the colonies.[16] Mosquitoes in the swamps and inundated rice fields of the Lowcountry picked up and spread the diseases to English and European settlers, as well. Malaria and yellow fever soon became endemic in the region.

Because they had acquired some immunity in their homeland, Africans were more resistant to these tropical fevers than the Europeans were, and as the rice industry was developed, planters continued to import African slaves. By about 1708, South Carolina had a black majority.[17] Coastal Georgia later developed a black majority after rice cultivation expanded there in the mid-18th century. Malaria and yellow fever became endemic, and fearing disease, many white planters left the Lowcountry during the rainy spring and summer months when fevers ran rampant.[11] Others lived mostly in cities such as Charleston.

The planters left their European or African "rice drivers", or overseers, in charge of the plantations.[11] These had hundreds of laborers, with African traditions reinforced by new imports from the same regions. Over time, the Gullah people developed a creole culture in which elements of African languages, cultures, and community life were preserved to a high degree. Their culture developed in a distinct way, different from that of the enslaved African-Americans in states such as North Carolina and Virginia, where the enslaved lived in smaller groups, and had more sustained and frequent interactions with whites and British American culture.

Customs and traditions

African influences are found in every aspect of the Gullahs' traditional way of life:

Civil War period

When the U.S. Civil War began, the Union rushed to blockade Confederate shipping. White planters on the Sea Islands, fearing an invasion by the US naval forces, abandoned their plantations and fled to the mainland. When Union forces arrived on the Sea Islands in 1861, they found the Gullah people eager for their freedom, and eager as well to defend it. Many Gullahs served with distinction in the Union Army's First South Carolina Volunteers. The Sea Islands were the first place in the South where slaves were freed. Long before the War ended, Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania came down to start schools for the newly freed slaves. Penn Center, now a Gullah community organization on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, began as the very first school for freed slaves.

After the Civil War ended, the Gullahs' isolation from the outside world actually increased in some respects. The rice planters on the mainland gradually abandoned their farms and moved away from the area because of labor issues and hurricane damage to crops. Free blacks were unwilling to work in the dangerous and disease-ridden rice fields. A series of hurricanes devastated the crops in the 1890s. Left alone in remote rural areas in the Lowcountry, the Gullahs continued to practice their traditional culture with little influence from the outside world well into the 20th Century.

Recent history

Gullah basket

In recent years the Gullah people—led by Penn Center and other determined community groups—have been fighting to keep control of their traditional lands. Since the 1960s, resort development on the Sea Islands has greatly increased property values threatening to push Gullahs off family lands they have owned since emancipation. They have fought back against uncontrolled development on the islands through community action, the courts and the political process.[20]

The Gullahs have struggled to preserve their traditional culture. In 1979, a translation of the New Testament in the Gullah language began.[21] The American Bible Society published De Nyew Testament in 2005. In November 2011, Healin fa de Soul, a five-CD collection of readings from the Gullah Bible was released.[22] This collection includes Scipcha Wa De Bring Healing ("Scripture That Heals") and the Gospel of John (De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa John Write). This was also the most extensive collection of Gullah recordings, surpassing those of Lorenzo Dow Turner. The recordings help people develop an interest in the culture because people might not have known how to pronounce some words.[23]

The Gullahs achieved another victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the "Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act" that provides $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture.[24] The Heritage Corridor will extend from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. The project will be administered by the US National Park Service with extensive consultation with the Gullah community.

Gullahs have also reached out to West Africa. Gullah groups made three celebrated "homecomings" to Sierra Leone in 1989, 1997, and 2005. Sierra Leone is at the heart of the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa where many of the Gullahs' ancestors originated. Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone, sent many African captives to Charleston and Savannah during the mid- and late 18th century. These dramatic homecomings were the subject of three documentary films—Family Across the Sea (1990), The Language You Cry In (1998), and Priscilla's Homecoming (in production).

Celebrating Gullah culture

VOA report about an exhibit about Gullah culture

Over the years, the Gullahs have attracted many historians, linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists interested in their rich cultural heritage. Many academic books on that subject have been published. The Gullah have also become a symbol of cultural pride for blacks throughout the United States and a subject of general interest in the media. This has given rise to countless newspaper and magazine articles, documentary films, and children's books on Gullah culture, and to a number of popular novels set in the Gullah region.

Gullah people now organize cultural festivals every year in towns up and down the Lowcountry. Hilton Head Island, for instance, hosts a "Gullah Celebration" in February. It includes "De Aarts ob We People" show; the "Ol’ Fashioned Gullah Breakfast"; "National Freedom Day," the "Gullah Film Fest", "A Taste of Gullah" food and entertainment, a "Celebration of Lowcountry Authors and Books," an "Arts, Crafts & Food Expo," and "De Gullah Playhouse". Beaufort hosts the oldest and the largest celebration, "The Original Gullah Festival" in May. The nearby Penn Center on St. Helena Island holds "Heritage Days" in November. Other Gullah festivals are celebrated on James Island, South Carolina and Sapelo Island, Georgia.

But Gullah culture is also being celebrated elsewhere in the United States. The Black Cultural Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana conducted a research tour, cultural arts festival, and other related events to showcase the Gullah culture. The Black Cultural Center Library maintains a bibliography of Gullah books and materials, as well. Metro State College in Denver, Colorado recently hosted a conference on Gullah culture, called The Water Brought Us: Gullah History and Culture, which featured a panel of Gullah scholars and cultural activists. These events in Indiana and Colorado are typical of the attention Gullah culture regularly receives throughout the United States.

Cultural survival

Gullah culture has proven to be particularly resilient. Gullah traditions are strong in the rural areas of the Lowcountry mainland and on the Sea Islands, and among their people in urban areas such as Charleston and Savannah. Gullah people who have left the Lowcountry and moved far away have also preserved traditions; for instance, many Gullahs in New York, who went north in the Great Migration, have established their own neighborhood churches in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens. Typically they send their children back to rural communities in South Carolina and Georgia during the summer months to live with grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Gullah people living in New York also frequently return to the Lowcountry to retire. Second- and third-generation Gullah in New York often maintain many of their traditional customs and sometimes still speak the Gullah language.

Representation in art, entertainment, and media



Historical landmarks


As mentioned above, the characters in Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories speak in a Deep South Gullah dialect. Other books about or which feature Gullah characters and culture are listed below.

Children's books on the Gullah

Fictional works set in the Gullah region

Gullah culture

Gullah history

Gullah language and storytelling



Historical photos of the Gullah can be found in such works as:


Cultural topics

Historical topics

Notable Americans with Gullah roots


  1. 1 2 3 4 Michael A. Gomez (9 November 2000). Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 102. ISBN 978-0-8078-6171-4.
  2. Philip Morgan (15 August 2011). African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee. University of Georgia Press. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-8203-4274-0.
  3. Cornelia Bailey; Norma Harris; Karen Smith (2003). Sapelo Voices: Historical Anthropology and the Oral Traditions of Gullah-Geechee Communities on Sapelo Island, Georgia. State University of West Georgia. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-883199-14-2.
  4. Low Country Gullah Culture, Special Resource Study: Environmental Impact Statement. National Park Service. 2003. p. 16.
  5. NPS. "Gullah Geechee History, Language, Society, Culture, and Change". National Park Service. p. 1. Geechee people in Georgia refer to themselves as Freshwater Geechee if they live on the mainland and Saltwater Geechee if they live on the Sea Islands.
  6. Anand Prahlad (31 August 2016). African American Folklore: An Encyclopedia for Students: An Encyclopedia for Students. ABC-CLIO. p. 139. ISBN 978-1-61069-930-3.
  7. Mwalimu J. Shujaa; Kenya J. Shujaa (21 July 2015). The SAGE Encyclopedia of African Cultural Heritage in North America. SAGE Publications. pp. 435–436. ISBN 978-1-4833-4638-0.
  8. Daina Ramey Berry (2012). Enslaved Women in America: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-313-34908-9.
  9. Low Country Gullah Culture, Special Resource Study: Environmental Impact Statement. National Park Service. 2003. pp. 50–58.
  10. Althea Sumpter, Georgia Institute of Technology, and NGE Staff (March 31, 2006). "Geechee and Gullah Culture". Georgia Humanities Council and the University of Georgia Press. Archived from the original on April 6, 2016. Retrieved 30 July 2016.
  11. 1 2 3 4 Joseph A. Opala. "Bunce Island in Sierra Leone" (PDF). Yale University. Retrieved 30 July 2016.
  12. J. Lorand Matory (2 December 2015). Stigma and Culture: Last-Place Anxiety in Black America. University of Chicago Press. p. 196. ISBN 978-0-226-29787-3.
  13. Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World. Elsevier. 6 April 2010. p. 470. ISBN 978-0-08-087775-4.
  14. Low Country Gullah Culture Special Resource Study and Final Environmental Impact Statement, National Park Service, Southeast Regional Office, p. 3
  15. Judith Ann Carney (30 June 2009). Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Harvard University Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-674-02921-7.
  16. West, Jean M. "Rice and Slavery: A Fatal Gold Seede". Slavery in America.
  17. "South Carolina Slave Laws Summary and Record". Slavery in America.
  18. Slavery in America Archived September 19, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  19. Thomas-Houston, Marilyn M. (December 1999). "Review: The Language You Cry In: The Story of a Mende Song by Alvaro Toepke, Angel Serrano". American Anthropologist. Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association. 101 (4): 826–828. doi:10.1525/aa.1999.101.4.826. JSTOR 684061.
  20. "Gov. Sanford to Sign Heirs Property Bill at Gullah Festival, US Fed News Service, May 26, 2006". Retrieved 25 September 2014.
  21. "Gullah | Wycliffe Bible Translators USA". Retrieved 2016-07-21.
  22. ""Healin fa de Soul," Gullah Bible readings released | The Island Packet". Retrieved 2016-07-21.
  23. Smith, Bruce (2011-11-25). "Gullah-language Bible now on audio CDs". The Sun News. Associated Press. Retrieved 2011-11-26.
  24. Bill Will Provide Millions for Gullah Community, National Public Radio, October 17, 2006
  25. "10 Prominent African-Americans You Didn't Know Have Roots in the Gullah Geechee Corridor". Atlanta Black Star.
  26. "Michelle Obama's Family Tree has Roots in a Carolina Slave Plantation". Chicago Tribune. December 1, 2008.
  27. Economist Obit 09/24/2016
  28. "Georgetown County mourns local Gullah legend Vermelle 'Bunny' Rodrigues". South Strand News. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  29. "Supreme Court Justice Clarance Thomas a Gullah Speaker". New York Times. December 14, 2000.
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