Black History Deep Dive: The Gullah Geechee

Black History Month

JOHNS ISLAND, S.C. (WCBD) – You may have seen the sweetgrass baskets throughout Charleston, but do you know where they come from?

They come from the Gullah Geechee community.

The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of African Americans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo, and cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast.

Because they were enslaved on an isolated island and coastal plantations created a unique culture with a deep African representation, which can be seen in their arts, music, and food.

Their most famous work of art is the sweetgrass basket, which can be seen being made on the streets of Charleston today.

Jennifaye Singleton, one of the premier sweetgrass basket artists in the Lowcountry, shared with me the basket’s origin.

“The origin started in Africa. They would make the baskets over in Africa and…they would use it for their needs. When they came over to Charleston, they kind of hid the items on themselves and they still made the baskets over here.”

Jennifaye Singleton

Another important part of the Gullah culture, besides just the sweetgrass baskets, is their storytelling.

The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission’s mission is to preserve the Gullah’s history and traditions.

Heather Hodges, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, talked to me about some of the inspirations from Africa that can be found in the Gullah Geechee stories.

“A lot of them involved animals. That’s a very common character that you find in the oral tradition of West African countries and we also find it here in our Gullah Geechee communties.”

Heather Hodges, The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission

Jennifaye Singleton, who’s also a Gullah storyteller, explained why she felt it was important for the Gullah people to share their own stories.

…Our history is not written to the history books as we would like them. They only wrote the good parts of the story so sometimes we have to tell a little bit of the bad parts. With the bad parts being said, we can also talk about some of the good things that we brought from Africa.”

Jennifaye Singleton

No one can forget the food, which consists of red rice, corn, collard greens, hoppin’ john (a meal that features black-eyed peas and rice), etc.

Many of these foods can be found being naturally grown at Fields Farm, which has been in the Fields family for three generations.

The Fields family grew up in the same house that’s right across the street from the farm and Joseph Fields told me that his parents never wanted them to sell the land and to this day he is continuing to work on the farm.

Music is very important to their culture and is another way that the Gullah can express themselves.

“If you know anything about African history, back in the day, they used a washtub, a stick, and a band that made music. I know a lady to this day that still uses a washboard.”

Jennifaye Singleton

“I love their rhythms. One of the things that distinctive about Gullah Geechee music is that it’s retained a lot of those African rhythms.”

Heather Hodges, The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission

The Gullah Geechee have been around for a very long time and thanks to many different events, the continuous storytelling, and, of course, those sweetgrass baskets, they don’t plan on going away anytime soon.

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