The roots of Gullah
By Damon L. Fordham
Many visitors to the Charleston area are fascinated by the Gullah speech, which is prominent among local blacks and in some cases, older whites who were raised by black servants but only few people, even among locals, are familiar with its origins.
The answer lies in Sierra Leone and Liberia, countries that were home to rice growing tribes, which included the Mendes, the Gizzes and the Golas. In the 1700s, an English slave trader named Richard Oswald entered a partnership with a South Carolina plantation owner named Henry Laurens, who owned Mepkin Plantation near Moncks Corner. Oswald and Laurens learned about the rice-growing abilities of these particular groups and captured and sold many of these Africans as slaves to Lowcountry rice plantations.
The Africans from this region had many unique characteristics in addition to their rice-growing skills. They wove complex baskets for “fanning” rice. Their language included words like udat, which means “who is that,” babafor “father” and yahya for “mother.” They also had religious practices that included going into trancelike states of ecstasy during worship services, putting favored items of the deceased on burial sites and the pouring of liquids in memory of the deceased (now referred to as “libation”).
The Africans of the Lowcountry and coastal Georgia outnumbered the whites on the plantations and thus had lesser contact or influences from white Americans, as was also the case in West Indian islands such as Jamaica and Barbados. This explains the similarity in speech. As a result, the blacks in these areas kept more of their African speech, folkways and religious practices than most of the other Africans who were brought to North America. The resulting culture was soon called Gullah, based loosely on the word for the Gola tribe, or Geechee, which some say is either from the Gizze ethnic group or from the Olgeechee River near Savannah, Georgia.
Because Gullah speech does not meet the standards of English grammar, speakers were mocked for sounding ignorant, countrified” or “backward.” Even scholars of the time considered Gullah a form of baby talk and poor English. Many blacks from these regions who attended college or aspired to middle class status did what they could to disguise any trace of Gullah background. Others suffered from self-esteem issues once they left their native regions for other areas.
This trend continued until the advent of Dr. Lorenzo Turner, the first black man to obtain a degree in linguistics. In 1932, Dr. Turner taught at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg and became fascinated with the speech of his Lowcountry students, and as a scholar of languages, he immediately recognized similarities with the speech of various West Africans. He went to the Sea Islands of S.C. and coastal Georgia to study the speech of the black residents. Amelia Dawley in Harris Neck, Georgia proved his theory to correct. She sang Dr. Turner a song that she had learned from her African grandmother which he identified as a tune belonging to the Mende people of Sierra Leone. He recognized Gullah as a cultural connection between Africans and black Americans.
Dr. Turner published his findings in Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect in 1949, a volume not widely known outside of the scholarly community. In the 1980s, President Joseph Momoh of Sierra Leone visited St. Helena’s Island and spoke with a strong native dialect that the residents immediately noticed as very similar to their own. This led to several local residents touring Sierra Leone and becoming awestruck by the similarities in rice baskets, language and folkways. A documentary of this visit was fittingly titled Family Across the Sea. Several years later, scholar Joseph Opala arranged for Mary Moran, the granddaughter of Amelia Dawley, to visit the Mende people of Sierra Leone. In addition to being able to sing the same song, Mrs. Moran learned that her grandmother’s song was the funeral song of the Mendes. Public knowledge of this story led to resurgence of pride in Gullah among the locals.
Damon L. Fordham is an adjunct professor of History at The Citadel who conducts the “Lost Stories of Black Charleston” walking tour out of Buxton Books in Charleston. He is the author of four books, the most recent being “The 1895 Segregation Fight in South Carolina.” He may be reached via email at Damonfordham1964@gmail.com.