Gullah Culture and Arts
The Gullah people have contributed to American culture in varied and unexpected ways. They have influenced American history, old and new music, television, and even the US government. Notable Gullah people include the founder of the Black Baptist Church, a current Supreme Court Justice, the “mother of the civil rights movement,” and countless athletes, activists, artists, and historians. Although unrecognized for decades, Gullah heritage and culture has recently gained media prominence and widespread appreciation.
In 2013, American Idol winner Candace Glover discussed her Gullah heritage on national television. Although many musicians have Gullah roots, Candace’s choice to acknowledge her upbringing proved meaningful for many friends on St. Helena, who had sold buttons and t-shirts to support her on the 12th Idol. Ron Daise, a Gullah musician and St. Helena resident, stood up and applauded as he watched Glover from his living room. Glover is not the only Gullah musician; others include Geechee Blind Blake, Darius Rucker, and James Brown (who had Geechee roots).
If you wonder how much Gullah culture has influenced American music, just listen to “Kumbaya.” This iconic song, which translates to “Come By Here,” encompasses so much of the Gullah style: it is well-known but hardly ever attributed to the Gullah people; it came from generations of West African spirituals mixing with Christian hymns in Praise Houses; and it has that familiar yet profound sense that permeates Gullah art. “Kumbaya” feels familiar for a reason: many Gullah hymns have influenced Gospel music, and the Gullah people brought the call-and-response style to US churches. For slaves, music served as a form of resistance; they put coded messages into spirituals and the unique musical style allowed many churches and praise houses to worship largely on their own terms. Throughout the years, the Gullah people passed down their hymns, praise songs, and West African spirituals. These songs were sung in praise houses, church services, funerals, and even in historical conservation societies. Music and tradition remained tightly linked throughout Gullah history, and traditional songs still connect the Gullah people to their West African past.
St. Helena has many notable artists, who have preserved a variety of African artistic styles in visual art, clothing, and basketmaking. Some notable island artists include Cassandra Gillens (mentioned in this interview), Sandra “Renée” Smith, and Diane Britton Dunham. Jason Murphy, the graphic designer of Nike, also has Gullah roots. Philip Reid, the black foreman on the Statue of Freedom sculpture, was a Gullah slave. He was later freed, when he changed his surname from Reid to Reed.
St. Helena island also has its own art gallery, the Red Piano Too. Located in the historical Corner Co-op building (which was the first store to pay black people with money instead of bartering for goods). The store, which is in its 22nd year, carries a wide variety of Gullah art. Artwork hangs from almost every surface; they have dolls, baskets, large paintings, and books. It feels at once museum-like and intimate; the art itself often portrays scenes of everyday island life, families preparing a home-cooked meal or women by the seashore or dolls in traditional African dress.
The four most famous artists from St. Helena include Sam Doyle, Jonathan Green, Merton Simpson, and Mary Jackson. Sam Doyle painted largely on sheet metal and wood; many of his paintings portray traditional Gullah beliefs about spirits, or reenact folklore. Jonathan Green popularized the Gullah culture through his paintings in the late 20th century. He focused on the spirit of the low-country, painting agricultural scenes, portraits, and vibrant photos of dancing and get-togethers. His paintings encompass life on St. Helena; they focus on color, the natural world, and the bond between islanders. Merton Simpson, a Gullah painter and art collector from Charleston, was known for his expansive collections of African art as well as his own expressionist style. He also created the Merton Simpson gallery to showcase African and tribal art in New York City. Read more about Simpson here.
The Gullah people are also famous for their sweetgrass baskets, a world-renowned weaving style that comes from West Africa and remains a part Gullah culture today. Many community members, especially the older generations, make and sell baskets (this interview explains the process of making, selling, and teaching others how to make baskets). Although the Gullah style of basket-making is famous on its own, Mary Jackson also popularized sweetgrass baskets by making new basket designs; her designs put an unconventional spin on traditional patterns. Jackson used traditional methods to make new styles of baskets, with larger handles or striking accents. She has since made baskets for the Prince of Wales, the Smithsonian Museum, and many other private clients.
Gullah Praise House celebrants transformed the West African Ring Shout (counter clock-wise motion without crossing one's legs) into the shout, where rhythmic stomping and clapping while seated replaced the actual dances. At the same time, where the Gullah shout continued as dance, it blended almost perfectly with the Protestant prohibition against crossing the feet. A full description of The Shout can be found here.
In addition, it was common in the 1900s to hold dances at Juke Joints, which were stores during the day. One Juke Joint, called a shop, was owned by a man called Jelly Belly. Another Juke Joint had a jail on the second floor, which is also mentioned here. Jonathan Green portrays Juke Joints in many of his paintings.
To truly cover the historical scope and impact of the Gullah people would take volumes, and many books have been written on the topic. However, the most common way that the Gullah people have preserved their story is oral history: St. Helena families have passed down Gullah history through storytelling, songs, and, more recently, books and educational programs.
In 1862, a Gullah slave named Robert Smalls dressed up as his master, stole a confederate ship (the CSS Planter), brought the ship to Union waters, and later met Abraham Lincoln and convinced him to allow African-American soldiers to join the US army. He bought his former master’s house, created the Republican Party of South Carolina, and became a US senator in 1875. He also created the first free and compulsory public education system in the US, which began in South Carolina. For more about Robert Smalls, see this story. Robert Smalls is also mentioned in this interview, and has a few monuments, schools, and roads in his name in the St. Helena area.
The Penn Center
The Penn Center was originally established to educate freed slaves as part of the Port Royal experiment. Since 1862, it has:
- Educated midwives
- Served as a boarding school
- Trained island grandmothers in medicine
- Established a teen and daycare center
- Served as a meeting place for Civil Rights activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Started the Penn School for historical preservation
- For more, click here.
Anita Prather has done notable work preserving the Gullah Culture through the Penn Center. Mary Mack has also served the Penn Center, and Ervena Faulkner explains some of its history here. In this interview, Jalin Mack talks about attending some Penn Center educational programs as a child and adult, including their Heritage Days and summer camp. Reverend Leonard Ritter explains more about Heritage Days here. Read more about the Penn Center at their website.
The Gullah people have passed down West African folklore through storytelling. As seen on countless interviews, the Gullah people have a vibrant, energetic, captivating style of storytelling that has clearly been honed by generations of practice. They use body language, repetition, and humor to relate popular figures like the Boo Hag or Dr. Buzzard; they use this same style to illustrate more personal reflections. Gullah folklore deals heavily with the spirit world; many stories relate islanders escaping from bad spirits, or “hants”; others mention curses and their cures. In Gullah folklore, as well as day-to-day life, people safeguard themselves against the spirit world by praying, visiting a root doctor, passing a baby over a grave three times (mentioned again here), sprinkling salt around their houses, burning sage, and other remedies. Island historians have made it their mission to preserve the Gullah culture through writing and educational initiatives: two notable examples include Natalie Daise and Dr. Emory Campbell.
Appendix: Notable Gullah People
What follows is a list of notable Gullah people: people on this list either grew up on the Sea Islands or other “Gullah areas”, have Gullah ancestors, or have Gullah family members. This list comes from Kenyon’s archive as well from Gullah Heritage Trail Tours and The Atlanta Black Star.
- Jim Brown: Football player, grew up in St. Simons’ GA in the Geechee corridor.
- Joe Frazier: World Heavyweight Champion
- Charles Dennis Singleton: boxer
- Michael Jordan: Athlete
- Dan Driessen: MLB infielder from Hilton Head; 1973-87
- Gerald Perry: MLB first baseman from Savannah, 1983-1995
- Michelle Obama: US First Lady
- Clarence Thomas: US Supreme Court Justice. Thomas is actually famous for being silent in court, but few people know why: he spoke out about once fearing that people would hear his Gullah accent and consider him uneducated.
- Rev. Richard Cain: minister and in House of Representatives, 1873-1875
- James Skivring Smith: 6th president of Liberia, 1871-72
- Gullah Jack: Jack Pritchard, Co-organizer of Denmark Vesey's slave conspiracy, 1882. Was hanged but allegedly used his spiritual powers to keep people quiet about the rebellion
- Denmark Vesey: attempted a slave rebellion in Charleston, 1822
- Andrew Bryan: founded the “Mother Church of Black Baptist” aka one of the first and most prominent black baptist churches in the US
- Septima Poinsette Clark: “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”
- Julie Dash: filmmaker raised in Queens; her father is Gullah.
- Dr. Ernest Everett Just: Biologist, credited with the idea that cell surface is important in organism development and promoting the study of the whole cell.
- Chris Rock: Comedian; his parents are Gullah.
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