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Gullah Geechee culture: respected, understood and striving: sixty years after Lorenzo Dow Turner's masterpiece, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect.


MUCH of the Gullah Geechee history and culture resides in the Sea Islands and Coastal communities of South Carolina and Georgia where Lorenzo Dow Turner first immersed himself into the Gullah Geechee Culture in 1932: Sapelo Island, Harris Neck, Ossabaw Island, Pin Point, Skidaway, and Tybee Island in Georgia; and Daufuskie Island, Hilton Head Island, St. Phillips Island, Paris Island, St. Helena Island, Lady's Island, John's Island, Wadmalaw Island, Edisto Island, McClellanville, and Georgetown in South Carolina.

The Sea Islands and Coastal Communities of 1932 when Turner arrived was not the coast of gated communities, golf courses and traffic jams resembling Hilton Head Island and the surrounding islands in 2010. Turner embarked on a primitive coastline and an isolated people and culture that he respected and immediately began trying to understand.

Connecting the Worlds of the African Diaspora: The Living Legacy of Lorenzo D. Turner

HAVING GROWN UP Gullah on the South Carolina Sea Island of Hilton Head Island, I shall attempt to discuss Turner's impact on the Gullah Culture from a personal viewpoint. In addition to the influence of Turner's work on the interpretation our language, this paper discusses: a) my personal transformation experience in acknowledging my language and culture; b) Turner's influence on scholars who subsequently published and researched layers of the culture; c) the revival of the culture over the past twenty to thirty years; and d) the purpose and activities of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.

It is widely acknowledged that Africans, enslaved and transported to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, provided the intellectual capital and sweat equity that produced the rice that became Carolina Gold, making South Carolina one of the wealthiest British colonies. A substantial number of the enslaved Africans were deposited at ports around Charleston, South Carolina. They had come from different West African cultures, tribes and clans. Some of their descendants were the people that Lorenzo Turner met at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg in 1929, upon his arrival for a summer stint at the college to earn much needed income for his family.

TURNER found that students from the coastal areas of the state sounded different from other African Americans and began his study of the Gullah language (Turner). Upon reading about Turner's detection of the difference in sound of students at SC State College in 1929, I was reminded of my experience some sixty-two years later when my daughter Ayoka was entering Howard University. The receptionist sent us to the foreign students' admissions office because she said I sounded foreign. (Campbell 11).

Turner's aroused intellectual curiosity hastened his preparation for further research of this strange sound by honing his linguistic skills. In today's world of cell phones, internet service and air travels one could easily misunderstand the hardships that Turner encountered as he began to pursue his goals of connecting the Gullah language to its West African origin. Knowing that he needed more learning in the rudiments of linguistics, he enrolled at the Linguistic Society of America Summer Institute of NYU in the summer of 1930 and met a number of prominent linguists. He realized that he had much to learn about language differences as well as the complex logistics necessary to undertake field work in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. But the daunting task of learning the details of these functions did not deter Turner (Turner xiv-xv).

Margaret Wade-Lewis, in her brilliant book, "Lorenzo Dow Turner: Father of Gullah Studies," draws out the impressive details of Turner's life. Wade-Lewis alerts the reader that to understand Turner's tenacity in his pursuit of knowledge one must understand the character of Turner's parents. She wrote, "They were ambitious, hardworking and optimistic" (Wade-Lewis 4). It was obvious that family, education, and land ownership were the highest priorities in their lives. Thus, Turner's mission of high achievement was formed early in life. The exhibition at Anacostia vividly highlights his life's work, which mainly consists of his investigation and findings of the connections between Gullah and African languages.

My Personal Transformation Experience in Acknowledging My Language and Culture

I WAS FIRST introduced to Turner's 1949 work, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect in the 1970s and became ecstatic with the discovery that my granduncle, Ruben Chisolm (Turner's spelling: Rueben Chisom), was one of the informants for his investigation, and second, that the language that I had heard and spoken amidst ridicule and shame was a legitimate African rooted language (Turner 291).

In reflecting on my childhood I could put in perspective the circumstances under which Turner worked in the South Carolina-Georgia Sea Islands. Gullah people are generally wary of strangers and during the period of Turner's research, our people were more self-reliant than ever. It is highly likely that Turner's interview with Uncle Ruben took place on the river shore or in a bateau (boat). Uncle Ruben was born in 1896 in a remote section of Hilton Head Island at Braddock's Point, now a plush yacht basin called Harbor Town. He became one of the most outstanding seafarers in our family. I remember Uncle Ruben as a tall, strong man who was always dressed in bib overalls and hip high boots. A very dependable fisherman, he sailed his bateau from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina to Savannah, Georgia for trading. As I grew up I heard the story of how Uncle Ruben kept his catches fresh by keeping them submerged in the river in wooden cages known to Gullahs as "fish cars." In the years of Turner, an eighteen-mile trip to Savannah via bateau, could take up to two days. As Uncle Ruben related to Turner in an interview: "if you got gin tide and gin wind, you have to drop anchor and wait until the wind or the tide changes." (1) Typical of Gullah fishermen and women of Uncle Ruben's time, he would share part of his catch with the entire neighborhood first, then take the surplus to the Savannah market. And we should remember that these were the days of the Great Depression. Uncle Ruben shared with Turner his displeasure with the low wages paid for a day's work and with his deposits being forfeited when his bank declared itself broke.

MY POINT HERE is not so much to emphasize the hardship that Uncle Ruben and other Gullah Geechee people faced in providing for family (Uncle Ruben related to Turner on tape he had "a wife and nine head a churen") (2) but to point out the persistence that was required of Turner to reach his informants at their remote and isolated environs and to convince them to share their stories.

During the time of Turner's project:

[A]pproaches to most of the Sea Islands embodied a vast span of marsh grass (spartima pata) that was interrupted only by narrow tributaries. It was the presence of bateaus [sic] that signified to intruders that humans and nature were intimately bonded on the islands. (Campbell 99-109)

Add to that situation, the constant onslaught of huge biting mosquitoes and extreme humidity that came with the 90-degree-plus temperatures in spring and summer.

UNCLE RUBEN passed away in 1946, three years before Turner published his fifteen years of work. But thanks to Turner's perseverance, the stories of Uncle Ruben and those of other Gullah informants have propelled us to a better understanding and appreciation of the Gullah Geechee culture and language.

Secondly, my discovery of Turner's work helped me to form my own sense of self and place. Until then I was confused about the language that I heard and spoke. In browsing the book I saw familiar terms we used daily and their West African origin. I soon realized that Gullah culture is more accurately displayed when it is expressed in the Gullah language. I was elated to learn that Turner had linked names and words that I heard growing up to Africa.

Turner's Influence on Scholars

SLAVERY IN AMERICA lasted more than two centuries, producing a steady flow of Africans through the middle passage to North and South America. Yet most Americans have never fully understood African history and culture or the Africanisms that have been retained by the descendants of those who were enslaved.

This fact was emphasized in W.E.B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk, where he discussed the first time the Yankees met the enslaved Africans in the Sea Islands when the Civil War began in 1861. The Yankees thought that "the African spoke an odd language and sang with soul-stirring voices" (Du Bois 20).

Laura Towne, founder of Penn School on St. Helena Island, arriving in 1862 soon witnessed the "praise-house shout" that had been developed from African dance tradition and wrote in her diary, "I never saw anything so savage" (Towne 20).

But despite such misinterpretations of Gullah cultural practices, Turner's brilliant work, like the published work of some others African Americans, such as the great Zora Neale Hurston, was largely overlooked and at times publicly disputed and discounted.

In contributing a foreword to Drums and Shadows, in 1940, Guy B. Johnson, author of Folk Culture on St. Helena Island, SC, like a number of others who have studied the Gullah culture, supported the theory that slavery was so devastating that enslaved former Africans and their descendants lost all aspects of their forbears' African culture (Drums and Shadows xxxiii-xv). Eventually Turner's critics subsided and a new breed of scholars followed his footsteps to investigate Gullah culture further. As it turns out, among those who have studied Gullah culture, Turner was the most perceptive of them all. Margaret Wade-Lewis stated in Lorenzo Dow Turner: Father of Gullah Studies that Turner's work, linking the Gullah language to African languages, "has stood the test of time" (Wade-Lewis 162).

AS A GULLAH PERSON, my experiences growing up in the culture are not unlike other Gullah people of my era. Here, I shall share a bit of the rhythm of our lives.

I grew up hearing African soundwaves, seeing the fantastic African images and satisfying the taste buds and souls of the African continent within the confines of the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands.

And I grew up knowing that I would speak two languages--that of my maternal grandmother "Needie," my first babysitter, who spoke only in the Gullah Geechee language and had retained her "basket name" as opposed to her legal name, Rosa. Her speech included Africanisms, including West African and Gullah words found in Turner's research, as notated in his book: oona (for you), cooter (turtle), fo day clean (before dawn), buckra (white man), biddie (chicken), loni (to stand alone), fus one (firstborn), Comesee (first child born that lived) Mos a man (almost a man, short in stature). And she would speak in Gullah proverbs: Whenever she thought we were trying to do too many things at the same time and doing none of them well, she'd say, "Dog got four foot but can't walk but one road." And she would tell us about ghosts that appeared, particularly near the cemetery. And she would tell of "hags," an elderly person (woman), who would leave her body and "ride" you at night while you tried to sleep. This folktale was among the most popular ones repeated among Gullah children for evening entertainment at home before television became available.

THEN there was the language of my paternal grandmother, Mama Julia, who took pride in speaking only the "Queen's English," did not have a basket name, and called everyone by their legal name. She spoke in terms like "make haste", "fortnight," and "daybreak" instead of day clean. And she passionately played the piano that sat in the front hallway of her house. Mama Julia struck me as being an avid reader. Her face was very often partially enveloped in what I later learned were month-old issues of the Beaufort Gazette newspaper. She and her husband, my paternal grandfather, Solomon, had been early post-Reconstruction teachers on Hilton Head Island.

In my neighborhood, like all the others on the island, there was an ever-present school house, a standout frame building just across the road from Mama Needie's, beyond the sugar cane field, where I would hear the recess bell halt the cheerful noise of children playing, calling them back to study. This same building served as our praise house, where we heard the same bell rung on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings calling neighbors for prayer meeting. And I would soon attend both institutions, as did most Gullah Geechee children. At school our Gullah Geechee speech was vigorously denounced, and we tried with considerable enthusiasm to learn English. At the praise house, the mourner's bench was our base for beginning our "seeking" journey. Seeking required that one visit a secret place in the forest three times a day--fo day (dawn), noon, and fus dark (dusk)--and through a series of dreams to arrive at an acceptable spiritual life. But I would also hear from the elders that Dr. Buzzard was a reliable alternate spiritual force.

I GREW UP observing my maternal grandfather, who believed that a witchcraft worker inflicted the epilepsy that he infrequently suffered, continue an old African handicraft; he constantly knitted cast nets. Demands for his much-appreciated skill to produce them were constant--mullet net, shrimp net, "poor man's net" (meaning one that could catch both shrimp and fish if you could only afford one). "Bubba," as we affectionately called him, was not as vocal as Mama Needie, but his Gullah was just as pronounced and he endeared himself to us with his caring ways. To augment the fishnets that Bubba and others made, my father, uncle, and other men built bateaux in their backyards.

Like Uncle Ruben, Gullah men and women would use these bateaux to take their goods to Savannah and peddle them in sweet grass baskets on top of their heads down the city lanes (Morgan 284-286).

BUT to most mainstream Americans, the Gullah culture remained a mystery well into the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1960s, the American Civil Rights movement inspired a resurgence of interest in studying the Gullah Culture as African Americans anxiously searched for their ancestral roots. As scholars investigated components of the culture, most of them referenced Turner's work for explanations of words and terms that would have otherwise remained obscure.

Peter Wood, in Black Majority, concluded from his research that rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia were developed and managed with contributions of enslaved West Africans who may have referenced knowledge and techniques gained from their ancestral Rice Coast. He used Turner's work in deciphering derivatives of some coastal river names in Georgia and South Carolina (Wood 184).

Margaret Washington Creel, author of A Peculiar People, cites Turner in explaining the Gullah language as an English based creole with elements of "survivals from African languages." Creel emphasized that Turner also found African retentions in word formation, syntax, and intonation (Creel 17, 194).

Later, I came to understand better the importance of our praise houses when Patricia Guthrie published the result of her 1970s research on praise houses in the book Catching Sense, revealing the uniqueness of life on St. Helena Island. She documented five cases that described how praise house leaders effectively judged community disputes. Her work quickened my memory of similar praise house activities when I was growing up on Hilton Head Island.

PERHAPS the most celebrated investigator of Turner's work is Joseph Opala, who shared similarities he found between our Gullah culture and Sierra Leone in his pamphlet "The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection" (Opala 1986). Subsequent to this publication, he helped to arrange for a cultural connection trip to Sierra Leone for a fifteen-member Gullah delegation in 1989. Then, several years later he escorted the Morans, a Gullah family from Harris Neck, Georgia to a Sierra Leone Mende village, thanks to a Mende song that Turner recorded from one of their ancestors, Amelia Dolly, in the 1930s. Two films resulted from these trips, Family Across the Sea and The Language You Cry In, respectively.

In 1982, Joseph E. Holloway, editor of "Africanisms in American," referring to Turner's work, convinced me to join a Bible translation team to translate the New Testament into our language. I reluctantly did so and was quickly enlightened when I learned that the rudiments of Gullah grammar began in Africa. Pride in the language grew tremendously as the team became serious translators from English to Gullah. Over the next twenty-four-year period, I was engrossed in the translation until the project was completed in 2005. Today De Nyew Testament ( The New Testament in Gullah) has surpassed sales expectations (American Bible Society).

Perhaps the most fitting citing of Turner's work is stated in The Gullah People and Their African Heritage, by William S. Pollitzer, who concludes that Turner's skin color gave him an entree to the Gullah speaker on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. As he stated, Turner lived among the people "listening, recording and writing their speech" (Pollitzer, 109).

This fact more than any other reason is why Turner's achievement is still appreciated and the Gullah culture and language remain among the most intriguing aspects of American culture.

Most of all, Turner's work provides a reliable bridge between yesterday and today and the African continent and African Americans. In addition to an extensive listing of names, he documented common everyday word usage of West African origin. Eventually scholars could no longer deny the fact that there is a language connection between West Africa and Gullah.

Gullah-Geechee Cultural Renaissance

THE PAST twenty years of renewed celebration of Gullah culture has inspired some to do deeper analysis of the culture. (3)

1). Traditional Gullahs (1st Circle): Traditional Gullahs are the modern descendants of the historic Gullah people who have remained in the low country region to the present day and continue with their traditional Gullah language and culture to one extent or another. The Traditional Gullahs vary in the degree to which they still speak Gullah and live a Gullah lifestyle. But the common feature of this group is that they have never moved away from their home area, and the Gullah speech and life-ways they have preserved have been handed down in their families unbroken since the days of slavery.

The word that best defines this group is continuity, meaning that they have retained their connection to the traditional Gullah lands and to their traditional language and culture.

2). Modern Gullahs (2nd Circle): Modern Gullahs fall into two groups: One that has never lost its connection to Gullah lands, and the other that has never lost its knowledge of Gullah language and culture. The first group includes Gullah families that have remained in the low country for generations, but for various reasons, lost much of their Gullah language and culture. The Gullahs living on the North Carolina and Florida ends of the Gullah region are mostly in this group.

The second group are Gullah people who moved away from the low country, but retained their Gullah speech and culture far from home. There are many Gullah families living in Northeastern cities--especially New York--that have been away for generations, but always sent their children back to the homeland to be with family in the low country every summer so that their offspring would keep a connection to Gullah traditions. There are Gullah people in places like Brooklyn and Harlem who speak Gullah fluently even though they were born and reared "up North."

The phrase that best defines these "Modern Gullahs" is land or language, meaning they have retained one or the other of these links to their traditional roots, but generally not both.

3). Gullah Family (3rd Circle): Gullah Family also fall into two different groups: The first includes people whose ancestors moved away from the low country generations ago and lost their knowledge of Gullah language and culture, but who have always kept in contact with Gullah kinfolk in the low country, and always known of their family ties to the region.

People in the second group also belong to families that moved away from the low country long ago, but they have come back in recent years, reunited with their low country kinfolk, reintegrated into the community, and begun to reacquire Gullah language and culture.

The phrase that best defines "Gullah Family" is unbroken family ties, meaning they have never lost contact with their kinfolk in the low country.

4). Gullah Diaspora (4th Circle): Modern Black Seminole people who still speak the Gullah language, and who still retain many ancient Gullah customs and traditions to the present day, belong to the 4th Circle. The original Black Seminoles were Gullah slaves who escaped from low country plantations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and fled south to freedom in the Florida swamps. Fighting alongside their Seminole Indian allies, the Black Seminoles waged a strong and determined military resistance against US expansion in Florida that went on for decades in the early 1800s, before they were finally forced to migrate in several directions from their Florida refuge. Today, there are Black Seminole communities in Oklahoma, Texas, Northern Mexico, the Bahamas, and Cuba, though each group has a different name for itself, reflecting its different historical circumstances.

Some elderly people among the Oklahoma "Seminole Freedmen," the Texas "Scouts," and Mexican "Mascogos" still speak a version of Gullah, which linguists call "Afro-Seminole Creole." Their language is so close to Gullah that their family connection to the Gullah people is undeniable, even though the two groups have been separated by a great deal of time and distance.

The phrase that best defines the 4th Circle--the modern Black Seminoles who still speak a version of Gullah--is historically related group. Although the Black Seminoles now have their own separate communities, they are clearly a historical offshoot of the Gullah people.

5). Gullah Descendants (5th Circle): "Gullah Descendants" are people who grew up entirely outside the low country and who only recently discovered their family link to Gullah ancestors through historical and genealogical research. People in this group lost touch with the Gullah community generations back, but can now claim a real ancestral connection to the low country based on their historical research.


THANKS to Turner and the work of later scholars, like those cited earlier, who dedicated extensive research to the culture, we Gullah Geechee people have become delightfully aware of who we really are in relation to our African origin. These scholarly research efforts have resulted in a body of widely published new information. No longer do we Gullah Geechee people hesitate to express our love of rice dishes, weave a basket as a commemorative piece of art, or share a folktale in the Gullah vernacular. (4)

A renaissance of widespread interest and acceptance of Gullah Geechee culture and language are manifested in a number of cultural art forms as well as economic ventures. These art forms are portrayed in annual vibrant cultural celebrations along the coast from Jacksonville, Florida to Wilmington, North Carolina. These events climax every November at the Penn Center. Fine arts depicting Gullah life adorns local galleries along the Gullah coast. The art of Jonathan Green, perhaps the most renowned Gullah artist, has achieved international acclaim. Gullah Gullah Island, a Nickelodeon TV series depicting the life of a young Gullah family rivaled other popular TV programs for children in the 1990s. And the Hallelujah Singers have achieved international fame with their performance of songs rooted in the Gullah culture. Furthermore, cultural tourism has not escaped the cultural renaissance. More than ten tour companies along the South Carolina-Georgia coast routinely highlight the Gullah culture as their attraction.

Perhaps the most widely accepted Gullah cultural asset is food. Culinary anthropologists have popularized fish and grits, shrimp and grits, gumbos and rice dishes in mainstream as well as Gullah restaurants. Several recently published cookbooks such as Home Cooking the Daufuskie Island Way, by Sallie Ann Robinson, containing traditional Gullah recipes and food ways. These activities boost the economy and promote transfer of these dishes to other cultures.

Since the American Bible Society published the New Testament in the Gullah language, readers of this extensive tedious work have enthusiastically taken advantage of opportunities to begin pressing through the barrier to Gullah speech community. Plans are underway to develop a companion audio version of the work. More important, the language is being widely read for the first time in history, a mark divergent from its oral tradition that could produce new speakers of the language. (Cross 234-235)

Purpose and Activities of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission

IN MY OPINION the future of the Gullah culture is relatively bright not only because of its current popularity, but also because of culture preservation efforts. The National Park Service recently published a study documenting the assets of the culture resulting in a passage of Federal Legislation that established the "Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor" from Jacksonville, Florida to Wilmington, North Carolina. Over the past three years a fifteen-member

teen-member commission is overseeing the development of management strategies "to nurture pride and facilitate an understanding and awareness of the significance of Gullah Geechee history and culture.

Knowing that Gullah, like other cultures, is influenced by interaction with other cultures and the natural environment, we are confident that Gullah cultural heritage will continue its course as a distinct valued function in American culture (Cross).

Ayok--Joy everyday --Yoruba       buckra--white man (Nigeria)
Dada--Grandfather (Togo)          bidi--chicken (Angola)
Dule--Bambaara (West Africa)      benne--sesame (Wolof /Senegal)
Mini--Mende (Vai/Sierra Leone)    gisi (Geechee) --tribe (Liberia)
Jojo--brilliant (Mende/Sierra     gumbo--okra (Congo)
Mingo--(Mende/Sierra Leone)       kuta--turtle (Bambara/
                                    Fr. West Africa)
Tala--white (Vai/Sierra Leone)    tabi--house (Wolof/Senegal)
                                  jiga--flea (Wolof/Senegal)
                                  tote--to carry (Angola)
(Turner 43--208)

Works Cited

American Bible Society. De Nyew Testament. 2005. California Newsreel. The Language You Cry In. DVD. (1998) San Francisco, CA.

Campbell, Emory S. Gullah Cultural Legacies. Hilton Head Island: Gullah Heritage Consulting Services (GHCS), LLC, 2008

Cross, Wilbur. Gullah Culture in America. Introduction by Emory S. Campbell. Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 2008.

Creel, Margaret Washington. A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community--Culture Among the Gullahs. New York: New York University Press, 1988.

Du Bois, W.E.B. Soul of Black Folks. Chicago. A. C. McClury & Co. 1903.

Georgia Writers' Project. Drums and Shadows, Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes. Foreword by Guy B. Johnson. Savannah Unit, Georgia Writers' Project, Works Progress Administration. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1940.

Guthrie, Patricia. Catching Sense. Westport, CT, London, Bergin & Garvey. 1996 ...

Morgan, Philip. African American Life in the Georgia Low-country: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee (Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900). Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Opala, Joe. "The Gullah: Rice, Slavery and the Sierra Leone-American Connection." Pamphlet. Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa, 1987.

Pollitzer, William. The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Robinson, Sallie Ann. Home Cooking the Daufuskie Island Way. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

S.C. ETV. Family Across the Sea. (1989) Videocassette.

Towne, Lauta. Laura TowneDiary. USA. 1992.

Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1949.

Wade-Lewis, Margaret. Lorenzo Dow Turner: Father of Gullah Studies. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

Wood, Peter. Black Majority. New York & London. W.W. Norton & Company. 1974.


(1.) Lorenzo Dow Turner's recordings.

(2.) Lorenzo Dow Turner's recordings.

(3.) Joseph Opala and the author of this paper collaborated and discerned that there are five Circles of Gullahs. These Circles may be attributable to particular circumstances as well as personal intentions.

(4.) These following paragraphs were reprinted from Gullah Culture in America by Wilbur Cross. It is from the introduction by Emory Campbell. (Cross 234-235).
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Author:Campbell, Emory S.
Publication:The Black Scholar
Article Type:Reprint
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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