February is Black History month and at Memory Matters we have been celebrating its origins. On Tuesdays Volunteer Bob and I have emphasized the annual celebration of achievements by recognizing the central role that African Americans have played in US history. The event grew out of “Negro History Week”, the brainchild of Carter G Woodson in 1915. Since 1976 every American President has recognized the Black History Month. President Gerald Ford was the first to recognize the celebration and called on the public at large to “seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans throughout our history”.
Bob and I especially recognized the sea islands’ Gullah community who originated in Sierra Leone in Africa and who came to America as slaves, before being freed after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment that followed.
A week ago a super young intern at Memory Matters whose name is Alaina asked if she could expand on our Gullah story because she is a direct descendent of the Gullah community on James Island near Charleston. We readily replied “yes please”. Alaina is a USCB Health Promotion Intern.
Today was the day for Alaina to tell her story and seldom have I seen a group of Compass Club Members, volunteers and staff listen with such focus and genuine interest. Alaina was quite brilliant in the manner in which she wove her tale and kept our attention throughout.
In the two pictures at the beginning of my blog is a glimpse of Alaina engaging us with her story, provoking questions and answering them with great clarity, and a classic photo of a lone Gullah Oysterman who inherited the skill of oyster and clam harvesting and shrimp fishing from the generations past. This photo is published with the permission of Andrew Branning Images.
Here is Alaina’s story:
The Gullah people brought from Sierra Leone many of the skills the colonists needed. Farming, fishing and rice growing were among them. They also brought their own culture sometimes called Geechee, including folklore, dancing and language. Over time the language developed a distinct dialect which was a mix of African, Creole and “Elizabethan” English. The culture spread south from Wilmington NC througout the sea islands to as far as Jacksonville, Florida and Hilton Head and its nearby islands became home to many Gullah, including to this day.
In 2006 President Bush signed into law a bill introduced by Congressman Clyburn to protect and preserve the Gullah/Geechee culture and a ten year grant was enacted.
The Africans who were brought to America and sold into slavery were auctioned at the old Charleston Exchange House built in 1760 which can still be seen today. Also in Charleston is a very famous Church. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, often referred to as Mother Emanuel. Founded in 1816, Emanuel AME is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the Southern United States, with the first independent black denomination in the United States as well as one of the oldest black congregations south of Baltimore. This Church is synonymous with Gullah history. This is important since in the early days the Gullah could not express their spirituality in public, and yet they have always been a spiritual people.
Understandably the Gullah have been protective of their culture and cautious not to allow people to take advantage of their skills. For example Gullah ladies weaving those beautiful sweetgrass baskets do not like other people taking photographs of them.
Alaina went on to explain the wonderful cooking skills her people have passed down and the tasty dishes including shrimp and grits (Volunteer Mike’s personal favorite!) red rice, okra soup, hoppin’ John, collard greens and frogmore stew which most of us know as Low Country Boil. The point Alaina was keen to emphasize was that the Gullah love food and take great pride in “cooking from the heart”. Who needs a recipe when your heart is at work!
Alaina told us all about the Gullah myths including the Bo Hags who can enter your room and body and “steal your breath away”. Wow! She had our full attention! We learned we can repel them with salt granules and keeping a straw broom to hand can be helpful.
We loved the Gullah/Geechee language examples that Alaina taught us, passed on down from her Great Grandmother, Grandmother and own Mother on James Island. We struggled to interpret what was said but here is a really inspiring version of the Lords Prayer.
The Lords Prayer :
We Fada we dey een heaben leb ebrybody hona ya nyame cause ya holy.
We pray dat soonya gwine rule oba de Wol.
Wasoneba ting ya wahn let urn be so een dis wol same like e da dey een heaben.
Gii we de food wa we need dis day ya, an ebry day.
Fagibe we de bad ting we da do, same like we fagibe dem people wa do bad ta we.
Leh we down habe haad test wen Satan try we.
Keep we fom ebil.
We concluded Alaina’s inspirational story by viewing a close up photograph of the Lone Gullah Oysterman who had kindly allowed Andrew Branning to photograph and publish his work. It is tough life for the “White Boot Heroes” who bring fresh local fish, and shell fish to our Low Country community. We should be always grateful for their tireless and skilled work, and helping to preserve the culture of many generations of Gullah.
The Gullah are spiritual sea island people so it was perhaps appropriate to conclude with a hymn entitled “Lord, when You came to the Seashore”.
Alaina, the Memory Matters Compass Club Members sincerely thank you for your insight.
Please share this if you believe it would help someone. Call 1 843 842 6688 Memory Matters office for more information. It’s always confidential.