Gullah Geechee Alive and Thriving within the Cape Fear

Written by: Casey McAnarney

North Carolina may not contribute the most land to The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, an expanse of land spanning four states on the East Coast, but this culture is not lost here. Long has it been said that the corridor exists from Jacksonville, NC to Jacksonville, FL, according to the Gullah Geechee nation’s Queen Quet. However, the work of historians and the National Parks Services proves that the true tip of the corridor is further into the Cape Fear region in Wilmington, where unique aspects of the culture continue to thrive and set North Carolina Gullah Geechee culture apart.

Back in slavery times, North Carolina had one port that operated at full capacity: Wilmington. The barrier islands off the coast made operating ports in other cities difficult at times, so Wilmington became the only port where enslaved Africans and Gullah were brought into North Carolina.

Gullah’s were targeted specifically for their West African heritage and practices when it came to planting and growing rice, according to Sean Palmer, Director of UNC Wilmington’s Upperman African American Cultural Center and NC Commissioner to the corridor.

Plantation owners would live in Wilmington, with their plantations and slaves existing outside of town in areas like Ogden, Eagle’s Island and Wrightsville Beach. The slaves would continue to develop and practice their West African traditions, which they were targeted for from the beginning. They were brought here for the specific reason to man rice.

However, there was an interruption in Gullah culture in Wilmington in 1898, when racial tensions in the city reached a peak, marking the start of an era of more severe segregation and disenfranchisement of African-Americans. During this time, individuals with Gullah Geechee ties began moving out of Wilmington, according to Palmer. They began moving to surrounding counties like Durham and further afield to Philadelphia and New Jersey. “Most black folk in Wilmington today are probably second wave Wilmingtonians,” Palmer said, as most of the originals fled.

North Carolina Gullah folk were even connected to the cotton pickers of Mississippi. Dr. Cassie Sade Turnipseed, a professor of History at Mississippi State Valley University, currently works to build a historical site that pays tribute to the unrecognized hard work of American cotton pickers since Mississippi is known as the “cotton kingdom.” Dr. Turnipseed began her research in Mississippi but eventually found herself in Wilmington, following the corridor and learning about Gullah connections to cotton picking.

“My project involved figuring out what is the narrative around cotton,” Dr. Turnipseed said, which led her to England. She traveled to Manchester last summer, where they consider themselves the cotton capital since they were the first textile industrialized city. That cotton was then shipped to the Carolinas and, eventually, the Mississippi Delta. Digging further, Dr. Turnipseed discovered that the Georgia seed cotton came directly from Africa and through the Carolinas. The Gullah tradition and culture is what sustained the practice of dealing with cotton, creating a unique commodity. Mississippi, Dr. Turnipseed said, “is the cotton kingdom extended from the Carolinas.”

The same was true for rice, according to Dr. Turnipseed, slave owners and traders were able to isolate and identify those folks that had a particular skill set, enabling the crops to grow well in the Carolinas. Skills were isolated and targeted, and the Africans who had such skills were held back to do this work for that specific purpose.

Skill sets however, were only one of the trademarks of Gullah culture. Palmer also mentioned a tradition of festivals related to Caribbean culture. Prior to 1898, Wilmington had its own Junkanoo festival, a Trinidadian and Bahamian street parade of Akan origins that occurs every Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. After the Insurrection of 1898, when the Gullah fled Wilmington and its violence, some fled to New Bern where they continued these Junkanoo festivals – now known as the John Canoe festival.

Another example of Gullah culture persisting in the Cape Fear region are, “The sweetgrass baskets that are synonymous with Charleston and Mount Pleasant resemble the same baskets made out of pine straw in North Carolina coastal community life,” said Palmer. Poplar Grove Plantation even exhibits these woven baskets on site.

“Where you grow rice in South Carolina,” Palmer said, “blueberries are big around here. Jonathan Green’s artwork is vivid and acknowledges Gullah culture and heritage, and we get Ivy Hayes and his work around blueberries, peanuts and tobacco.”

Rice is still here, Palmer said, which contributes proof to the idea that Gullah culture lived here. “Where we see the greatest continuity is that we get these African Methodist Episcopal churches up and down the eastern seaboard. Even the primacy of rice and how seafood is cooked, none of that is lost.”.

Palmer recalled visiting St. Helena, where he saw tabby concrete being used as house foundations. Tabby is cement made out of sea shells and is based on West African coastal community building practices. At Poplar Grove, about three miles away from the beach, Palmer noticed that the floor was made of shell.

“They did this because shell would have been more protective against water,” said Palmer, “so they used shell as a base because that is common in their West African heritage.”

Looking into Gullah culture will allow African Americans the chance to reconcile their own identities and find their roots. Previous corridor commissioner Mayor Eulis Willis published an entire book about the town of Navassa’s history and connection to the Gullah Geechee, called “Navassa: The Town and Its People.” This book was cited as being “the perfect example of the Gullah Geechee diaspora,” which led to Mayor Willis’ appointment on the corridor.

Dr. Turnipseed said that it was due to Gullah folk not wanting to be considered “backward,” that they would shed their culture. Now, it is time for those with connections to the culture to reclaim it and for the world to learn about it.

September 21 and October 19, 2018 – Sacred Places | Preserving Gullah Geechee Burial Grounds
All along the corridor
12:30-1:30 PM

Preserving the memory of African and Gullah Geechee burial grounds along the corridor. To register, call 843.818.4587 or email info@gulllahgeecheecorridor.org.

October 6, 2018 – Tracing Your Gullah Geechee Roots
St. Helena Public Library
St. Helena Island, SC
1-4 p.m.

Figure out more about your Gullah Geechee roots and heritage. This program is presented by the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission and the International African American Museum’s Center for Family History

March 7-9, 2019 – International Gullah Geechee and African Diaspora Conference
Coastal Carolina University
Conway, South Carolina

In partnership with The Charles W. Joyner Institute for Gullah and African Diaspora Studies at Coastal Carolina University, the 1st annual IGGAD conference is themed Tracing the African Diaspora: Places of Suffering, Resilience and Reinvention. It will examine significant social, political and cultural experiences among African American, African and Caribbean communities, past, present and future.

Discovering Their Roots
Inspired by Alex Haley’s documentary “Roots,” Mayor Eulis Willis began looking into his own roots and that of his town Navassa, NC. In the 1980s, Mayor Willis began asking older community members about the town’s past and documenting what they said. The mayor’s cousin, Herbert Willis, introduced him to a 101-year-old community member named Rachel-West-Mosely Corbett. Willis began interviewing and recording conversations held with community members, took history courses at Cape Fear Community College and reviewed state archives that would later become his book, “Navassa: The Town and its People.”
The book, which was dedicated to his sister Janice Willis Bryant and “whose passing made [him] realize how fragile living in the present is,” led to his chronicling the history of the town and the origins of its people. The book details how the town began as Sturgeon Creek and, later, Bluff Plantation. He discovered the town’s connections to the Gullah Geechee through the rice plantations, which brought the opportunity for the mayor to sit on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor as a commissioner. Mayor Willis even uncovered where the town got its name: a fertilizer company named after Navassa Island in the Caribbean.