Ask a typical Charlestonian what they know about Gullah culture, and they'll probably answer with the basics: sweetgrass baskets, Hoppin' John, Lowcountry boil. But while some Gullah traditions have made their way into modern Lowcounty life, for many, much remains a mystery about our Sea Island neighbors, from their language to rituals to history. That's due in part to the relative isolation of Gullah communities, spread out along the coastline of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Hilton Head-based historian Wilbur Cross attempts to offer a better understanding of this unique culture with his information-packed book Gullah Culture in America.
Originally published in 2007, Gullah Culture was slapped with an expensive jacket price and sold mainly to libraries, leaving it largely inaccessible to the general readership. The latest edition has been updated with all-new illustrations and a bright cover designed by Gullah artist Jonathan Green, but most of the content is the same, with chapters devoted to religion, folk medicine, language, food, music, and more. At $16.95, the price is also much more reasonable.
A former Time editor with more than 40 titles under his belt, Cross moved to Hilton Head in 1989, and his passion for history led him to the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. Founded as a school for freed slaves in 1862, the center now works to promote and preserve the history and culture of the Sea Islands.
At the time, Emory Shaw Campbell was the director of the Penn Center. Inspired by research suggesting that slaves from Sierra Leone had been shipped to the Gullah regions of S.C. and Georgia, Campbell led a group of 14 African Americans to Sierra Leone in an effort to uncover their ancestors. The Americans were greeted with great fanfare in Africa, and they were surprised to find how much they had in common with the people of Sierra Leone, from the words they spoke to the food they ate. It was a momentous step forward for a group of people who had little tangible connection with their roots.
Isolated on rural islands and plantations, Lowcountry slaves had quite a different experience than those in other parts of North America. Because the slaves had so little contact with whites, they were able to preserve African cultural traditions, including their diets, music, and rituals.
"You've probably heard the term that when the slaves came over here they brought nothing with them but the shirts on their back and that was it," Cross says. "But the fact of the matter is that in their heads they brought all this knowledge about religion, about cures for illnesses by using things you can find in the forest and fields, and about foods and fishing. In other words, they had many, many talents."
For instance, they learned to make tea from cotton roots to use in hot poultices to treat muscle aches, to ferment wild cherry to cure diarrhea, and to use seaweed and marsh grass to treat cramps and bruises. Cockroach tea, wouldn't you know, is a great cure for a persistent cough, while mashed earthworms mixed with lard can ease rashes. A few of the remedies, like the use of spider webs to stop bleeding, have been found by botanists to contain elements that are used in medications today.
Post-slavery, most Gullah families chose to remain on the Sea Islands, forming close-knit communities founded on Gullah traditions. "They were able to subsist without any kind of outside help once they were freed," Cross says.
Remarkably, they also managed to maintain their language, a blend of English and African. According to Campbell, who grew up speaking Gullah, the language developed among Lowcountry slaves during the summer months when their owners would travel north. After helping to translate the New Testament into Gullah, Campbell became a leader in the movement to bring greater recognition to Gullah communities. Cross hopes that his book will assist with that effort.
"The thing I like about all Gullah people is they are so outgoing. They don't seek retirement, they go out and do things, they help each other," Cross says. "The Gullah people have contributed as much as the white people to civilization."