On Johns Island in South Carolina, there is a tree called Angel Oak that is said to be more than 500 years old. That means this ancient tree was there in the days of the Cherokee and the Catawba, right around the time when the Spanish settled what would eventually become Georgetown. This great tree stood and grew through the first arrivals of the enslaved Africans who hailed mostly from Angola and Senegambia as well as the Windward Coast, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Mozambique, Benin and Biafra.
The arriving Africans would inhabit the lands of the Sea Islands on which Angel Oak stands and come to be known as the Gullah (thought to be derived from “Angola”) and the Geechee. Those on the South Carolinian islands were the Gullah while those on the Georgian isles were Geechee. The Gullah Geechee, primarily because they were bound to islands which did not have any bridges to the mainland, were able to maintain many aspects of their African heritage specifically because of their insulation from the rest of America.
Angel Oak stood all throughout the American slave trade and the proliferation of slavery and racism. And it lived through the Civil War and saw the Northerners vanquish the Southerners who, by and large, left the Sea Islands and their living “property” behind. Upon this departure, the Gullah Geechee pooled their resources and became the first African Americans to collectively own large swaths of land post slavery. This was land that no one else wanted at the time because it was swampy, full of alligators and mosquitoes, and had no access to the mainland until the mid 20th century. But the Gullah Geechee had known and worked this land since their arrival, so they were cool with it. They understood it and it, including Angel Oak, understood them.
I had forgotten about the Gullah Geechee—names I’d heard in passing in movies like Uptown Saturday Night all throughout my life without ever really understanding their history—until I was driving down US 17 toward Charleston and saw the Geechee Shrimp Shack. I probably should have just stopped there and bought some shrimp but I thought that if I simply went to one of the islands that I would randomly run into a group of Gullah Geechee doing something African.
Yeah, I know how that sounds, but I’m just being honest.
Employing the Google app on my phone, I saw that Johns Island wasn’t too out of the way and I would find the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor there. But when I went to the where this cultural center was supposed to be, I found nothing but a CVS, a coffee shop, the Sea Islands Chamber of Commerce and a couple of empty storefronts. More than a little disappointed, I continued to travel deeper into the island where I saw a random golf course with folks hitting balls really close to traffic, grocery stores, an Irish bar, a high school, some gas stations, a Masonic Lodge and what very much appeared to be urban sprawl. I didn’t find anything that looked remotely African and I really didn’t see too many Black people period.
Finally, I decided to listen to a couple of YouTube videos on the Gullah Geechee as I drove and learned that they’ve been selling off a lot of their land to developers. This explains why Hilton Head has made Charleston the most popular vacation destination in America to date. Since I didn’t have time to go shake a fist at tourists on Hilton Head or see the Gullah cultural centers there, I decided to visit the Angel Oak Preserve right on Johns Island instead.
I was the only Black visitor there…and the only visitor who actually went up to touch the trunk of the ancient oak. Surprisingly, the bark was warm as if the tree was emanating heat. I decided to go to the nearby gift shop and see if anything Gullah Geechee was there. The little shop was plastered with signs saying that no photography was allowed, so I was not able to capture images of the array of really expensive sweetgrass baskets on display. What’s the deal with these sweetgrass baskets? According to Sciway.net, they are a longtime African tradition:
Sweetgrass baskets are almost identical in style to the shukublay baskets of Sierra Leone, where learning to coil baskets “so tightly they could hold water” was an important rite of passage in West African tribes like the Mende and the Temne.
This basket-making tradition came to South Carolina in the 17th century by way of West African slaves who were brought to America to work on plantations….Using a type of marsh grass known as bulrush, slaves coiled sturdy, intricate work baskets called fanners. Fanners were used for winnowing, the process of tossing hulls into the air to separate the chaff from the rice. Other work baskets held vegetables, shellfish, and later, cotton.
I wasn’t able to take a picture of what I presumed to be an actual Gullah woman sitting there in the gift shop weaving a sweetgrass basket either. When I tried to buy a book on Gullah culture and history as well as a cookbook which offered 101 ways to prepare grits, I was told that I wasn’t able to use my credit card because their machine had run out of receipt paper. At that point, I was pretty annoyed. I hated myself for wanting to ogle these people as if they were a museum exhibit and I hated that I couldn’t buy anything to support them. As if anyone carries cash anymore.
Anyway, that was my personal intro to the Gullah Geechee who, for the most part, don’t really live on the South Carolinian or Georgian island lands anymore and may not even be aware that they are in fact descendants of these unique American people. I made a note to try to come back to the Sea Islands before Gullah Geechee history and culture is completely erased.