By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Researching African-American ancestral roots has its own particular set of challenges, since African-Americans cannot always discover the African country that they came from through traditional research methods or through DNA testing. Ancestral research for many black people is complicated by the impact of the slave experience on record-keeping and document retrieval.

Most black people doing research get frustrated when they hit what I referred to as the “1870’s slave wall.” The “slave wall” is sometimes the end of most family tree searches, because most slave owners often did not record their slaves’ names or information because of their status as property prior to the abolishment of slavery in 1865. As a result of the rich traditions and determination to preserve the Gullah culture and community, blacks who trace their ancestry back to a location within the Gullah / Geechee Corridor now have something tangible that they can connect to.

For example, although it may be impossible to identify which specific village in Africa a family line comes from, an analysis of slave records from the port of Charleston shows that 32 percent of Lowcountry slaves came from Angola, while 27 percent came from Senegambia (Senegal and Gambia), 32 percent from the Winward Coast — which includes Liberia, the Ivory Coast and Ghana, 6 percent from Sierra Leone and 3 percent from Madagascar and Mozambique.

These percentages include both enslaved people transported to the Lowcountry directly from Africa, as well as Africans enslaved in the Caribbean and transported to the Lowcountry. In fact, most of the slaves brought to South Carolina had previously spent time in the Caribbean, particularly the island of Barbados, to be “seasoned” to the climate and work.

Ultimately, the Lowcountry became one of the last places in the U.S. to stop importing slaves; based on ship cargo manifests, the last documented cargo of slaves to America arrived on Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1858 — 50 years after slavery had been outlawed. These different African cultures and traditions eventually formed the basis of what we now call Gullah/Geechee culture.

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