What’s The Difference?

By Luana M. Graves Sellars

My Auntie Helen, with hands-on-her-hips used to proudly say, that she was a Geechee. As a child and as an adult, until about 5 years ago, I had no idea what that meant. What I’ve learned since then, neither do a lot of Black people. Including those who call themselves Gullah, a Geechee or a Gullah Geechee. So what’s the difference?

When African slaves were brought to the US coastline from several different countries, they brought with them a variety of languages and cultures.

A Traditional Bottle Tree
Common in the front yard of Gullah families, the blue glass is believed to capture ghosts or spirits.
Pinpoint Heritage Museum
Photo Credit: LMGS

In an effort to communicate, the slaves developed a Creole based language that combined English and a variety of African words from the various countries. The language was multi-purposed. It enabled the slaves to communicate amongst themselves, without sharing the conversation with the slave owners, also providing them the opportunity to give ‘coded’ information or directions to each other in secret.   

To the slave owner, the language, because of its sound and somewhat similarity to broken English, came across as ignorant and an inability to adapt to a proper way of speaking. The language, however, was quite genius.

We Are One
By Sonja Griffin Evans

So where did the words Gullah and Geechee come from? There’s a lot of speculation about their origins. One possible origin is from an ethnic group from West Africa, called the Dyula.  From Ghana to the Ivory Coast, the pronunciation of the word Dyla is “Gwallah”. Another option comes from an African ethnic group called the Gola, who lived between the countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia.  It has also been said that, linguistic scholars who studied the sea island languages, derived the term Gullah from the fact that almost 40% of the slaves came from Angola, which in turn had significant influences on the language.

The word Geechee, doesn’t have clear African origins, however, it is what the slaves that were in the area of the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia were called. Depending on where they were enslaved, they would be differentiated further as either Saltwater Geechee or Freshwater Geechee, based on their proximity to being near the coastline or inland.

So are you a Gullah or a Geechee? Over time, the names have been combined and have become interchangeable. In the technical sense, the sea island slaves from North Carolina or South Carolina, were Gullah. From Georgia to Florida, the slaves were considered to be the Geechee.

Mother Emanuel
By Sonja Griffin Evans

Remember Auntie Helen? Her family tree is rooted in Charleston, South Carolina, which would have made her a Gullah, not a Geechee. Like her, it’s a common misunderstanding among the descendants of sea island slaves. Nevertheless, whether you’re Gullah or Geechee, you are part of a rich and important culture that made significant contributions to the fabric of America.

So, if you have taken the time to research your roots and have identified where your ancestors came from, what did you find? Are you Gullah or Geechee? Now I know. I AM GULLAH.

For more articles on the Gullah language, culture or to read about my ancestral search into my Gullah roots click here for the articles, What is Heirs Property?, I AM GULLAH or Gullah Language.

If you’re interested in starting your own search into your roots, contact The Heritage Library Foundation on Hilton Head Island, SC they can help get you started.

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