By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Culture can mean many things. Sometimes it can mean the difference in what we do or how things are done. In a culture that began out of the struggles and disadvantages of slavery, even minor things that are tangible, yet sentimental, and passed down generationally, like a Bible, an ancestral story or traditional way of doing things is a treasured gift. Gullah culture places tremendous value on its ancestors and the elders; their significance and wisdom that they impart on the community is invaluable. Most of the families can trace their lineage back five or even seven generations to the enslaved that were on the island. The greatest gift that the enslaved Gullah left behind for their descendants was, the land that they worked hard to earn from nothing; unimaginable and incredibly humble beginnings, so that the land could be passed down from father to son, from generation to generation. 

To the Gullah, acreage is more than just a lot that has value. It a priceless, tangible and visible daily reminder of the blood, sweat and tears that the ancestors experienced. Sure, land can be assessed and given a price tag, however, for the Gullah, because of all that went into the initial purchase of the land, the ultimate value of it is priceless. The value of which has made historic Gullah land the culture’s greatest asset.

If a house needed to be built, the community would come together to build it. The concept of being indebted to someone monetarily was not the expectation, assistance was given out of one’s ability to do so and out of respect.   

“Gullah culture is a face to face culture.”

The stories and way of life were shared generation to generation. Information, however, was not shared amongst the children as much as it was adult to adult. The saying “little Pidgeon has big ears” meant that sometimes things weren’t told to children because they didn’t want information to be shared and they were also encouraged not to ask questions. 

On an island that prides itself on the high price of a house with a water view, for the Gullah, even that is a cultural difference. The Gullah houses on the island, for the most part, were built in proximity to water, but not on the water. Based on historically weathered experiences and the guidance of ancestors, Gullah houses weren’t to be built at the water’s edge; they are set back as protection from eroding tides and storm surge. Gullah cemeteries, however, were placed in locations near the water, so that the spirit of the dead, would be able to travel easily back to Africa. 

The Gullah language is probably the most identifiable aspect of the culture. Made from a combination of African dialects, the language was created to be a common and coordinated way of communicating without the slave owners understanding what was being said. Several words that are common in American dialect can trace their origins back to the Gullah.

Culturally, having a skill and the ability to read was probably one of the most important lessons that were passed down generationally. Being able to read was at one time against the law, so once the Gullah had access to education, it was commonly understood how it would make a significant difference in the lives of their children. Even before Emancipation, in Mitchelville, the first self-governed town for newly freed slaves, as they established a governmental structure and retail opportunities, they also created South Carolina’s primary structure for compulsory education. 

The importance of education, like religious worship, meant that pride was taken in how they dressed to go to school, which may have contributed to our current practice of wearing uniforms to school.  Pride in appearance, and lessons of “deportment”, meaning how one carries themselves, sits or stands was also a critical element of their education. Memorization was important as well. Knowing and reciting verses from the Bible was a common part of their daily lessons.  

Evenings brought people together as they went from house to house with food to fellowship. A variety of themed social clubs brought people together and during the holidays, some of them were known to go around “bringing the party with them”. Most of the neighborhoods had a “juke joint”, which is a Gullah word. Juke joints were gathering places where the newest music or dances could be found.

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