basic geographical facts about Beaufort
County's Sea Islands, see:
At the time of the slave trade, people who lived on the west coast of Africa were in an agricultural stage of civilization. They were accustomed to physical labor, grew crops (okra, rice, yams), and lived in a semi-tropical environment. They knew how to fish using nets and also how to navigate creeks and waterways. West Africans were familiar with the sub-tropical vegetation and how to hunt game in the woods and fields. The organization of their work was based on every member of the group doing a part, the distribution of the product was fair, and the desires of the people less developed. This viewpoint was in sharp contrast to that of the Europeans, who looked at hard, continuous work as a great moral duty.
In 1708, slaves and whites equaled each other in number in South Carolina. After the Revolutionary War, however, Pierce Butler of the Beaufort District met opposition from other states' delegates when he tried to get a provision legalizing slavery put in the Constitution. The majority opinion was that slavery would be phased out as an institution, and no enslaved Africans were legally imported from 1787 through 1804.
According to Daniel C. Littlefield (in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery), "South Carolinas proprietors envisioned slavery in the colony at its inception 1663", seeking "to attract settlers from, among other places, Barbados " Littlefield tracked the escalating populations of slaves , beside numbers of whites and free blacks in South Carolina:
Whites and Free Blacks in
By 1795, the Sea Island economy was devoted to cotton (William Elliott of Hilton Head had grown the first successful crop on the islands in 1790). Two hundred people lived in the town of Beaufort in 1796, and at least five new mansions were built by rich cotton planters. Warehouses, taverns and shops clustered on the waterfront. Needing more labor, Sea Island planters petitioned the South Carolina legislature to reopen the slave trade, and as a result 40,000 new Africans were imported between 1804 and 1808. Between 1800 and 1810, the slave population in St. Helena Parish grew by 86%. By 1860, the white population on St. Helena Island was 350, and there were more than 2,000 enslaved people. The Beaufort District as a whole had 33,339 blacks and 6,714 whites.
Urban life for enslaved Africans and free blacks was a little different than for those living on the plantation. In the towns and cities, there were generally more opportunities to learn skills and to have business negotiations. There was more day to day contact with their owners. On the other hand, city life for slaves was governed by restrictions on movement, employment, education and worship, although these were often ignored by white owners. Most urban slaves worked as domestic servants and were usually not hired out. Owners generally had only one or two slaves in their urban dwellings as opposed to the hundreds working on a large plantation.
In 1868, almost half of Beaufort County land was owned by African-Americans, and the 1870 census shows that 98% of the St. Helena population of 6,200 was black and that 70% owned their own farms. Blacks owned only 39% of the property, however, mostly in ten-acre lots, while whites owned 61%.
trends vary greatly from island to island. For instance, the
population of Sea Islanders on James Island increased from
2,709 in 1940 to 6,173 in 1980. The number of Sea Islanders
on Wadlamaw Island remained at about 1,800 during the same
period. The more recent arrival of European Americans to the
Sea Islands has also brought change: 80 percent of the residents
of Johns Island were Sea Islanders in 1940, but that proportion
had decreased to only 40 percent in 1990.
Church (1855) was the was the original location of
the Penn School, which also served as a farm bureau, health
clinic and, during Reconstruction, as a center for community
action for freed slaves and Northern abolitionists.With the
exception of Darrah Hall (1882), the buidlings on the actual
Penn campus were built in the early twentieth century.
Historic Resources of the Lowcountry: A Regional Survey. Lowcountry Council of Governments, 1979.
A number of Gullah-related
businesses in The Corners area (Intersection of
Photographs by Dennis Adams
(October 20, 2002)
After the Civil War, Islanders farmed and fished for subsistence, selling surplus produce to the markets of Charleston and Savannah and taking seasonal "mainland" jobs as commercial fishermen, loggers, and dock workers. The extra work was necessary to pay taxes and to buy staples (rice and grits) that were not produced locally. Phosphate mining was another major source of employment until the hurricane of 1893 devastated the industry.
In the present day, the service industry (especially resorts) has become the main source of income for many members of the Sea Island community. Restaurants now provide Sea Island specialties. Groups like Beaufort's Hallelujah Singers perform and record traditional Gullah music, and Ron and Natalie Daise (known for their live presentations of Sea Island folklore) recently created a children's series, Gullah Gullah Island, for the Nickelodeon television network. The annual Gullah Festival and Penn Community Services of the Sea Islands Heritage Days celebrate the African-American culture of the Sea Islands.
On St. Helena Island , however, rush work baskets continued into the first half of the twentieth century. Though the Penn School offered training in "Native Island Basketry" for fifty years, today black rush is used mainly to strengthen and decorate certain types of sweetgrass baskets.
The early rice industry in the Lowcountry owed its success to a particular type of black rush basket, the "fanner". Slaves "fanned" threshed rice into the air from the baskets to let the wind separate the chaff. On the plantations, the male slaves wove fences, granaries, traps, and heavy field baskets, while the women made the smaller, fancier baskets for the households.
another photograph of a praise house.
The Sea Island community expects each of its members (except those who are unsound of body or mind) to marry and to raise a family. A husband will bring his first bride to the house where he grew up, and the couple will build their own house in the "yard" of the man's parents as soon as possible (or nearby, if the "yard" property is not available). A "yard" may contain the houses of the parents, several sons and even the parents' grandchildren in many cases. Adult children may return to the yard for financial reasons, after a divorce, or when a spouse dies.
Before funds from banks became readily available in the 1960s, many couples had to wait for a considerable time to build their own houses. Because a dwelling needs only a stove (and a wife to cook) to become a social unit, many Sea Islanders prefer the less expensive option of a mobile home. Houses and trailers form clusters based on kinship.
Men and women enjoy equal rights to "heir's property", land that is passed on from generation to generation. It is the parents who bequeath the land, and children who inhabit the "yard" receive land for their houses as an inheritance in advance (for the sake of "love, one dollar, and affection" , as is the case on St. Helena Island). The "one dollar" makes the inheritance legally binding by Sea Island tradition.
See also Social and Political Organization.
Freed slaves lived off the land, and in their isolation on the Sea Islands, they depended on plant remedies in childbirth, sickness and emergencies. Medicinal plants came from gardens or simply from the woods. Some African habits seem to have survived, such as the use of chewsticks made of black gum wood.
In the earlier half of the twentieth century, displays of local medicinal plants were common in the Charleston City Market and on the streets and grocery stores. Perhaps the most highly-regarded remedy on sale was "Life Everlasting" (Gnaphalium obtusifolium), a bitter herbal cold medicine. A chest-rub made from "Life Everlasting", whisky, lemon and turpentine was popular during the big influenza epidemic of 1941. The plant was put into a pillow or smoked as an inhalant to treat asthma. As more and more land became private property over the years, however, it became harder to gather enough medicinal plants to bring to market.
State medical regulations have restricted the practice of midwives and "grannies" (community healers, who could "put you on your feet out of the woods" with their traditional herbal remedies). Phoebe Taylor, a Johns Island healer, reported that she "boiled medicine for black and white for many years." Sentiment exists that the white physicians use the same "plants" in their pills as the old grannies, but at much higher prices.
People skilled in healing are also assumed to have abilities to harm others through inflicting illness, but grannies are in no way to be mistaken with "root doctors". These Lowcountry "witch doctors" made "roots" of graveyard dirt to cast and remove hexes. They may also , help repel an enemy or attract a lover, cure all kinds of illnesses, predict the future, and "conjure" spirits both good and evil. Most famous of the root doctors was Doctor Buzzard (Stepheney Robinson), whose encounters with Sheriff James Edwin McTeer are told in McTeer's book, High Sheriff of the Lowcountry.
An important departure from mainstream Christian belief is the Sea Islanders' belief in multiple souls: the "soul" leaves the body and returns to God at death, but the "spirit" stays on earth -- still involved in the daily affairs of its living descendants. Funerals are elaborate, and mourners decorate graves with prized possessions of the newly deceased. The spirit of a dead (or dying) older woman may become a "hag", though in a great many of the stories, the a hag is not a ghost or a dead spirit, but a living member of the community. A hag will "ride the chest" (sit on top) of her victims as they sleep (usually the victim has given the "hag" some sort of trouble). In many of the "hag" tales, the women are very much alive. They keep their human form during the day, but either leave their bodies or shed their skins at night before they go out to find their victims.
A number of Sea Island burial customs are West- and Central African in origin.
Graveside items are mostly containers (pitchers, cups, bowls, tureens, medicine bottles, even toilet tanks), which keep their shape when broken. They appear on graves with sea shells as ancient African water symbols, tokens of the belief that the dead reside in a realm beneath river bottoms. Mirrors are also water symbols. Many other objects are white (china, porcelain, light bulbs, bits of plaster, pebbles). Vlach noted the belief in lower Zaire that "deceased ancestors become white creatures called bakulu " who may return "without being seen and can then direct the course of the living" (figures carved from white stone guard the grave sites).
White sand may sometimes cover the whole graveyard in white communities as well.
Since the 1920s, clocks have appeared on rural African-American graves (more recently as floral pieces with clock faces). The hands on the faces may be set at twelve (for Judgment Day) or to mark the exact hour of death. As at the graves of white Southerners, other kinds of objects may also reflect the personal needs or preferences of the deceased.
Some African-Americans of the Sea Islands still believe in multiple souls: the "soul" leaves the body and returns to God at death, but the "spirit" stays on earth -- still involved in the daily affairs of its living descendants. The spirit of a dead (or dying) older woman may become a "hag", though in a great many of the stories, a hag is not a ghost or a dead spirit, but a living member of the community. The Lowcountry hag surpasses the modern meanings of the word in The American Heritage Dictionary, "an ugly, frightful old woman" and "a witch; sorceress", to attain an older sense of "a female demon". Any old woman who practices witchcraft and who bears a grudge against one of her neighbors can be a hag. Hags with the greatest powers of witchcraft are sometimes called "boo hags". A third party can pay a hag to harry someone unknown to the witch herself.
night falls, the hag is free to leave her body (or to shed
her skin, depending on who is
a hag chooses to ride to her victims house, she will
choose a horse and almost never a
does a hag do when she gets to her victim? She "rides"
that person as well! The hag sits
A hag can pass through any door, but there are measures to prevent her from entering a room:
hag will pass a broom placed by the door. Hags will avoid
brooms night or day, in
share a compulsive nature and must count every hole in a sieve
hung on a doorway
the smell of gunpowder terrifies hags, some people have put
a loaded gun at
Others have stuck match sticks in their hair before going to bed.
get rid of a hag once and for all, a victim should throw salt
at the demon to keep her
Praying or cursing will kill a hag, too, if done fervently enough.
course, there are skeptics, too. Many Sea Islanders dismiss
the whole idea of hags and
But how to explain the tired-out horses with those impossible knots in their tails?
Daise, Ronald. "Early One Mornin, Death Come Creepin in MRoom!" in Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage: Legacy of Freedmen on St. Helena Island. Sandlapper Publishing, 1986.
Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Volume I: North America. G. K. Hall & Co., 1991
Hare, Mildred and Chalmers S. Murray, "Hags" and Murray, Chalmers S. "Boo-Hags" in South Carolina Folk Tales: Stories of Animals and Supernatural Beings. (Compiled by Workers of the Writers Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of South Carolina.) University of South Carolina Press, 1941.
Mixson Geraty studied Gullah for over 50 years as a resident
the Edisto Island area, near Charleston (she died in 2004,
at the age of 84). Geraty received an honorary degree of Doctor
of Humane Letters at the College of Charleston, in recognition
of her research and efforts to preserve the Gullah language.
She taught courses in Gullah language at the College in the
1980s and 1990s.
January 18, 2007 issue of the Beaufort
Gazette reported that an accredited course in Gullah
culture began in the University of South Carolina Beaufort's
Winter 2007 semester. In a Beaufort Gazette
article, Professor J. Herman Blake said that, although his
class was "an exploratory, embryonic venture," his
students can expect a rigorous academic experience as they
learn about the language, history and culture of Beaufort
County's native Sea Islander community. The weekly class is
a full, three credit-hour course in the liberal arts.
founded the University of South Carolina's Sea Islands Institute
to promote research on Gullah culture. The class was a result
of the Institute's activities.
Geraty, Virginia Mixson. "The Gullah Creole Language"
(Charleston County Library web page
© Copyright 2007, Charleston County Public Library.
Walsh, Sandra. "College Course in Gullah is Nation's First," Beaufort Gazette, January 18, 2007; p. 1-A.
Opala, Joseph. "Blake's Gullah Course Is Not First of
Its Kind" (Letter to the editor), Beaufort Gazette,
January 26, 2007; p. 6-A.
1. Food: Choose a Gullah recipe and plan a Sea Island Lunch with your teacher and classmates. Explain why your recipe would have been popular among African-Americans in the South Carolina Lowcountry and Georgia coastal areas (cost, availability, African traditions -- as with rice and sesame seeds).
2. Folklore: Go on a "field trip" to the media center for books on African folktales. Compare an African story to a similar African-American tale, or one found in the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen collections. Maybe there are folktales like your story from other parts of the world: China, Native-American tribes, the Appalachian Mountains, etc.
3. Daily Life: Choose a type of slave worker (drivers, tradesmen, house servants, and field hands) and write a "journal" describing a typical workday from this person's point of view. Read your journal to the class as if you really were the worker.
4. Sweetgrass Baskets: Using pine straw and thread, make a coil (the bottom and starting point of a basket) like the coil found in sweetgrass baskets using the African tradition. Compare your coil to a woven basket common in European cultures.
5. Ghost Stories: Get together with other students and write a skit based on the hag legend! Perform the skit for your classmates (with costumes and props to make it even scarier!).
Visit Jennifer Donaldson McKenzie's (Robert Smalls Middle School, Beaufort, SC) Gullah Web Quest (http://www.eduwebs.org/Webquests/gullah/gullahquest.html), for ideas in organizing a unit on Gullah and Sea Island culture!
Explore Gullah Culture in South Carolina with Aunt Pearlie-Sue! Children and adults can listen to the Gullah language, and hear stories and music on this SCETV Commission Web page.