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The Gullah Have Roots in Sierra Leone


The Gullah are a group of African Americans from South Carolina and Georgia who live in small farming and fishing communities along the Atlantic coast of the United States. They are the descendents of slaves who were brought to America from what was called the Rice Coast of West Africa. During the 1700’s they were taken away on ships to coastal South Carolina and Georgia to plant rice.

Professor Joseph Opala, a historian at George Mason University in Virginia, spoke with Voice of America English to Africa reporter Kim Lewis.

He described the area where the Gullah live: “That area, during the colonial era and afterwards – the white slave owners and plantation owners were making a good deal of money off of rice. Yet, they didn’t have the technical know-how to make that industry successful, so they reached out to the Rice Coast of West Africa, the area extending from what is now Senegal and Gambia in the north down to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the south. And they were willing to pay premium prices for skilled African labor from that region. So the Gullah people are the descendents of those rice growers, and the semi-tropical area where they live along the coast looks a lot like coastal West Africa. In that region, partly due to geographical isolation and other factors, the Gullah have been able to preserve more of their African culture and life in more ways than any other black Americans in the United States.”

Professor Opala explained a further link between the Gullah and Sierra Leone: “Many of the freed slaves who came back to Africa and who founded the city of Freetown were in fact Gullah people, so you have a two-way connection. You have rice growing farmers being kidnapped and taken as slaves to South Carolina and Georgia, but then you have their descendents actually being brought back and helping to found the capital city of Freetown, and they of course are the ancestors of today’s Creole people.”

The Gullah people also have an annual celebration they call Heritage Days, held on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island in November. This year’s theme is “Priscilla’s Homecoming.” Many of our listeners recall VOA’s earlier reports on the documented story of Priscilla, the Sierra Leonean child who was taken from her home and sold as a slave in South Carolina. Her seventh descendent, Mrs. Thomalind Martin Polite, now lives in South Carolina.

Let us know what you think of this report and other stories on our website. Send your views to AFRICA@VOANEWS.COM, and include your phone number. Or, call us here in Washington, DC at (202) 205-9942. After you hear the VOA identification, press 30 to leave a message. We want to hear what you have to say!

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