“Ef oona ent kno weh oona da gwuibe, oona should know eh oona kum from” – if you don’t know where you are going, you should know where you come from.
The last of the Thirteen Colonies, Georgia was founded in 1733 as a place of refuge for debtors, “worthy” poor, and persecuted Protestants. The plan for a utopian, agrarian society which guided the development of Georgia was similar to previous efforts in British colonies further up the Atlantic Coast; however the Oglethorpe Plan, named for the colony’s founder, also incorporated the most up-to-date elements of Enlightenment thought. Georgia was to be distinguished from the older colonies by egalitarian principles which would take the form of a slave-free society of small farmers owning equally sized plots.
At the time of its founding, Georgia was the only North American colony in which slavery was illegal, but its utopian ideals quickly bent under the weight of reality. In 1751 slavery was legalized in the colony and the large-scale agricultural economy which grew here- a far cry from the subsistence farming which Oglethorpe had envisioned- led Georgia to become a major center of chattel slavery in North America.
Following his March to the Sea in the final stages of the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman signed Special Field Orders, No. 15, which distributed some 400,000 acres along the Atlantic Coast in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to freed slaves, reincarnating, in a way, the ideals of the Oglethorpe Plan. The land was divided into equal-sized, 40-acre parcels and distributed among 18,000 freed slaves who already lived in the area. However, just like the Plan, the egalitarian principles outlined by the Field Orders were short-lived- upon his succession to the Presidency, Andrew Johnson revoked the orders and restored ownership of the land to the plantation owners.
Perhaps disillusioned by promises of equality never made real, the descendants of these dispossessed slaves have carried on an existence isolated from the rest of the growing country over the past century and a half. Known as the Gullah (in South Carolina) or the Geechee (in Georgia), in their isolation they have developed a distinctive culture and a language of their own, based on a simple lifestyle of subsistence farming and fishing.
Folktales such as that of Brer Rabbit (Brother Rabbit) and songs such as Kumbayah (Come By Here) are a central part of Gullah-Geechee culture and illustrate its importance as a bridge between the American and the African experience. For many years Gullah-Geechee speech was regarded as substandard English, even by scholars, but the work of linguist Lorenzo Turner in the 1930s and 1940s showed that it is a logical blend of English with West and Central African languages; it is remarkably similar to Sierra Leone Krio, imported to the West African country by freed slaves and today the most common language there.
Scholarly findings aside, the Gullah-Geechee language is still the object of much discrimination and as a result has taken on a “secretive dimension”; speakers limit its use to the home and other situations in which they are alone with other community members. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has stated that the ridicule his received for his Geechee speech as a teenager in Savannah caused him to develop the habit of listening rather than speaking in public. Secrecy and protectiveness means that the maintenance of the community is the essential factor in preservation of the language.
Today the Gullah-Geechee language is spoken by an estimated 250,000 people in Georgia and South Carolina, but development along the Atlantic Coast continues to threaten their cultural survival. Resorts such as those on Hilton Head have been built on top of traditional Gullah-Geechee communities, and while there is no more President Johnson to take the land away from those who remain, local government officials have no problem doing the same job with tax increases, which were over 500% this year on Sapelo Island in Georgia, home to the largest community of Saltwater Geechees. The survival of this unique culture is inextricably tied to the questions of land ownership and lifestyle which have been fundamental in Georgia since its founding.
As unofficial Sapelo Island community leader Cornelia Walker Bailey says, “Culture is no good without land. We’re holding onto the land, so we can hold on to the culture.”