Soothin’ the Soul of the Gullah’s


Let’s talk about Soothin’ the Soul of the Gullah’s. It’s Easter weekend and as I pass by the praise houses out on the Sea Islands, I think how these small places of worship provide a window to the past lives of the Gullah’s of the Sea Islands.  They were so important to the Gullah community during slavery. Slave owners kept these places of worship small because they always feared uprisings and did not want many slaves to gather together. I am sure on Easter Sunday there was plenty of foot-stomping, shouting, and praising the Lord!

Gullahs were Christians but their style of worship reflected their African heritage.  In slavery days they developed a ceremony called the “ring shout.” Men and women danced in a ritual fashion in a circle amidst the rhythmical pounding of sticks and then, at the culminating moment, experienced possession by the Holy Spirit while shouting out praises and thanksgiving to the Lord! This often took place outside their house of worship – otherwise, there would not be enough space.

Painting by Diane Britton Dunham  –  Gullah celebration


Burial Customs and Soothin’ Da Soul

Gullah burial customs begin with a drumbeat to inform people that someone in town has died Mirrors are turned to the wall so the corpse cannot be reflected.  The funeral party takes the body to the cemetery, but waits at the gate to ask permission of the ancestors to enter.  Participants dance around the grave, singing and praying, then smash bottles and dishes over the site to “break the chain” so that no one else in the same family will soon die.  Then, the funeral group returns to town and cooks a large meal, leaving a portion on the veranda for the departed soul . In slavery days sone Gullahs called this cooking ceremony” saraka,”  a term derived from Arabic and familiar to most West Africans.

Beaufort, South Carolina

When I walk the streets of Beaufort, past historic houses, porch dogs, front doors painted haint blue, and black wrought iron fences, I feel the energy of those thousands of enslaved Africans whose hands built this storied place.  From Carteret Street down to Bay and over to Craven Street, and throughout the Old Point, that spirit abides.  As it should, since it’s just a mere 70 miles south of the landing place for many of the hundreds of thousands of Africans who were brought directly to America during the transatlantic slave trade

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Most tourists come here because this is an authentic town very much like it was back in the 1800s, but I cannot stop thinking what life was like for the Africans who lived in and around this place from the 1600s until the Civil War’s end.  Most of them were not free.  They created a unique culture, language, and cuisine that thrives to this day.  Many are not aware of their contributions.  But their legacy lives on in our town and across the many barrier islands.

Mysterious Ways

Gullah is a mysterious culture with practices going way back to Africa and their belief in witchcraft and voodoo. The high sheriff of the Lowcountry never needed to carry a gun – witchcraft was far more powerful. Ed McTeer was sheriff for nearly 50 years – a legend in his time. I write about McTeer in nearly every book I ever wrote and how I met him one afternoon on Bay Street and spoke with him in his office surrounded by black magic and artifacts from his trips back to Africa.

My books provide an inside look at the history, practices, and people of Gullah country.  On the plantations of the American South, slaves passed their African roots to their descendants in a rich and lasting oral tradition, a tradition that survives today.  Prominent among Gullah culture was the belief in herbalism, spiritualism, and black magic.  The infamous Dr. Buzzard and other professional root doctors administered a root to bring money, find love, or cure ailments.

Gullah Oysterman at Low Tide – painting by Michael Harrell

An oysterman harvesting oysters just as they have done it for generations.  He arrived on the oyster banks at low tide, just as men have done in centuries past.  Little has changed except for the arrival the small engines to power their boats.  Originally, they used wooden bateaux and were hauled out to the oyster banks by large sloops. Each evening they would return on a high tide to the oyster factory where the oysters were processed and sent all over the world.

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Pictured below: Bradley’s Seafood

This old cinder block seafood house is run by the Bradley Family on St. Helena Island. Four generations of Bradley’s have been fishing, crabbing and oystering these waters since the time before the Civil War.  If you’re out on the Sea Islands stop by for some of their fresh shrimp and fish. You’ll find it on the right- hand side of the road just before you get to Dempsey Farms.

It is rare to find Gullah families like the Bradleys.  Many descendants leave the islands in search of jobs that are much easier than that of a waterman. Life on the water is rigorous and foreign markets are cutting into the profits.  Those who love it are dedicated and are in a fellowship of watermen from all over the world called the Whiteboot Heroes.

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