In praise to the Creator and homage to my ancestors, I give thanks for the opportunity to be here. On behalf of the elders and culture keepers of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Islands of the United States, I thank this commission for allowing me the privilege to speak in this forum. I make this statement today as an associate of the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities known also as IHRAAM and on behalf of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition. The latter organization I founded as a means to connect all the people of the Sea Islands with other people around the world that are interested in assisting my people with the preservation and continuation of our native culture -- Gullah.
Our native tongue, which most of us have been denied the opportunity to speak in public for generations, is the language that I have been guided to present to you in today given that you all have translations of the words that I will present. On behalf of my community, I ask that you hear us- yeddy we.
My ancestors were the captives of British enslavers that kidnapped them from the African continent during the Transatlantic slavery system period. Through various academic studies and scores of documents including ledgers, journals, newspaper clippings, wills, etc., it appears that the majority of the African people that were brought to the islands off the Atlantic coast of the United States were from West Africa. The Windward and Rice Coast down to Angola were the lands from which skilled Africans were removed and then sold and held in bondage as laborers without choices or rights in the Caribbean and later my home-the Sea Islands. The Sea Islands which is the home of the Gullah and Geechee people are located from Georgetown County, South Carolina (at the base of North Carolina) down to Amelia Island in northern Florida. The largest "slave" auction block in the United States was Charles Town in the Carolinas. This city was built by the labor of indigenous or Native American people along with enslaved Africans which were brought from Barbados by a group of Anglo men referred to as "the British Lord's Proprietors."
Charles Town is now called "'Charleston, South Carolina." Many people consider this the center of Gullah culture. However, the main places in which anyone is still able to locate viable Gullah communities is the same place in which the culture developed -- on the islands. Due to being placed on isolated islands "'here the Gullahs had minimal contact with Anglo culture, Africans that came from various ethnic groups and who spoke different tongues and had different spiritual rituals, were able to combine these and form a new culture with its own language. This is Gullah.
Gullah people were the labor force that harvested "Carolina Gold" rice which became the rice that brought the highest price on the market. They also harvested and processed long staple Sea Island cotton which was used all over the world to make the finest garments. Indigo completed the list of what we call "the cash crops." These products were brought forth due to the knowledge of their cultivation that the Africans in America now referred to as "Gullahs" knew. They brought about the wealth that built the infrastructure of the United States. It also supported the base of European cities such as London and Liverpool, England. Gullah and Geechee people were never allowed to express their rights as human beings due to the various means of oppression that they endured through different periods in history. They were forced to work without pay and were sold away from their family and friends. The break from their clans and tribes caused the connection with others that were under these same conditions, but it also caused irreparable damage in that the Gullahs may never be able to return to the actual villages from which their great great great grandparents were stolen. They were stripped of the chance to pass this information on.
During enslavement, Gullahs and Geechees were not allowed to write or read. This was made a law in the United States. If they were found doing either of these things, punishments as severe as death could be imposed and were in many cases. They were also banned from playing the drum when it was found in various uprising when Gullahs stood in order to regain what was rightfully theirs - freedom.
Gullahs and Geechees even joined forces with indigenous or Native American people in their efforts to take a stand against the gross violation of their rights. This resulted in over 40 years of war against the United States governing forces and militias which very few American text refer to. When it is mentioned, it is called "The Seminole Wars." However, it would be more appropriate to call this the "Gullah Wars" given that my ancestors were the primary group involved. They formed the group called the "Seminole Nation" as a result of the years of living along with indigenous Americans and forming a community in which they all dwelled together and eventually went into the swamps of Florida and later west into what is now Oklahoma and Texas in the United States and into Mexico.
Gullah people that were forced to live on the mainland as servants or who later migrated there after the Civil War speak a dialect of the Gullah language called "Geechee." Just as they have picked up more of the "dominant" language of the United States - English, they have been forced to lose many of the ways that they had when they were on the islands. Gullahs and Geechees have been denied any education in the Gullah language. Most have not ever been taught any of the aspects of our history which I have presented to you thus far. We were told that they way that we spoke was backward and ignorant and to get anywhere in life we were to stop speaking like that and learn "proper English."
Given the fact that our community has been encroached upon from the time of the arrival of soldiers and missionaries during the Civil War until today with the onslaught of resort and retirement areas, we have had other groups of people superimpose their cultural mores upon us. Our children have been taught in a system designed by outsiders to our community. This system has been designed to focus on Anglo American history with little mention of people of African descent beyond calling them "slaves" and then mentioning two to five other people that are considered "African Americans of note."
My people who built the foundation of African American culture are not mentioned in classrooms. Our language is still misunderstood and thus, not considered to be acceptable for academic and "professional" arenas. We have even been told in political and legal forums that were focused on laws that would be placed on the areas that we live in that there is no such "culture." Well, I am before you today as a result of the existence of my community. As Clifford Geertz wrote, "Community is a culturally defined way of life." Part of the way that Gullah and Geechee people were able to survive chattel slavery with our language, spiritual expressions, and our crafts and skills in tact is because we have had strength, adaptability, and faith. Our adaptability has caused us to be master code switching which allows us to be able to speak to you like this or to speak to you in this way. We have had to keep our culture, our language, our "community" hidden in order to protect it from the world.
Our community is joined by water just as the water brought us to the New World.. We live off the land and from the sea. However, as other people saw the richness of the land on which we dwell, we started to be removed from our homeland. This area was even officially declared as our homeland by the United States government via William Tecumseh Sherman's Special Field Order Number 15 which he issued during the Civil War. In it he stated:
I. The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. John's River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes [sic] now made free by acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.
II. At Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah, Femandina, St. Augustine, and Jacksonville, the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations, but on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers, detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority and the acts of Congress..."
Sherman was an agent of then United States President, Abraham Lincoln. This field order got rescinded and the land was never given to my people. However, it was bought at auctions by Gullahs and Geechees in large plots. Once the Anglo people that had our families enslaved on much of this land received word in the North where many of them ran to when they found out that we were going to possibly be freed, many of them began lawsuits to try to take land back from us. Today we are still fighting to remain on our land, to preserve our language and customs, and to have people know of our existence before we are eliminated entirely or fenced out of our own home.
Wealthy developers have built "gated communities" throughout the Sea Islands and left cultural destruction in their wake. Our graveyards and burial grounds have been desecrated. Grave markers have been removed and areas leveled. Club houses, golf courses, and other recreational facilities for rich affluent people have been placed on top of graves. This has gone on in spite of us bringing these issues our in courts which are supposed to uphold the laws that they have on their books that clearly state that this is an illegal practice. We are not allowed to visit some of our burial grounds and graveyards or other sacred lands due to gated communities being located their. We are not allowed to enter these resort and retirement areas unless a person that lives within the gates leaves our names at the entrance to allow us "permission" to enter.
Many of our crafts and means of survival are fading as a direct result of pollution of many of our historic waterways and our soil by resort and retirement areas. We are also placed under numerous restrictions which go against our traditional ways of being independent and sustaining our families. The financial gain from recreation is a major focus of many people in the United States.
Thus, there is little put into preservation, especially in reference to the preservation of the heritage of people of African descent. For us, the land is an extension of ourselves. Without the land which we have nurtured and which has fed us, we have lost all that makes us who we are. As one of our ancestors, Uncle Smart X stated: "We born here; we parents' graves here; we donne oder country; dis yere our home. De Nort' folks hab home, antee? What a pity dat dey don't love der home like we love we home, for den dey would nebber come here for buy all way from we."
We have opened our doors many times to other people to host them in our community, but that has resulted in them moving in and moving us out. We believe in working WITH other people for we know "An empty sack cannot stand alone." We believe that it takes more than one to hold up the sack the holds history and heritage. Thus, we went to the United States government to find out what would be needed to designate our home as a World Heritage Site and we were told that due to the parameters that the United States has set for this, it would be impossible to have that happen. However, we know that any thing that has been written can be rewritten. There are exceptions to rules or amendments to laws. Therefore, our community would greatly appreciate any assistance that this commission could provide in order to have the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior of the United States to recognize how important it is to preserve our community which no doubt is of historical significance to people globally. We seek to educate people of the world about Gullah and Geechee people and our kinspeople called the "Seminole" who also struggle to hold on to our language and heritage in the western parts of the United States. We want to be able to preserve our historic and sacred buildings and land areas which stand as testimonials to our connection to our kindred of islands in the Caribbean and other parts of the world including our connection to West Africa. We want to be able to have our children proudly continue our crafts, our spiritual expressions, and most of all, our language.
The Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition is currently working to obtain funds for land reclamation. This will allow many of our people that have been displaced from the islands to be able to return. The prohibitive prices of real estate or bidding against billion dollar corporate developers does not allow them to have equal footing in the current battle for ownership of the very same land that we have dwelled on and nurtured for generations.
My community is looking back at ourstory and doing all that we can to have it recognized by others as we fight to hold on to it. We know that you truly do not know where you are going if you do not know where you come from. We ask that this commission help us in continuing to be the keepers of our culture. We realize that "hunnuh mus tek cyare de root fa heal de tree." You must take care of the root to heal the tree.
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