Written by Patricia Meagher
Images courtesy Georgia Historical Society
My first summer at the Georgia Historical Society, I was privileged to spend a day on Sapelo Island with a group of college professors who had come from across the country to participate in a two-week National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on African-American History and Culture in the Georgia Lowcountry. The heat and gnats were stifling even for this native southerner, but that day, as we sat under the live oak outside Cornelia Walker Bailey’s home in Hog Hammock, the only sound to be heard above the birdsong was Cornelia, holding each of the visiting scholars spellbound with the stories of her people, and the once-thriving culture of Sapelo Island.
Since the mid-1700s Georgia’s Sea Islands have been the home of Geechee culture—West African traditions brought to the Southeastern coast by enslaved persons and adapted to the rigors of plantation life and work in indigo, cotton and rice. Often combined with Gullah—the name more commonly associated with the West African culture in South Carolina—the Gullah-Geechee traditions forged in enslavement have transcended their harsh beginnings and have found their place among the many diverse threads of the American tapestry.
Through music, spirituality, and art this rich culture continues to draw scholars and visitors to meet the descendants of the original Gullah and Geechee. From the artistry of the sweetgrass baskets to the music and poetry of a ring shout, these stories tell the history of a proud people and their ability to connect their past to their present—and to keep that history alive. It is a culture that draws you in and invites you to remember a dark chapter of our shared history through the lens of the extraordinary people who lived it and their contribution to early American life—and the enduring legacy that remains today.
This sweetgrass basket, made by Allen Green of Hog Hammock Community, is made in the style of a “fanner” basket (although on a smaller scale) that would have been used on rice plantations as early as the late 17th century. The rice was tossed up and down in them to separate the light hull from the heavier seed after the rice had been pounded with a pestle.
“Stick Beaters” provided percussion during a “shout” by tapping the floor. They might use a broom or the heel of a shoe, or in this case a pestle used for hulling rice.
In 1942, Lydia Parish of St. Simons Island published Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands to save many of the old songs for future generations. She also hosted “sings” at a cabin she built for visitors to experience the songs the way they had been sung for generations. In this photograph from her research materials, Wallace Quarterman, or “Old Quarterman” as he was known, claps his hands with Joe Armstrong and John Davis (both standing). All others are unidentified.
Wallace Quarterman with Margaret MacIntosh. A note on the back of this undated photograph, presumed to be written by Lydia Parish, identifies Margaret as “My best woman shouter who died last year.”
Georgia Historical Society houses the nation’s oldest and most distinguished collection of materials related exclusively to Georgia history. Founded in 1839, it’s the oldest continually operating historical society in the South. Georgiahistory.com