Gullah Geechee Heritage Festival: December 3, 2022

Gullah Geechee? Even for fans of American history, these aren’t familiar words.

October 26, 2022

Gullah Geechee? Even for fans of American history, these aren’t familiar words. But as those attending the Ninth Annual Gullah Geechee Heritage Festival will quickly learn, the culture and history of the people known by this name are an inspiring part of America’s story.

The Gullah Geechee were brought to America from West and Central Africa to work on rice, cotton, and indigo plantations in the isolated Sea Islands of coastal Georgia and the Carolinas. Without the influences found on the mainland, they were able to preserve their culture through spiritual practices, crafts, and foodways we see today. They even created a new creole dialect known as “Gullah,” a language that isn’t spoken anywhere else in the world.

Despite their remote location, the Gullah Geechee heard whispered news that the King of Spain had promised freedom to enslaved people who escaped from the British colonies to La Florida. With freedom as their goal, many slipped away on the journey south to Spanish St. Augustine – a trip that was filled with perils including alligators, snakes, storms, hunger and brutal slave hunters.

In 2006, Congress designated the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor, spanning eight million acres from Wilmington, North Carolina to St. Augustine, Florida, to honor the culture and history of these brave people.

Attendees at this year’s Gullah Geechee Heritage Festival will experience the Ring Shout, one of North America’s oldest surviving African-American musical traditions. Performed by the renowned Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, it features counter-clockwise dancing, singing and drumming on a wooden floor. It’s easy to see and hear how the Ring Shout continues to influence today’s gospel, jazz and hip-hop music.

Coiled basket weaving is an art brought to America’s South by enslaved Africans in the 1600s and utilized palmetto leaves and sweetgrass to craft tools for work and daily life. Andrea Cayetano-Jefferson of Gullah Sweetgrass Baskets will demonstrate this technique and display her unique baskets for purchase.

And of course, Gullah Geechee heritage can’t be celebrated without food! Chef, farmer and author Matthew Raiford will be on hand to demonstrate how the Gullah Geechee survived life on the barrier islands by creating recipes from readily available items like rice, shrimp, and field peas.

The Gullah Geechee Heritage Festival takes place from noon to 5 p.m. at Armstrong Park, 4950 Harvey Avenue in Elkton, Florida. Admission is free. Proceeds from food and drink sales will benefit the SEA Community and Resource Center which provides food, clothing and more to help fight hunger and homelessness for more than 5,000 residents.