I Am Gullah


My recent experience as a transplant from Florida to Hilton Head made me think about myself — where I had been, and where I was going. Beyond that, like most people, I began to reflect on who I am, who my ancestors were, where they came from, and what their lives were like. How much of me is inherited from them? What character traits and dispositions did I inherit that make me, well, me? 

I Am Gullah2My oldest daughter began to ask some of the same questions when she became a teenager. In an attempt to answer her questions, as well as my own, we decided to embark on a journey of self-discovery together. Here’s what I knew at the start of our journey: my great-grandmother’s last name was Ravenell, and she was from Ravenel, South Carolina. I also knew that many of my Ravenell relatives still lived in that town. I also knew that my aunt Freddie, a chocolate brown woman, often called herself a “Geechee,” but none of us asked her what that meant. In those days, children were taught not to ask too many questions. Some believe that the term was taken from the Ogeechee River, which is near Savannah. In my aunt’s day, being called a Geechee was considered an insult, but she always used the term with pride.

My father’s side of the family came from Virginia. They ranged in skin tones from rosy pink to golden brown. Most of them have reddish-brown hair and freckles, and have eyes that range from hazel to blue-green — like the eyes I inherited from my father, Ronald. For years, I have been asked, “What are you?” Some assumed that I was from the Caribbean, either a Jamaican or Dominican. The answer is quite complex. On my father’s side, I have traces of the Nigerian Yoruba tribe, the Irish and Native American Seminoles. On my mother’s side, my ancestral history begins within the Gullah/Geechee Corridor, specifically from Ravenel, South Carolina, which means that I am Gullah, too.

Since I have such a random combination of DNA, I decided to do some research into my family tree to discover more about my family. With the help of several sources, ancestry.com, familysearch.org and the Heritage Library on Hilton Head, I have been able to uncover more about not only myself, but some fascinating information about my relatives who came before me.  Many have said that we inherit a cultural memory, and that ancestral habits and traits are passed down to us. Based on some of the stories that I have now uncovered, this is proving to be true. Here are some highlights of what I have learned.  


Based on my research so far, I have been able dig into my family tree as far back as 1847, the year that Caesar Ravenel, my grandmother’s great-great-grandfather, was born a slave on Johns Island. Caesar was 20 years old when he escaped bondage, and made his way to Charleston, where he enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. His orders took him to Hilton Head Island, where he was registered in the 34th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops from May 22, 1863, until he mustered out in Jacksonville on Feb. 28, 1866. It was shocking to learn that during that time, soldiers were required to purchase or replace their own equipment — including uniforms, rifles and bullets.

Even though the Union Army permitted freedmen to join the Army and fight in the war, the American government issued substandard equipment to the black troops. This included used uniforms and broken and defective artillery. What is even more amazing is that according to his military service records, after fighting honorably in the war, Caesar owed the U.S. government $32.82 for his equipment and gear when he left the Army. This was a considerable amount of money back then, especially when you consider that black soldiers were paid only $7 a month, instead of the $13 a month that was standard pay at the time. However, despite the obvious double standard and racism that this reflects, the Army’s acceptance of blacks into its ranks was a huge step toward full citizenship and freedom. Frederick Douglas put it this way: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

Looking deeper into war records from his regiment, I was able to uncover even more fascinating information about the experiences of my brave ancestor, Caesar Ravenel. 

It was exciting to learn that Caesar fought under the command of Col. James Montgomery, whose war exploits were celebrated in the Oscar-winning movie “Glory.” Montgomery was a staunch abolitionist from Kansas who was a strong advocate for his black troops. He was controversial not just for his abolitionist positions (like advocating for equal pay for black troops), or the battles he won or lost, but also for his decision to loot and burn the undefended town of Darien, Georgia. History shows that Montgomery led his soldiers in a three-day battle, called the Battle of Burdens Causeway or the Battle of Bloody Bridge, which was the largest battle fought on Johns Island during the Civil War. However, Montgomery’s most notable battle was the Combahee River Raid. Prior to the raid, it has been said that Harriet Tubman specifically requested to be under the command of Montgomery because he was well-known for his Jayhawker guerilla style of military ambush, which was considered to be an uncommon military strategy at that time. The Combahee River Raid is also notable because Tubman was one of the leaders and strategists; this was her first major military campaign. This is an account of what happened:

“On June 2, 1863, the regiment, which included 150 black Union soldiers, was stationed on St Helena Island. During the raid, the regiment had a number of skirmishes, but they successfully captured and freed over 785 slaves. Days later, they continued up the Turtle River in Georgia, and burned a railroad bridge, and moved on to the Aftahaha River in Georgia, where they captured a schooner loaded with 80 bales of short staple cotton. In the process, they destroyed large amounts of rice and cotton and other valuable property, before burning the town.” Source: blackpast.org.

Although it seems that Caesar Ravenel joined the Army after the infamous raid, his participation in the war proved that he was a survivor and a freedom fighter. His life demonstrates that he had fortitude and incredibly strong survival instincts. History documents that; by his decision to join the Union Army and take up arms against the Confederacy, he was risking his life. He knew that if he was caught, he faced torture, a return to slavery, or execution. His Civil War experiences tell us a great deal about him as well. They prove that Caesar Ravenel was a brave and loyal soldier because was able to live through a series of daring and dangerous military campaigns.

These stories made Caesar real for me. They gave me a new lens to use to see my own life. Caesar Ravenel is no longer just a name that lives on in my family. He’s real for me now, and I know that his life had to happen in order for mine to come into existence.


I now know that I am Gullah, and I’m learning what that actually means. To be able to identify myself as Gullah takes on a huge lifelong significance, because even when the term African-American was becoming popular years ago, I had not always used it to define me. I have always called myself black, because I felt that African-American was too vague of a term. Africa where? The continent? Or what country?  How could I be an African-American, when there are 54 different countries in Africa and upwards of 18 different African countries that slaves came from? These are questions that most black Americans do not know the answers to. If I was Italian-American or German-American, the identity is clear. Knowing what I now know creates an entire understanding of self that could have cleared up a lot of childhood anxiety during cultural lessons about where we come from. For children today, being able to proudly say, “I am Gullah” can be the identity anchor that a lot of black people search for, especially since most of us will run into the 1870s “Slave Wall” in our genealogy research. Now that the Gullah/Geechee Corridor has been identified, blacks who can trace their roots to the shores from North Carolina to North Florida can say that they are Gullah too.


Gullah people speak an English-based Creole language; its grammar and sentence structure is influenced by a number of African languages. Words and phrases are often abbreviated and altered into descriptions, rather than explanations.  Because the sound is not familiar to mainstream English speakers, the Gullah tongue seems imperfect or broken. However, the Gullah language is actually a perfect example of the ingenuity and resourcefulness that allowed the slaves to create a language all of their own; a language that they could speak amongst themselves and not be understood by slave owners. The language is like a code, spoken in a way that enables the insiders to talk about private things without detection. It creates a verbal wall that leaves outsiders clueless. Linguists have determined that the Gullah language includes, in whole or part, more than 3,000 African words.

Imagine this: a slave has a dangerous secret to share, like information that a runaway slave is being hidden. Life-saving information needs to pass between slaves without seeming suspicious. The conversation about what to do and who to tell could go in a normal tone of voice and right in the midst of slave catchers. Imagine the creativity and coordination that it took to establish a communication system between slaves from several different African countries, each with distinct languages and communication patterns.  Despite the difficulties, slaves developed a unique communication system that combined African words and the English of the slave owners to create a new version of words and new enhanced meanings that they could understand, but their owners could not. This is genius.

According to Louise Cohen, curator of the Gullah Museum, “The Gullah language was a way to talk in front of white people so that they couldn’t be understood. It demonstrates ‘a survival of the culture, regardless of the slave masters trying to destroy it.’”

Melvin Campbell of the Gullah Heritage Tours agrees, saying, “Gullah culture is a demonstration of the strength of the African people being able to withstand over 400 years of change and outside influences and our willingness to maintain our roots.”

When the Gullah language is spoken, to the unknowing ear it may sound broken and incomplete, or simply a lazy way of speaking. However, its sound, a variation of English, is similar to many Caribbean or Jamaican dialects.

Today, many people consider a Jamaican accent a cool and even fashionable way of talking, yet it was not the same for Gullah children. Even today, speaking Gullah is neither fashionable nor cool. Gullah speakers were taught in schools and by mainstream society that their language and their culture were something to be ashamed of, and this has had long-term cultural implications.

For a child growing up speaking Gullah, it should be valued just like any other form of human communication. However, today Gullah people are working to protect and preserve this important part of their history and culture. But there are many challenges. The language is not being passed down, and is slowly dying out, because it has been equated with ignorance and shame rather than cultural pride. Children don’t want to learn a language that, to the uninformed ear, makes them seem ignorant or makes them stand out among their peers. Teachers have been known to punish or demean children for speaking in a way that connected them to home and family life. Louise Cohen remembers her own experiences as a child.

“Gullah was considered to be broken English and backwards talking,” she said. “Teachers disciplined us for talking this way. Gullahs talk fast. People laughed at us for how we sounded.” But, Cohen added, “you have to accept who you are. You have to love how God made you.”   

My genealogy research has taken me on a very fascinating journey of discovery to places that I didn’t expect. The information that I have uncovered has given me a clearer vision of not only my family’s struggles to make a life for themselves in a hostile land, but also their triumphs in the midst of life-threatening challenges. I now fully embrace my own Gullah culture because it represents a rich history that still has strong and powerful roots that are still alive within its people. The Gullah culture and the Gullah people have demonstrated incredible strength and a determination to survive and prosper despite all efforts to mute the language and disperse the people.

I encourage everyone to value their family elders as resources, and take the time to ask questions about the family’s past because we all have stories that need to be remembered and retold. These stories can show us how we’re unique, and how we’re connected to the larger human family. All that you need to start your journey is a name, and any combination of the following: a place of residence or estimated year of birth or death.

Learning about your family is a wonderful way to ground yourself in your own history and your own culture. It’s a way to bridge the past to the present and to the future. It’s a way to really begin to know who you are so you can learn to “love how God made you.”    


Class fees are the same for all classes unless noted: $10 for foundation members; $15 for non-members. All classes run from 1:30-3:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. Class size limited, reservations are required. Call 843-686-6560 or register online www.atheritagelib.org.


Presented by Carol Clemens, Heritage Library volunteer;  Wednesday, October 5. This class will walk you through how to use a free, online site to create unique gifts using your family photos and genealogy research. You will walk away with the basic skills needed to upload photos, edit them and create on online album to share with family and friends; make high-quality photo books you can have professionally printed at a very reasonable cost; create personalized cards, family calendars and more to have printed at a reasonable cost.


Presented by Larry Burke, Heritage Library volunteer; Wednesday, October 12. If you are just starting family research, this class is for you! This two-part workshop introduces the first-time family researcher to the fascinating field of genealogy, its unique nomenclature, and suggested research techniques. It may also be of value to researchers with limited experience who wish to refresh their skills. Participants will receive hand-outs to help guide you in your research. Fee: $25 for Foundation members; $35 for non-members. 


Presented by Carol Clemens, Heritage Library volunteer; Wednesday, October 26.Are you researching and saving your info on scraps of paper, posting your tree on ancestry.com, or doing nothing with your research? If so, this class is for you!  None of the above will allow you to prepare and print out a nice genealogy product. You need genealogy software such as Family Tree Maker. This class is an introduction to Family Tree Maker 2014, the software that is once again available through a different company.  Topics covered include the basics of entering data, linking data for various individuals in a family, adding photos, understanding the various views, adding  on-line info directly to the tree without retyping or copying it and preparing and printing basic charts and reports.


Presented by Barbara Friis, Heritage Library volunteer; Wednesday, November 2. Were your German ancestors really German?  A unified nation called Germany did not exist until 1871, so you may have to extend your search to include Dutch, Danish and Swedish records.  Learn how to identify your ancestor's "Heimat" and discover the importance of the "Ortsippenbuch".  Identify resources that will help you further your research beyond ancestry.com. Compare German "Fraktur" to modern handwriting as a helpful tool for translating documents.  A packet including a brief German history, historical maps, German genealogy terms, occupations, "Fraktur" charts,German family history websites and a bibliography will be distributed to all participants.


Presented by Jan Alpert, Heritage Library volunteer; Wednesday, November 9.
Are you interested in testing your DNA and want to learn more about how DNA works, which DNA test to order, or which company to select? This class will cover the basics of DNA testing. Time will be available at the end of the presentation to discuss the appropriate DNA test you should order for the particular genealogy problem you are trying to solve.