Florida’s West Africans, Gullah-Geechees acknowledged

Filed under OPINION

DEREK HANKERSON
GUEST COMMENTARY

On Monday, May 13, The United States Department of Interior signed the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commissions (GGCHC) Management Plan.

The connection to Florida is important because this year we are celebrating the 500th Anniversary of Florida and too many times we fail to acknowledge that West Africans and Gullah-Geechees existed in Florida slave and free for at least 500 years!

The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor was established by federal legislation in 2006, by Congressman James Clyburn, South Carolina.

The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is the only one of 49 National Heritage areas that promotes the living culture of an African-American population. It spans the coastal communities from Wilmington, North Carolina through South Carolina, Georgia to St. Augustine, Fla.

The Gullah-Geechee people are descendants of enslaved Africans from various ethnic groups of west and central Africa. That were brought to the New World and forced to work on the plantations of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida.

Gullah/Geechee people have retained most aspects of their African heritage due to the geographic barriers of the coastal landscape and have a strong sense of place and family of Gullah/Geechee community members.

The two most popular minorities studied in historical analysis of the United States are the Native-Americans and the African-Americans.

Sadly neglected
However, despite immense amount of scholarship available on these two groups, the literature on hand is practically mutually exclusive.

Current research and publications focus almost solely on the history of Blacks and natives and their interaction with European culture, but as Jack D. Forbes says in his book Africans and Native Americans, “…relations between Native Americans and Africans have been sadly neglected.”

In fact, the earliest recorded evidence of Blacks in Florida dates back to 1513 and not 1619 as reported by Jamestown and relates to the Spanish exploration and settlement of Hispanola.

During the time Spain declared exclusive sovereignty over land from the Florida Keys to Newfoundland and west to Mexico. In 1526, the Spanish settlement San Miguel de Gualdape. Hence, this was ostensibly the first colony with a number of African slaves.

Natives, Africans unite
Not all Blacks were slaves and not all slaves were Black. Regardless, the Spanish immediately became aware of the potential danger of an alliance of non-Whites in Florida. As a result, special legislation prohibited Blacks from living and trading with Native Americans.

But, due primarily to harsh living conditions that worsened by disease and contact with Europeans, and starvation! Many slaves joined the Guale Indian rebellion, setting fires to the settlements while seeking freedom and independence.

Those Africans who participated in the rebellion were assumed by the Spanish to have migrated to remote parts of Florida and blended into Native American communities.

‘Management Plan’
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commissions (GGCHC) Management Plan has been seven years in the making and received comments from citizens in four states along the corridor.

The plan is an official document that guides the organization policies, procedures, and vision for the organization. It also lays out beautifully why goals are in place and to be met, and the significance of those goals, which is to preserve, and protect the habitat, environment, language, and culture of those Gullah-Geechee descendants.

The GGCHC commission is managed by the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. The Corridor Commission anticipates partnering with organizations, businesses and governments to design and create strategies and programs built around the culture of the African-Americans who settled on the coastal counties of South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.

As a direct descendent, I am thrilled that the governor of the state of Florida, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Park Service, St. Johns County Board of Commission, St. Augustine City Commission and county residents of St. Johns County supported this massive $ 20 Million dollar project. Now, we can tell our own stories about our own people.

Many West Africans died along the Middle Passage, many fought and died for the southern cause and to include those who fought against the British during the various raids to acquire Florida as the 13th Colony, through the American Revolution, War of 1812, Black and Seminole War, and Civil War through to today.

Let us say a hip, hip hooray for the National Park Service Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and its inclusion of St. Johns County to that corridor.

This is all relevant, because Fort Mose, Little Africa or Lincolnville, and Armstrong are three communities in St. Johns County that were settled by West Africans.

And, also let us not forget that St. Augustine was the Capitol of Spanish, Florida, and hence why West Africans came to this area for freedom and independence.

Gullah-Geechee partnership applications are available at the Corridor’s website, www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org.

Derek Boyd Hankerson is a co-founder of Freedom Road Productions based out of St. Augustine. Hankerson can be reached at derekhankerson@bellsouth.net.

3 Responses to Florida’s West Africans, Gullah-Geechees acknowledged

  1. The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project is so pleased to see this article. We hope that residents and interested persons will participate and support efforts to hold remembrance ceremonies and install markers on Amelia Island (September 28) and in St. Augustine (October 6) to honor and remember Africans who died during and those who survived the Middle Passage. Africans have been a part of the European conquest and settlement of the Western Hemisphere from the beginning! Pleased to see this article.
    Thanks

  2. Beverlye Neal

    This is a little know fact of Black History. I am so glad to see the establishment of this Commission. We need to make sure this becomes a part of Florida History, to be taught in the schools.

  3. Ida Washington

    Great article! I am so thrilled this story is being told. My husband is a Gullah Geechee descendant. We often joked about him coming from a different tribe than what I did. Now I am beginning to understand why.

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