Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination

Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination

Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination

Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination


During the 1920s and 1930s, anthropologists and folklorists became obsessed with uncovering connections between African Americans and their African roots. At the same time, popular print media and artistic productions tapped the new appeal of black folk life, highlighting African-styled voodoo as an essential element of black folk culture. A number of researchers converged on one site in particular, Sapelo Island, Georgia, to seek support for their theories about "African survivals," bringing with them a curious mix of both influences. The legacy of that body of research is the area's contemporary identification as a Gullah community.

This wide-ranging history upends a long tradition of scrutinizing the Low Country blacks of Sapelo Island by refocusing the observational lens on those who studied them. Cooper uses a wide variety of sources to unmask the connections between the rise of the social sciences, the voodoo craze during the interwar years, the black studies movement, and black land loss and land struggles in coastal black communities in the Low Country. What emerges is a fascinating examination of Gullah people's heritage, and how it was reimagined and transformed to serve vastly divergent ends over the decades.


For the past twenty years, on the third Saturday in October, scores of visitors have flocked to the ferry headed for Sapelo Island, Georgia, to partake in the annual Cultural Day festivities. the fund- raising festival hosted by the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society always attracts tourists who eagerly anticipate an encounter with real Gullah people and folk culture. Visitors look forward to observing ring shout and Gullah dialect performances, purchasing handwoven sweetgrass baskets and homemade rag dolls, and sampling the Islanders’ cuisine on the grounds of the old Farmers’ Alliance Hall.

One of the largest barrier islands in the region, Sapelo is comprised of more than fifteen thousand acres of lush landscape, accented by towering trees draped with Spanish moss, expansive marshlands, thick patches of pinewoods, and white sand beaches bordered by billowy sand dunes. the skeletal remains of slave cabins can be found on the grounds of what was once one of the island’s smaller plantations, and the mansion that was a seasonal home to the millionaires who occupied the island stands on the exact spot where Thomas Spalding’s “big house” stood during slavery days. To date, the island can be reached only by ferry and has just a handful of paved roads, a tiny post office, one gas station, and a small general store nestled in the heart of the island’s only surviving black settlement—Hog Hammock. Fewer than fifty descendants of the blacks enslaved on the island continue to live, year round, in Hog Hammock. They share Sapelo Island with transient groups of researchers stationed at the Marine Institute on the island’s south end and with tourists and regular weekend visitors.

When Cultural Day visitors arrive on the island and walk the dock’s rickety planks as the balmy air engulfs them, they frequently report feelings of being transported back in time. Many of Sapelo’s visitors are lured to the island by stories about a place and a people that remain unchanged despite the passing years.

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