West African Origins of the Gullah/Geechee
South Carolina & Georgia, USA
Their language is a type of Pidgin that is a combination of English and the traditional language spoken by the Wolof and Fula people
of West Africa. -- Joseph Opala, anthropologist
JOSEPH OPALA is an American anthropologist who lectures at Fourah Bay College (University of Sierra Leone). His study of the Sierra Leone—Gullah connection began in 1977, when he conducted an archaeological and historical survey of Bunce Island under a grant from the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1980, he did research in Oklahoma among the Seminole Freedmen and acted as an historical consultant for their community leaders. Since 1985, Mr. Opala has been actively engaged in spreading information on the Gullah in Sierra Leone speaking on SLBS, BBC, VOA, etc. and writing for the African press. He is a founder and co-chairman of the Gullah Research Committee at Fourah Bay College, an interdisciplinary group committed to a thorough exploration of this important topic.
The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection
by Joseph Opala

"The Gullah are a distinctive group of Black Americans from South Carolina and Georgia in the southeastern United States. They live in small farming and fishing communities along the Atlantic coastal plain and on the chain of Sea Islands which runs parallel to the coast."
"P.E.H. Hair . . ., a British historian, pointed to the "astonishing" fact that all of the African texts known to be preserved by the Gullah are in languages spoken in Sierra Leone. Mende, which accounts for most of the African passages collected by Lorenzo D. Turner, is spoken almost entirely in Sierra Leone, while Vai and the specific dialect of Fula are found on the borders with Liberia and Guinea. But Dr. Hair also noted that a "remarkably large proportion" of the four thousand African personal names and loan-words in the Gullah language come from Sierra Leone. He calculated that twenty-five percent of the African names and twenty percent of the African vocabulary words are from Sierra Leonean languages, principally Mende and Vai. Dr. Hair concluded that South Carolina and Georgia is the only place in the Americas where Sierra Leonean languages have exerted "anything like" this degree of influence.

Gullah culture seems to emphasize elements shared by Africans from different areas. The Gullahs' ancestors were, after all, coming from many different tribes, or ethnic groups, in Africa. Those from the Rice Coast, the largest group, included the Wolof, Mandinka, Fula, Baga, Susu, Limba, Temne, Mende, Vai, Kissi, Kpelle, etc.—but there were also slaves brought from the Gold Coast, Calabar, Congo, and Angola." --- Hair, P.E.H. Sierra Leone Items in the Gullah Dialect of American English. Sierra Leone Language Review, 4 (1965), 79-84.

The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection
Photo from the Library of Congress
mtDNA Testing on the Gullahs:

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) Haplotypes Reveal Maternal Population Genetic Affinities of Sea Island
Gullah-Speaking African Americans, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 127: 427–438 (2005)


Population sampling: 1,395 individuals from Sierra Leone, Africa, from U.S. European Americans, and from the New World African-derived populations of Jamaica, Gullah-speaking African Americans of the South Carolina Sea Islands (Gullahs), African Americans living in Charleston, South Carolina, and West Coast African Americans.

Mitochondrial DNA Genetic Diversity Among Four Ethnic Groups in Sierra Leone, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 128: 156–163 (2005)


Although there are numerous ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, the Mende and Temne together account for approximately 60% of the total population.

These results indicate that distinguishing genetic differences can be observed among ethnic groups residing in historically close proximity to one another. Furthermore, we observed some mitochondrial DNA haplotypes that are common among the Sierra Leone ethnic groups but that have not been observed in other published studies of West African ethnic groups. Therefore, we may have evidence for mtDNA lineages that are unique to this region of West Africa.

Previous studies of African mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) focused primarily on discerning the origins of modern humans and the worldwide expansion of human populations. These same studies demonstrated that Africa contains the greatest level of mtDNA diversity in the world (Ingman et al., 2000). However, there has been no intensive published study to characterize genetic differences in the mtDNA of the many ethnic groups of Africa that were the sources of slaves. Such a study would be important to African-Americans and Caribbean blacks of African descent whose heritage was lost due to slavery. To this end, the “African-American DNA Roots Project” was created to identify ethnic specific African mtDNA and Y-chromosome haplotypes and determine their presence in African-American and Caribbean populations.

Numerous historical documents suggest that Sierra Leone was a major source of slaves for the southern United States. Approximately 6% of slaves bought through Charleston, South Carolina during the final years of legal slave importation (1716–1807) emanated from Sierra Leone (Pollitzer, 1993). These African slaves were valued because of their knowledge of rice agriculture, and were largely responsible for the financial success of Georgia and South Carolina rice plantations.
Research Documents and Links
The United States Congress has acknowledged the very special nature of the Sea Island way of life by authorizing The Lowcountry Gullah Geechee Culture Special Resource Study by the National Park Service. Its goal is "to analyze the multi-faceted components of this living, breathing culture" and make a recommendation on how to keep it alive as part of our national heritage.

PBS Gullah History Primer with Bill Moyer

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