150 years ago at this time (8 pm EST), Secretary of War and Major-General William T. Sherman had a meeting with Gullah/Geechee ministers which many have never been taught about. These ministers had a vision for the future of their people which involved self-determination and self-sufficiency. Their words regarding land ownership and their people was no doubt taken to heart by Major-General Sherman given that four days later, he issued “Special Field Order Number 15” which is still often referred to as “40 Acres and a Mule” by people of African descent in America. They often refer to the lack of having received what was clearly outlined during this meeting and in the field order as what was being sought by the people that had previously been enslaved.
The ministers at this meeting made it clear that they were well aware of what the Emancipation Proclamation that had been issued two years prior was supposed to represent. The conversation in Savannah, GA started with establishing how the now “Freedmen” understood this document and with that understanding, what this meant for their future:
First. State what your understanding is in regard to the acts of Congress and President Lincoln’s proclamation touching the condition of the colored people in the rebel States. Answer.So far as I understand President Lincoln’s proclamation to the rebellious States, it is, that if they would lay down their arms and submit to the laws of the United States before the 1st of January, 1863, all should be well, but if they did not, then all the slaves in the rebel States should be free, henceforth and forever. That is what I understood.
Second. State what you understand by slavery, and the freedom that was to be given by the President’s proclamation. Answer.Slavery is receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation is taking us from under the yoke of bondage and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor and take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.
Third. State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom. Answer.The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn in and till it by our labor–that is, by the labor of the women, and children, and old men–and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare;…We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.
Fourth. State in what manner you would rather live, whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by yourselves? Answer.I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over, but I do not know that I can answer for my brethren.
(Mr. Lynch says he thinks they should not be separated, but live together. All the other persons present being questioned, one by one, answer that they agree with “Brother Frazier.”)
Fifth. Do you think that there is intelligence enough among the slaves of the South to maintain themselves under the Government of the United States, and the equal protection of its laws, and maintain good and peaceable relations among yourselves and with your neighbors? Answer.I think there is sufficient intelligence among us to do so.
There was and remains “sufficient intelligence” among Gullah/Geechee to do so up to this moment. However, dynamics of what route is expedient often have to do with how people residing on the Sea Islands have been acculturated.
Take note that Mr.James Lynch that is mentioned in the notes of the minutes of the meeting above was twenty-six years old and was freeborn born in Baltimore, Md. He was the presiding elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church and missionary to the Department of the South who had only spent two years in the South. However, Mr. Garrison Frazier who was chosen by the persons present to express their common sentiments upon the matters of inquiry, was sixty-seven years old and was born in North Carolina. He had been enslaved until eight years prior to this meeting. He bought freedom for himself and his wife by paying $1,000 in gold and silver. He was also an ordained minister of the Baptist Church. He had been in the ministry thirty-five years. During that time, he had no doubt gained the respect of his people and given his life journey, he was fully aware of the struggles that they had been and were going through.
Lynch and Frazier serve as examples of the differences in culture amongst people of African descent in America and the juxtaposed methods of achieving freedom that have come about based on these differences and differences of upbringing and/or class. The critical point that they agreed on was the fact that their people needed to own and maintain their own land.
Interestingly enough, each year, January 12th goes by without fanfare in the Gullah/Geechee Nation, but January 15th is not as easily overlooked. January 15th is the day that Sea Island land taxes tend to be due without penalty. This is the day that people do not look forward to, but it is one that should always be remembered. It should be a day that causes us to take time to pause and give thanks to William J. Campbell, John Cox,William Bentley, James Mills, Alexander Harris,Andrew Neal, and Adolphus Delmotte who were born in Savannah, GA, Ulysses L. Houston born in Grahamville, SC, Charles Bradwell and Arthur Wardell who were born in Liberty County, GA, William Gaines who was born in Wills County, GA, James Hill who was born in Bryan County, GA, Glasgow Taylor who was born in Wilkes County, GA, Abraham Burke who was born in Bryan County, GA, James Porter who was born in Charleston, SC, and Jacob Godfrey who was born in Marion, SC. These men negotiated on the behalf of not only themselves, but the generations of GullahGeechees that own land in the Gullah/Geechee Nation today. They entered the meeting to negotiate on behalf of the entire community and they left having done so. They were not simply entering the space to see what they or their congregations individually would or could obtain. They recognized that GOD had it that the people respected them to lead and expected them to lead. So, they led by example by taking to those that they saw had the power to enforce the “law of the land” what they envisioned would be the best method of operation for their people to have a future TOGETHER!
To this day, Gullah/Geechees are seeking to maintain land ownership together in family compounds, in communities that were plantations, and on the Sea Islands. The communal mindset and the African tradition of supporting the leaders and allowing the spokesperson to speak was definitely the manner in which these men conducted themselves at this meeting. Returning to or maintaining this tradition has been key in the families that do continue to own their property and have not been displaced by taking on the acculturation of the myriad of western cultures that have come into the Sea Islands or that they have picked up as family members migrated into communities in other areas of the United States where individualism, capitalism and competition reign.
Attorney Willie Heyward of the “Heirs Property Law Center” and and Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com) have hosted numerous land workshops together. Here they stand with a copy of “Heirs Property in the African American Community.”
In “Heirs Property and the African American Community” written by Attorney Horace Jones and with a forward done by Attorney Willie Heyward of the Heirs Property Law Center, addresses many of these dynamics that those who did become the heirs to the very same land that these men spoke for two hundred years ago. There is even a chapter entitled “African American Churches and Heirs Property” which is a call to action to today’s ministers:
“Historically, the African American church has stood as a place of refuge and more than 32 million African Americans belong to African American churches that date as far back as 1790. These religious denominations should play a more concerted role in educating congregation members of the dangers of heirs property and its eradication through an effective social movement. Social movements in the African American community have often begun with ministers of these denominations and effectively brought about change.”
The change that is needed has to happen within the walls of the churches as well as under the oak trees of the family compounds. Gullah/Geechee families must first know ourstory and the legacy of being land owners in order to truly have a heart felt appreciation for the culture that maintained this while there is a “Black land loss” crisis all around us and within our borders. May the words of these ministers that were conveyed on January 12, 1865 at 8 pm continue to live and may we hold on to the land that our ancestors bought and left to us who are now the heirs. May we turn and till it by our labor- so that we can maintain ourselves and have something to spare and may we share what we have to spare with those that are not as fortunate to have had ancestors that were blessed to be in the position to own land. We would do a disservice to them to lose it!
Cum togedda and wok togedda chillun! Tek a stand fa we Gullah/Geechee land!