Gullah/Geechee Nation Appreciation Week is not only an annual celebration that allows those interested in learning about the living traditions of Gullah/Geechees to engage directly with traditions keepers, it is also a time that allows us to journey back in time to truly assess how far we’ve come. Disya da time fa sankofa fa tru!
Over the decades of working to keep Gullah/Geechee culture alive and to keep our people on our land, I have been blessed to not only journey the entire Gullah/Geechee Nation coast, but to learn ourstory from those that have sustained our traditions as they were passed down by our ancestors over the decades. Along the way, I had the opportunity to meet outstanding Gullah/Geechee historians such as the late WW Law of Savannah, GA who always embraced me as family because he said St. Helena Island was where his family stemmed from. Someone who learned from Dr. WW Law and who continues to carry the torch of sharing ourstory in a manner that will truly enlighten others is Dr. Amir Jamal Toure of Dayclean Journeys Tours whose family stems from Hilton Head Island and Savannah, GA.
The times that I traversed the waters with these two men were truly golden opportunities. Along the way, I learned why the Georgia area of the Gullah/Geechee Nation is called the “Coastal Empire” and the “Golden Isles.” The stories of those seeking to build empires along that coast and to build wealth that would last for multiple generations abounds. Many are aware of the numerous “titans of industry” that gathered and lived along the Golden Isles, but fewer are aware of the richness of the battles for self-determination that took place at the Siege of Savannah where Gullah/Geechees fought along side Haitian soldiers or the legacy of Igbo Landing on St. Simon’s Island, GA where our ancestors resisted enslavement.
Many drive pass or through areas such as Liberty County where people of African descent own more land per capita than in any other county in the state of Georgia and they do not realize this nor do they recognize the magnitude of that reality. Juxtapose this to the fact that just down the road, Gullah/Geechees of Harris Neck have been fighting to have ancestral lands returned to them for their use instead of it being used as a bird sanctuary and further southward there stand numerous historic markers and sites that insure that people know of the enslavement of the Africans, but not of the successful continued existence of their descendants.
No doubt it is difficult for those that go to a monument such as the truly artistic one that makes people aware of The Wanderer which was the last documented enslavement vessel to arrive on North American soil to leave that location on Jekyll Island and make the connection to the thousands of Gullah/Geechees that live in neighboring areas such as St. Simon’s Island and Brunswick, GA. However, these are the nuggets of the Golden Isles that hold the stories of self-determination of our ancestors and many of their descendants are those that have resisted allowing their stories to be forgotten.
As one continues back northward to Savannah, GA in Chatham County, the story of the Weeping Time is also embossed on a historic marker for all to read of this horrific day. Yet, many visitors to this oak tree street lined city of the Gullah/Geechee Nation often go right passed it not realizing the blood that cries out from beneath the concrete in which the marker stands. They walk by the marker that they should pause and read that helps them to overstand the story of William Tecumseh Sherman’s “Special Field Order Number 15” which came as a result of 20 preachers of African descent meeting with him in Savannah, GA and making it clear that we wanted land and to be left alone. Self-determined people know that land is that which will allow them to have self-sufficiency and a base from which to build wealth.
They also know that in order to sustain wealth building, a person must have enough understanding that he or she will protect assets that are inherited and continue to amass more assets in order to leave an inheritance and a legacy to their future generations. The King-Tisdell Cottage stands as one of the many examples of this that Gullah/Geechees are honored to still hold onto in the Coastal Empire. 33 years from the original opening of the King-Tisdell Cottage as a house museum on July 26, 1981, the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation reopened the redesigned museum on July 26, 2014 and I was honored to have my image placed in the kiosk about the Gullah/Geechee which is there to help tell ourstory of and in this historic place.
Within the King-Tisdale Cottage there is a tribute to Sarah King’s confectionery and other Black business owners in Savannah, as well as a room dedicated to the history of the families. There is also a room devoted to WW Law, and one that tells the story of urban enslavement and emancipation in Savannah.
In 1925, Eugene and Sarah King bought a cottage on Ott Street where Sarah King ran a confectionery from the house and became a prominent Black female entrepreneur. After her first husband’s death, she married Robert Tisdell, a longshoreman in Savannah. However, Sarah King-Tisdell died shortly after she remarried, and Robert Tisdell continued living in the house, which, over time, became a mecca of Black culture. The cottage was moved to its present location still within the heart of the community.
The cultural vibrancy of the Gullah/Geechees that made Savannah their home can not only be learned at King-Tisdale Cottage, but at Beach Institute and the Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum which WW Law championed and where he worked out his final days. This was the space in which I would meet him after I would simply have someone go to his office and tell him, “Your family from St. Helena is here.” There was never a time that he didn’t come out and embrace me. As I travel the Golden Isles now, I can hear his voice and feel his embrace as I step on each inch of the ground on the Georgia coast that has been enriched by the hands and the intellect of Gullah/Geechees thus making these truly Gullah/Geechee Golden Isles.