More oft than not, when one speaks of the land from which Gullah/Geechee culture stems, you hear the terminology “heirs property.” This is due to the fact that hundreds of thousands of native Gullah/Geechees inherited land from their ancestors that worked the land of the Sea Islands and Lowcountry of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida from the time of enslavement and purchased land there during the Reconstruction Era. They settled on this land and worked it in order to feed their families from it and raise them on it.
During that timeframe, folks raised families, raised animals, raised the roofs on new homes, and raised edible crops. Prior to that, they spent inordinate amounts of time toiling the soil in order to primarily raise cash crops of Sea Island cotton, indigo, and Carolina Gold rice. Some in North Carolina, even worked and raised tobacco. In fact, Tobacco heir, Richard Reynolds bought the mansion that was built by plantation owner and enslaver, Thomas Spaulding on Sapelo Island and this space is used as accommodations for people to rent that want to visit that island to learn about marine studies and about Gullah/Geechee culture. Part of what they are now learning is how many crops have been reintroduced into the hands of the Gullah/Geechees there and how they are trying to create an economy for themselves now instead of having their work on the land continue to only benefit the lives of those that have kept them in bondage and used the culture as something “quaint” to promote for the tourism industry of Georgia.
While others have seen the richness of Gullah/Geechee knowledge and culture since the kidnapping of our ancestors in the 1600s, many Gullah/Geechee heirs lost the value of their inheritance and their heirlooms over the generations because they truly were unaware of the value that lies therein. They didn’t realize that land was not a burden because you had to pay taxes for it. It is actually one of the greatest assets that one can possess. An asset greater than that our ancestors had even during their enslavement on these lands that are now the Gullah/Geechee Nation is vision.
The visionary Gullah/Geechees could not only see that a better day would come and would sing “Trouble don lass always!” They also worked toward a better future for themselves and their heirs. They saved for their true freedom-the release from being considered “chattel” and being “owned” and entered into being “owners.” They took freedom into their own hands and many self-emancipated and others bought their way into freedom and then used the pennies and nickels and dimes that they saved to purchase land at auctions during the United States Civil War and thereafter.
The land alone would not have sustained the families, but the valuable abilities and vision of the Gullah/Geechee is what had made the land rich for those that had enslaved them and now they planted this knowledge into the soil for themselves and their heirs. The seeds that our ancestors planted which have survived were some of the most resilient of all of them just as our ancestors were the most resilient Africans to have survived the journey and the hostile environment into which they were placed in North America. They converted this land into a cultural landscape and continued to pass down traditions that allowed more of their seeds of knowledge and literal seeds to be planted for generations.
As a Gullah/Geechee heir, it is has been vital to me to continue to plant in and harvest from the same land that my ancestors had been enslaved on and that has remained in family ownership since 1862. Unfortunately, the land of the Sea Islands is also in a hurricane zone. This has caused a paucity of heirloom seeds over time. However, due to the fact that an invitation from the “TnT Hill Rice Symposium and Festival” founder, Francis Morean of Trinidad lead to me having the opportunity to keynote at the inaugural event wherein I got to stand in a hill rice paddy and to be a part of a journey to reintroduce the growing of rice in various places, I was able to grow rice where my grandfather grew it as well.
This led to the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation inviting Francis Morean to be a special guest speaker for the proceedings at a meeting in Charleston, SC at which I was presented with a basket full of heirloom seeds of various crops which included a number of peas varieties. These made for a wonderful mixture of peas and rice dishes at my family compound! We love fa nyam pun peas and rice and bin gladdee fa hab disya! However, just as I inquired about other seeds that we were finding more difficult to find on the island, as often is the case in my life, GOD had it that what I sought, came straight to me!
I received an email from Baker Heirloom Seeds letting me know that they wanted to add to the donation of seeds that the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition had received from Francis Morean, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, and Anson Mills. They sent me a catalogue and my family and I started flipping pages to find not only seeds that we were familiar with, but many varieties that looked interesting and that we simply wanted to taste! When they seeds arrived, I got right out onto and into the land with them and ended up with an abundant field!
Unfortunately, the same field in which the seeds were planted in 2017 became flooded with hurricane rain water. So, many seeds had to be reordered for this year’s planting. However, I had done what one does with true heirlooms, stored some in a secure place and therefore, had some level of food security for another year in spite of the environmental issues that we have to contend with.
As I stopped to think of how valuable my seeds and my land are to me, I can feel an embrace from my ancestors that truly knew the meaning of this critical word:
heirlooms (plural noun)
a valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations.
They lived lives of bequeathing heirlooms to their heirs. The heirs that retained the knowledge of how to work the land are heirlooms in and of themselves because our family members do believe that they “own” you and you “belong” to the family. Part of our family is the land itself. It continues to give us life especially as life springs from it by us living out the North American definition of heirloom:
denoting a traditional variety of plant or breed of animal which is not associated with large-scale commercial agriculture.
Although our ancestors largely were a part of commercial agriculture because they were the “tools” of the largest industry that existed in the Atlantic World in which their knowledge and land were exploited for profit during the time of chattel enslavement during the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, they moment that they stepped out of that system into freedom, many became yeomen and subsistence farmers and taught their family members how to sustain themselves and the land so that they would always be able to feed their families. I give thanks for what they taught and for being able to continue to retain their ability to sustain who webe riycha pun de islandts ob de Gullah/Geechee.
I’m blessed to be able to reintroduce to our land heirloom seeds and to be an heir that can go out into the world and share the living legacy of my cultural community. I’m looking forward to doing this along side others that value the heirlooms that they plant in lands around the world as we gather together in California for International Heirloom Conference at the National Heirloom Expo. Tenk GAWD fa de Gullah/Geechee souls of de soil wha gwine dey dey fa shout wid we! Mi trulee gladdee fa bein an heir ta de heirloom! It is amazing the riches that you find when you put your hands into the soil and bring them out to touch other souls.