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Brothers & Sisters Reunite in Sierra Leone for the First Time in Two Centuries - Visit Knowitall Media!

January 31, 2016 - Posted in Education by Mimi Brown
photo of Lowcountry sea islands

Learn about the connection between the Gullah people of S.C. & the people of Sierra Leone, West Africa!

This award-winning program explores the remarkable connections between the Gullah of the South Carolina/Georgia Sea Islands and the people of West Africa, particularly those of Sierra Leone. Taped in South Carolina and Africa, the program traces the truly unparalleled historical connection and continued relationship dating from the time of slavery, and examines the development of the two cultures over the course of time.

Family Acrioss the Sea is presented in four parts: 

Part 1

In 1989, a delegation of African Americans was invited to visit Sierra Leone, West Africa, to reunite with their brothers and sisters who share the same traditions. These traditions have been preserved along the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.

Part 2

A young black scholar named Lorenzo Turner began to research Gullah culture and language. Folklorists and historians who had studied this culture before Turner and concluded that the Gullah merely borrowed and corrupted English and European language and customs. Turner pushed these old prejudices aside. Where others heard Gullah only as a primitive pigeon English, Turner found a rich language that owed as much to Africa as to Europe. Linguist Joko Sengova is following in Turner's footsteps, and is attempting to pinpoint examples of African language that survive and have influenced Gullah, Geechee and Creole language.

Part 3

Anthropologist Joe Opala has studied the history of slavery from the African side of the ocean. He has tracked a remarkable series of connections that end in Charleston and trace back to Africa. Bunce Island, a quarter-mile long island, twenty miles from Freetown, was the furthest point inland where slave ships could travel without being grounded, and was the location from which Africans were boarded on ships and taken to Charleston and the slave market. A reading from the diary of Anna Marie Falkenbridge reveals her observations, on looking through a window at the back of the manor house that stood on the island and was the home of the chief agent, who became wealthy from the trafficking of human beings. John Newton, a slave ship captain, later denounced slavery, became a clergyman in England, and wrote "Amazing Grace." Opala discusses finding the connection between Richard Oswald, the owner of Bunce Island in the mid-18th century, and Henry Laurens, his agent for slaves in South Carolina. From Mepkin Plantation near Charleston, Henry Laurens rose in South Carolina society and became an important figure in American Colonial government, became president of the Continental Congress, and was the highest-ranking American official captured by the British during the Revolutionary War. Laurens was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and it was Richard Oswald who posted Laurens' bail. Later, the two helped to negotiate the cease-fire that ultimately led to the Treaty of Paris. The connection between these two men established the fact that thousands of slaves came from one small part of Africa to one small part of America.

The conditions that made the coast of South Carolina and Georgia an excellent place for rice cultivation also made it a place for tropical diseases brought from Africa. White plantation owners couldn't tolerate these conditions and fled, leaving their African slaves as overseers and farm managers. Many blacks also fled to the north along the Underground Railroad, but many went south to the wilderness of Florida. There they joined with another dispossessed people, the Seminole Indians. The former slaves became known as Seminole Negroes and kept alive their distinct language and culture, even cultivating rice. They also became a nation of black warriors, taking arms against their former masters. In the 1830s and 1840s, the second Seminole War pitted them against the United States government. In Florida, the blacks were able to escape into that tropical area, set up successful communities based on rice cultivation, and were able to resist the force of the U.S. military for several decades. It was a drawn-out, bloody conflict, unequaled in America until Vietnam. Only when the 

Part 4

Like the Black Seminoles who fled white civilization, blacks began to return to Africa in the 19th century. Historian Alpha Bah has studied the return of blacks to Sierra Leone, and cites the lingering dissatisfaction that led to the return of Charlestonian Edward Jones, one of the first black graduates from a predominantly white institution, Amherst College, to return. By the late 1830s, he was living in Freetown, working as a teacher and a preacher. In 1841, he became the first black principal of Fourah Bay Christian College, later Fourah Bay College, one of the first institutions of higher learning in black Africa. 

Over a year had passed since the original invitation to Sierra Leone. Alpha Bah's work helped him to observe the Gullah homecoming, as he served as liaison and guide to the delegation. For President Joseph Momoh, this was a chance to show his thanks for his visit to South Carolina and to Penn Center, saying, "It is always a very, very good feeling for one to be able to rediscover one's lost parents." 

The week-long visit in Sierra Leone provided an opportunity for state dinners, and for sharing African music and African foods. During the daytime, away from Freetown, the Gullahs engaged in a pilgrimage to the grim slave yard of Bunce. Back on Hilton Head Island, Emory Campbell said, "The main wound that's healed, I think, is the fact that now I know there's a place that I can go and call home. I know where home is now. and before then, somebody had described the Negro in America as a person without roots. But now I know I have roots, so that's been healed." 

*President Joseph Saidu Momoh served as President of Sierra Leone from November 1985 to April 1992.

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