Death and Dying Among the Gullah


The Gullahs [as they are called by others] are direct descendants of Africans coming mostly from the ethnic groups of the Bantus of Central Africa.  The word “Gullah” itself is believed to be a shortened form or corruption of N’gola [Angola].  They speak their own language, called Gullah or Sea Island Krio.

Geographically, they occupy Sea Islands starting north of Georgetown, South Carolina, and continue to parts of Northern Florida.  There are approximately 1,000 islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia which are separated from the mainland by marshes, alluvial streams and rivers.  Some of the islands are bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and are twenty miles or more from the mainland.  They range in size from very small and uninhabitable to Johns Islands, South Carolina, which is the second largest island in the United States.  As late as the 1920s the islands were inaccessible except by boat because of the many rivers, creeks, and marshes.  Some bridge construction was started about 1915 but it was not until 1940 that most of the islands had direct access to the mainland.  The bridges marked an end of an era of isolation.  Sam Doyle, a long time resident, remembered the change.  “When the bridges came they brought the automobile and the automobile brought the lights and with the coming of lights all the spirits left never to come back again.”[i]

The African influences are also evidenced in the decorative use of gourds and shells placed on tombs and graves, the wearing of charms and amulets, root medicines (herbalists), extended family patterns, musical instruments, cuisine, land tenure practices and their concept of time.

This chapter will focus on death and dying among the Gullahs examining both their temporal and spiritual worlds with the aim of gaining some insight on how the African experience in the Sea Islands has helped to shape the world of the Gullahs, and how that world has shaped the African American experience.

During the slave period, many of the African traditions that survived reflected the Kongo-Angolan culture of the Bantu people from Central Africa. The Bantu made up a total of 40 percent of all the Africans brought into the Sea Islands.  Their culture was transported through the Middle Passage and rematerialized in South Carolina.  Despite the Africans’ gradual acculturation into Euro-American life, especially after 1940, they still retained many elements of their original culture.

Another recognizable Africanism in the United States which was a direct African carryover was the secret societies.  There has been no comprehensive study and research on the origin and history of Black insurance companies, and yet they are the only indigenous institution that has direct linkage with West and Central African secret societies.  The Black insurance companies represent one of the few African institutions that have survived in the United States today.  The Black mutual aid societies and self-help organizations are direct carryover from African mutual aid societies. According to Carter G. Woodson, “drawing on the African penchant for burial pomp secret societies have been developed mainly around the idea of taking care of the sick and dead; and from this as a nucleus these orders have become mainly insurance companies.”[ii]

Once the Africans arrived in America they were not permitted to continue their African secret functions so they found suitable substitutes by modifying their African societies into lodges, and according to Herskovits these African secret societies became insurance and burial societies.[iii] Carter G. Woodson also pointed out “most of the large Negro insurance companies may be traced to such beginnings.  W.W. Browne, an enterprising Methodist Minister of Richmond Virginia, started an insurance company from this early tradition.”[iv]

According to Herskovits there were three major Black insurance businesses that grew from this tradition.  They were the Afro-American, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor and the Universal Life Insurance Company.  The first two are also fraternal orders with appropriate rituals and a pronounced social flavor.

According to W.E.B. Dubois there is a direct connection between African secret societies and the founding of Black Insurance companies in the United Sates. According to DuBois:

No complete account of Negro beneficial societies is possible, so large is their number and so wide their ramification.  Nor can any hard and fast line between them and industrial insurance Societies can be drawn. These societies are also difficult to separate from the secret societies; many have more or less ritual work, and the regular secret societies do much fraternal insurance business.[v]

Burial insurance among blacks comes directly from this tradition. The ideal of providing insurance for the dead survivors and burial plans were never in the early years addressed by Whites, and Afro-Americans continued this tradition by providing for collective economic cooperation in times of need for the community.

Burial societies in the Sea Islands are still numerous in Hilton Head, St. Helena and Beaufort County.  Some of the better known burial societies were the Workers of Charity, Lily of the Valley and Rome of Victory.[vi] On Hilton Head were the Mutual Aid, the Jolly Boys, the Golden Link, the Seaside Branch, and the Union Gospel Travelers.[vii] On the Island of St. Helena the Farmer’s Club was an important functioning burial society.  In Beaufort County there were the Odd Fellows, Eastern Star and Weeping Mary.[viii] The Knights of Wisemen is a lodge that still assists in burials; Ladies Union, Young Men Social Club and the Blue Mountain lodge all have similar functions. The Knights of Wise Men is for men only and Rome of Victory is mixed and includes both sexes.  The Young Men Social Club and the Blue Mountain lodge are also male societies.[ix]

In the Sea Islands people would pay a small amount of money and when a member became ill they would “sit up” with the sick and family and make sure that the home was cleaned and food prepared and all the daily functions taken care of such as cooking and cleaning.  If the member died they would sit up (at the wake) until the person was buried, generally the next day.  The burial society would make all the funerary arrangements.  They functioned as a beneficiary society to the community.  Only Rome of Victory still performs this function today.[x] In addition to funerary arrangements and the sit up (the wake), the burial societies in the older days, also prepared members’ bodies for burial. As one journal article explained it:

When an Odd-Fellow dies, “de body cover up, nobody mus’ touch. Six men come to babe an’ dress de body.” Similarly, on the death of a Good Samaritan, “de body cover up, no one can touch de body ‘til de Sister come.  Sen’ to de Wordy (Worthy) Chief.  Fo’ Sisters come was De body an’ lay out. Nobody can look at de face widout de Sisters say so…[xi]

These beneficent societies were the forerunners of Black insurance companies, and they developed particularly out of the need of black people to properly bury their dead and to provide for the families of deceased members.  This was a strong African carryover of the belief that the dead person’s spirit could not rest until he had a proper funeral and burial.  The first of these societies was organized in Philadelphia in 1787.  Societies were soon established in other cities both in the North and South.  Usually these societies were secret and they were composed of free Blacks exclusively because slaves did not have to worry about burial expenses and financial support for their orphaned children.  Members paid a fee of 25 cents.  Part of this money was used to care for widows and orphans, the latter being guaranteed the rudiments of an education.  In 1790, the Free African Society in Philadelphia applied for a plot of land in Potters Field where it might bury its dead.[xii]

Organizations of this type still persist in the southern Black communities to this day.[xiii] Black insurance companies sprang from such societies.  The first was founded in Philadelphia in 1810 with a capital stock of $5,000.  Joseph Randolph, Cavey Porter and William Coleman served as president, treasure and secretary respectively.  After operating for about three years, the company collapsed and no other companies were established until after 1820.[xiv]

From the 18th century to around the 1930s in the Sea Island the Gullah and African burial custom were very similar in the preparation of the body for burial.  According to observer Sam Doyle before they started embalming persons “if you died today or at night you would be bury tomorrow.”  When a person died they would send out people to wash and dress the body (burial societies).  The Elders would perform this function for men, and women prepared the bodies of women.  The body would be dressed in a white sheet (no clothes) and something would be tied underneath the mouth and the body would then be placed in a casket.  The caskets were made from four pieces of wood and it would be covered with black cloth inside the casket.[xv]

In Beaufort County in the community of Dale near Red Hill there was a group of women who would go around and prepare the body when someone died.  First they would lay the body in the bed.  For the final wash the water would be brought into the room.  Soap and towels or a fine cloth would be used to wipe the body clean.  They would bring coffee to be placed underneath the arms, legs and open spaces. Coffee would then be rubbed over the body.  The body would then be kept for two or three days.  They would dress the body and then place it in the casket.  After the body had been prepared they would begin singing and shouting over the body until the time for the funeral came.  This singing and shouting over the body is a direct African carryover into Afro-American burial customs.  Even when they began embalming bodies (in the house) the people would sit around the body until the funeral would be held in that person’s yard or home.  The bodies were generally kept on the outside of the house or in the living room, as was the custom.[xvi]

The final wash was a tradition is common throughout West and Central Africa and is found among speakers of the Niger-Congo language family which includes groups from the Senegambia to Angola.  Therefore, this custom came to be reinforced by both Central and West Africans.  Among the Bantu the washing of the dead is done in a particular spot at night in privacy.  For this ritual water is brought in an earthen pot which may not touch the ground, but is kept from touching the earth by means of an Ezikila (a thick roll of cloth wound into the shape of a carrier’s pad) A piece of cloth is dipped into the water and then wrung out and with this the body is washed until clean.  In this ceremony water must not fall to earth.[xvii]

Among the Igbo in the preparation of the body for the final wash the elder men prepare the male bodies and the elder women prepare the female bodies.  They rubbed the body with palm kernel and coconut oil and sometimes rubbed the body with camwood and herbs.[xviii] There is a similarity to this in the Sea Islands.  The people in Igboland keep an all night vigil until the funeral.  The pots used to wash body are later placed on top of the deceased’s grave.

During the “sit up,” or wake, friends, family, guests and members of the burial society would sit around the dying person “tuh help them cross de ribber.”  When the last breath was drawn everyone present gave a loud shriek as notification that another soul had “done crossed ober” into the spirit world.[xix] During the Civil War the Gullah “death-watch” or “sit up” was looked down upon by Northern instructors as heathen practices:

This practice of sitting up all night with the dying, H.W.  [Harriet Ware] justly condemns as “heathenish.” The houses cannot hold them all, of course, and they sit round out of doors in the street, the younger ones often falling asleep in the ground, and they “hab fever.”  But of course it was useless to expostulate with them; to their minds the omission of the watch would be a mark of great disrespect.[xx]

In the Sea Islands they would keep an all night vigil, singing, praying and preaching around the bedside of the dying.  This was supposed to strengthen the person as they “passed death’s door.” When the person died they would immediately begin shouting over the body.  The loud shrieks as the last breath, but also “scares off the spirits of hell who are always lurking around to get possession of another soul.”[xxi]

In the Sea Islands the “sit up” around the body, the all night vigil. Singing, praying and shouting over the body were very similar to practices in Central Africa.  The all-night funeral observances and singing are also common practices in African and European cultures.  Observance of a wake is common in both societies.  However, vocal and public expression of grief at the wake in the form of shouting, screaming and dancing is a direct African carryover.[xxii] While this is common throughout Africa, Sea Island wakes bear more similarity to Central Africa wakes than those of West Africa.

As we attempt to identify this practice with the possible African ethnic group it originated with we find the same identical practice in Angola among the Umbundu.  As soon as a dying person took the last breath relatives, neighbors and friends who are gathered around the death bed “pierce the air with lamentations and heartrending cries” and other wild expression of grief.  The loud noise and shouting “is supposed to drive away the spirits.”  Between the wailing and the shouting the assembled guests, friends and society members may drink, dance, gamble and be merry.  The members of the secret society at the time of death, if the deceased was one of their members, honored his funeral by spending whatever is found in the cashbox where the contributions of the members are deposited.[xxiii]

The death ceremony was the most important event in the life of the community and everyone wanted to die in their place of birth.  On St. Helena Island one informant explained: “We all leave in our youth to find work and sometimes many of us stay away thirty or forty years spending our lives working and living in the Big City.  But when it’s almost time for us to die we come back home.[xxiv] In the Sea Islands they believe: “Fus the spirit tuh rest in the grave folks have tuh be buried at home.  They nevuh feel right ef they buried from home the spirit just wanduh around.”[xxv] Another example of this is found in Georgia.  “A Combahee Negro of today, never mind how far away he may have wandered, when he comes to die, thinks of the old plantation as his house, and wants to be carried back and buried among his own people…[xxvi] In White Bluff Georgia strangers were not allowed to be buried in the local cemetery but in what was known as the “strangers lot.” A piece of ground set apart from the cemetery proper.  This African custom of bringing the dead back to their original home for interment was found throughout the coastal areas of both Georgia and South Carolina.[xxvii]

This concept is common in many African societies.  Bosman reports that “the Negroes are strangely fond of being buried in their own Country; so that if any person dies out of it, they frequently bring his Corpse home to be buried…”[xxviii] “When a man dies at a distance from his home his body is always taken back, when possible, to his home, wrapped up in mats covered by a cloth and placed on a bier or cradle, which is carried on the shoulders of his relatives."[xxix] Among the Igbo the greatest desire of all men and women is to die in their own hometown.  If you are buried in a place other than your home the ancestral spirits of that region will not accept a stranger into their midst and that is why the Igbo bring the body of their dead home for burial.  In the case of death in a foreign land the body will be returned home for burial.

An example of this occurred in Los Angeles many years ago when an Igbo student was killed in an auto accident.  The uncle, who resided in Los Angeles, had to call his senior brothers in Nigeria to determine where the nephew would be buried. He was told that the body could not be buried in a foreign land, and that it had to be returned to the town of his birth in Awaka, Owerri, in Imo State, Nigeria for interment.  He was given a funeral service in Los Angeles, and the body was returned three months later for the funeral and burial in his hometown of Owerri.[xxx]

In the Sea Islands when a person died: Everything that person used plates, spoons, saucers, medicine and pots were all placed on the grave.  The medicine bottles were then turned down into the grave.  There were no flowers or headstones except for the Civil War soldiers.  Ole man Gabriel “said tat dis wuz de way dey bury dem in Africa.”  “If I am sick all de tings they used to care for me with an de bottle to give me medicine. When I’m dead dey place dem on top of de grave.  Dis ole slavery time customs.[xxxi] “Dey use tuh put duh tings a pusson use las on duh grabe. Dis wuz suppose tuh satisfy duh spirit and keep ir frum follin yuh back tuh duh house.[xxxii]

After the 1920s things begin to change and they started placing wild flowers in the grave or a lily.[xxxiii] In Central and West Africa it is believed that unless the dead person has a proper funeral their spirit will not join with the ancestors and will wander, as well as cause problems and harm the community. Part of the proper funeral involves the placement of items used by the dead on top of the grave. This is still practiced in numerous Bantu and West African cultures. In short, great pains are taken to provide for a proper carryover. “ Wen a pusson die in duh house, ef yuh take em out fo’ duh ministuh say few wuds, den deah spirit will hant duh house, cuz dey jis caahn be happy till de hab ebryting done propuh an right.”[xxxiv] The Gullahs like their African ancestors did everything to pacify the “speerit.” They further placated the spirits of the dead by placing their things on the grave. “Dey puts tings on the grave so de be handy for de speerit and he be satisfied.”[xxxv] By satisfying the spirit, “dey keeps de speerit out en de house.”[xxxvi]

In Eastern Nigeria, in Onitsha, all the implements of the dead are placed before the corpse: tools, gun and bag, as well as, other implements in accordance with his profession. For a man of wealth, a bowl filled with cowries (money) will be added to the collection. The place of articles is symbolical. They represent the equipment that the man will need in the underworld; the tools to enable him to prosecute his occupation; the money wherewith the rich man will be able to maintain his proper dignity. Small pots and bowls are generally placed on the grave to aid the departed in the spirit world. When the burial is finished, more “omu” (palm leaves) are deposited on the top of the grave. On the grave of a woman, a small pot (oku) alone is placed.[xxxvii]

Throughout the South, this custom was found in almost every southern state. In South Carolina "the most common items placed on graves were bleached seashells, broken crockery and glassware, broken pitchers, soap dishes, lamp chimneys, tureens, coffee cups, syrup jugs, all sorts of ornamental vases, cigar boxes, gun locks, tomato cans, teapots, flowers with pots, bits of stucco, plaster image, pieces of carved stone-work from one of the public buildings during the war, glass lamps and tumblers in great number and other kitchen articles are used…"[xxxviii]

From early observation of this tradition in the Sea Islands at a grave in Beaufort, the tradition of placing broken crockery and special household items have been substituted with pots and neatly placed artificial flowers -- a combination of African pots and European flowers. Today, both blacks and whites bring flowerpots to be placed on top of the graves. The present styles represent new forms of Africanism that have been substituted for more socially acceptable items, such as in Daufuskie and Coosaw, where there still exist strong elements of this custom. The more isolated the area the stronger the Aficanism.[xxxix]

Today for the most part, professional morticians now incorporate traditional ideas into Styrofoam and plastic vases. Modern grave decorations incorporate elements of the African tradition of above grave decorations. New patterns of arrangement reflect the changing forms. In other words, the African forms have been African-Americanized. Instead of pots, plates, saucers, cups and medicine bottles, artificial pots, plaster flowers have now taken their place.

At Coffin Point Cemetery, where the Coffin plantation is still located, the same graveyard used by enslaved is still being used by their descendants today. Even though the graveyard is located in an all white area in St. Helena, some new forms of African carryovers and change in the style of the above grave decoration were observed. On the grave mound rested a single pot, which was placed in the center of the grave between two headstones similar to some Bantu styles. In Charleston, South Carolina, the same pattern appears in a Black graveyard in the community of Red Top.

One informant remembered recently on the Island of Coosaw seeing a candle and pennies all over the grave. When one asked the people what the placement of the pots on the grave meant, the just said, “Ole time slavery ways.”[xl]

In the older days when making the headstone, they would place the dead person’s favorite plate in the cement before it hardened, and if the person had requested some special food before he died, the food was prepared and placed on the grave. “I carry duh kine uh food we use tuh had tuh eat on duh days he wuz off rom work. I take cooked chicken an cake an pie an cigahs.”[xli] This is still common in most African societies from the Senegambia to Anglo and found in places where Africans were enslaved throughout the New World -- Brazil, Venezuela, Jamaica and most of the West Indies.

The South Carolina grave decorations were similar to the above-grave decorations found among the Bakongo, Luba and Ovimbundu. From early travel accounts in Central Africa by missionaries, we can reconstruct the origin of placing objects on graves. E.J. Glave, a 19th century explorer, traveled through the Congo and observed this Bakongo burial practice: "The village burial place presented a curious aspect, for the final resting place of a Congo chieftain is marked by grotesque display. All the cheap crockery which the deceased had been able to collect during his lifetime was strewn along in an oblong path on the grave and surrounded by a suggestive little margin of Gin.[xlii]

This practice seems commonplace among the Bantu of the region. For example in the Congo (Zaire) “the natives mark the final resting place of their friends by ornamenting their graves with crockery, empty bottles, old cooking pots, etc. all of which articles are rendered useless by being cracked or perforated with holes” [xliii] Also, broken crockery, little flags, images of men or beasts, either carved in wood or molded in clay, are often found tombs.”[xliv]

The custom of placing objects on top of the grave is African in origin. However, the style which survived in the Sea Islands was more closely related to the Bantu, particularly the Bakongo and the Ovimbundu in Angola, which places articles such as baskets, gourds and instruments used in the burial on top of the graves.[xlv]

Mrs. Telfair Hodgson in 1850 observed in South Carolina a pattern of above grave decoration almost identical to what is practiced presently in Zaire:

The slaves were not allowed to leave the field in the daytime, so night weddings and night funerals were the custom. Negro graves were always decorated with the last article used by the departed and broken pitchers and broken bits of colored glass were considered even more appropriate than the white shells from the beach nearby. Sometimes they carved rude wooden figures-like images of idols and sometimes a patchwork quilt was laid upon the grave.[xlvi]

There are other forms of African grave decoration found. At the Bowen family plot at the Baptist Church Cemetery in Trade Hill section of Liberty County, Georgia, a wooden pole marker carved with the name Bowen on it and other wooden sculptures reveal a unique retention of African wood carving tradition.  The Cyrus Bowen sculpture is very African and Robert Farris Thompson credited its use of a branched shape to a similarly branched sculptural technique used and practiced by sculptors of the Congo.[xlvii]

Both the Bowen and Congo sculptors use natural twisting features of branches to make art and sculptures. Again, this is also common in other parts of Africa but it bears a closer resemblance to the Congo form.  This may be because during the final years of the slave trade more Congo-Angolan slaves were brought to America.  This would also contribute to the dominance of Bantu culture found in the field.

In the Mount Pleasant area of South Carolina shell-covered graves are commonplace as the grave decoration.  While broken glass and crockery were the primary material found on Black graves the use of white sea shells was common throughout the South.  In the St. Helena area sea shells were used with lime to make cement-like material that was also used on graves to make small borders that outlined the graves.  This “tappy” was used for the foundation of the Coffin Point Mansion. Only the slaves knew how to make tappy and today the art is completely lost. [xlviii] J. Vlach has proposed a theory about the use of seashells to decorate Afro-American graves.  He believes that the seashells are connected with the Congolese beliefs that deceased ancestors inhabited villages of the dead under riverbeds and lake bottoms.  The layering of the shells may create an illusion of such a river or lake bottom under which the realm of the dead lies.[xlix] Given our present information we can conclude after a detailed examination of above-grave decoration that it primarily originated among the Bantu.

Above-grave decorations are common among speakers of languages in the Niger-Congo language family, and they are found from the Senegambia to Angola. But given the present above-grave ornamentations in Africa and that found in old photographs in South Carolina and Georgia there is more similarity to the Angolan-Congo style, particularly the Bakongo and the Ovimbundu, in regards to both content, form and meaning.  There exists a more direct correlation to Congo and Angolan forms, particularly with the Bakongo, Luba and the Ovimbundu in Angola, than with the Mende, Igbo, Yoruba, Akan, Bambara, Wolof and Fang from West Africa.  This cultural survival, which has been documented in South Carolina and Georgia, is still today found in Zaire (the Congo).[l] This does more than suggest the Bantu of Central Africa as the main point of origination for this custom.

Puckett observed among the Gullah in 1925 that children of dead parents were passed over the coffin.  This ritual appears not to be of African American origin and there appeared to have been no corresponding African custom.  This practice is not as common as it was in the past years but it is still practiced from Georgetown to Savannah. All my informants recalled witnessing this custom recently.[li] None of the old people knew or remembered why they did this, except a local minister who declared that young children are passed over the coffin of the dead person to prevent the spirit of the parent or loved one from entering the body of the child.  “If the child is very young and don’t understand what has happened their soul is still without identity and the dead spirit can enter the body of the child causing it harm.  Children can hear the voices of the dead, especially if they where close to the individual which had died.”[lii]

Recently his daughter was found walking down a country road about the same time her grandfather had died.  She was found by a niece wandering in the wilderness and was questioned as to where was she going.  “Granddaddy called me.!”  She replied.  The elders were consulted about how to deal with this problem.  Their solution was based on what had worked in the past.

They revealed that this was a very serious problem and instructed that the child would have to attend the funeral because she was in danger until the funeral was over. “Kids don’t understand what death is all about and because the child is younger their spirit is not as strong as the dead.  The child has to witness the funeral and be shown where the grandfather is going—down into the ground.”  Therefore, the child is passed over the coffin to separate the spirits—the point when the child is passed over the coffin signals the separation of the two spirits.[liii] Two other children who did not attend the funeral and were not passed over the coffin experienced serious psychological problems for about six months in adjustment to the grandfather’s death.

This custom has been recently identified as originating among the Ubani in West Africa.  This same custom is today found in Bonny and Opobo and has remained almost identical in form and meaning, as we shall now see.  An informant from Opobo remembered this custom performed when her grandfather died in the 1960s.  She recalled that at the funeral the great-grand and grandchildren were passed over the coffin.  The ceremony was performed by her cousin, who passed the children from one end of the coffin to the other.  One of the children as she was being passed over the coffin landed on top of the coffin and began to scream.  The whole community was upset with this very serious error in custom tradition.[liv]

The children were passed over the coffin so that the spirit of the dead would not be attached to the children such that it would keep visiting them.  Visitation by the dead loved ones to the children is a serious matter because the children could become alarmed and because they are too young to understand they might become ill and die.  This rite is performed to sever the bond between the dead person and the living children.  This is done as an act of love and to keep the spirit from coming back into the house.  Once the child is passed over the coffin this signals a break in the close bond between the dead loved one and the living relative, and so that the spirit will go on its way and not come back and visit the children.  This rite is performed for the sake of the children whose spirit is weak and not yet fully developed like an adult.  The person who has passed could love the child so much that they might want to take the child with them.[lv]

This phenomenon of passing children over the coffin is still practiced by the Gullahs of South Carolina and by the Ibani of Bonny and Opobo in West Africa.  In the historical literature, Bonny was one of the major ports from where Africans found their way to North America.  This custom is found in Africa and South Carolina and is completely intact.  This suggests that this custom was first introduced into the Sea Islands by the Ubani Bonny.

A close examination of slave importation records into South Carolina show that a total of 1,975 Africans arrived from Bonny in 1739.[lvi] This year was very significant because it was the year of the Stono Rebellion and South Carolinians refused to import Angolans who were brought into the South Carolina Colony as planters temporarily turned from Central Africa to West Africa exclusively.

There were no substantial imports of Africans from Bonny until 1800 when there were again intense slave activities in the Bonny area between 1800 to 1807 just prior to the closing of the legal slave trade.  Shipments identified as arriving from Bonny Ports by Elizabeth Donnan were 530 Africans in 1805 [lvii] and only 368 Africans in 1807.[lviii] These figures show that the core group of Africans from Bonny arrived in 1739. This suggests that the transportation and foundation for this particular custom carryover sometime started in 1739 when the majority of Ibanis imported into South Carolina arrived from the nation of Bonny.

The Gullahs merged Christianity and African ritual together as they interpreted Christianity and the Christian experience to their daily lives.  Probably the strongest connections between the West African water spirit cults and the Baptist Church in the United States are the emotionalisms found in spirit possession, and the emphasis placed on the use of water in the religious ceremonies.

The Gullahs always placed a bowl of water in the house to ward off the spirit and “keept de ghost out de House.”  Similar to their African ancestors water was sprinkled around the house in the morning to purify the house and keep evil spirits out.[lix]

In the Sea Islands the Baptist and Holiness Churches dominate the region.  According to Herskovits the reason why the majority of African-Americans are Baptist is because of the importance of the association of water with African ritual.  In the West African cults emphasis is placed on the immersion of the body in water, as is practiced in the water cults of Ibibio, Calabar, Ijaw, the Yoruba of Nigeria and Grebo in Liberia. All bear witness to this strong tradition.  The water spirit cults of the Yoruba, Ashanti and Dahomey all visit the river and use water for purification in their religious ceremonies.  Herskovits points out those slaves came to the United States with a tradition in which their worship involved immersion in a body of water.  The Baptist emphasis on total immersion of the body was similar to the tradition found in the water cult sects.  Herskovits concludes that the Baptist “shouting” sect is a direct reinterpretation of the Shango cult.[lx]

In African cults, such as the cult of Sango, spirit possession was a part of the religious ceremony.  They are parallel to spirit possession found in holiness churches (Church of God and Christ) and Pentecostal Churches found all over the western hemisphere.  The priest of Sango when in possession of his spirit will perform a holy dance in a circle.  In the Pentecostal Churches dancing and speaking in tongues is also a common feature of the service.  Herskovits was the first to recognize this close relationship between the “Baptist Shouters” and the Sango cult.

Among the Gullahs these African societies were reorganized as burial societies with the purpose of taking care of the sick and dying and providing proper burial for the dead.  The Bantu of Central Africa played a dominant role in the religious culture of the Sea Islands.  For example, the “ring shout,” the importance of the use of water in black Baptist churches, and the fusion of African belief of “spirits” into an Afro-Christianity in which African religious beliefs, practices, and blended with Christianity  and found new life and expression in the “Pentecostal” experience.

Eternal time is part of nature. Eternal time is unity of time with nature where the past, present and future are seen as part of a continuum. Eternal time never ends because it always renews itself. It is symbolized by the rising and the setting of the sun and by the change from night to day respectively.

The Gullah, like their African ancestors, acknowledges time as an unbroken circle. From birth, adulthood to death is the completion of life’s circle. Death, as in the African context, is not final but a new beginning; unlike the European conception is a final act that expresses a break with community of the living. In the Gullah concept of time in the circle of life the dead still have an impact on the community of the living as in to the African ancestral cults.

South Carolina’s ministers continually invoke the spirits of the dead and those who have passed on because their “presence is still felt.”[lxi] In other words, there exists continuity between the community of the living and the dead. For as long as an ancestor [a person] can be remembered he or she will continue to have an impact on the community of the living.

Africanisms in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida are direct cultural links to the traditions and history of Africa.  The various ethnic groups depending on their numbers, either absorbed the less represented groups, or were assimilated by the larger cultural groups, specifically the Bantu. In spite of this blending over time, distinct African characteristic from each ethnic group survived, at least to some extent; this is evidenced in the language, rituals and crafts of the African Americans from the Sea Islands. The concept of time and the oral tradition are common to all tribal groups; a shared religious and burial heritage that survived the Middle Passage and gave a sense of continuity and kinship to a culturally uprooted and enslaved people.  Today, some 400 years after the slave trade, despite acculturation into mainstream America, the African link is still manifested in many ways in the lifestyle and culture of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands off of Georgia and South Carolina, where Africa is still present in the life of the and culture and  the religion of the people.

[i] Interview with Sam Doyle, South Carolina, St. Helena, 1984.

[ii] Carter G.  Woodson, The African Background Outlined or Handbook for the Study of the Negro (New Work, 1936) p.170.

[iii] Op. Cit., Herskovits p. 162.

[iv] Op. Cit., Woodson p. 170.

[v] W. E. B. Du Bois (ed.) “Economic Cooperation Among Negro Americans,”Atlantic University Publication No. 12 (Atlantic, 1907) p. 92.

[vi] Personal interview with Emory Campbell on St. Helena at the Penn Center January 1984.

[vii] William R. Bascom, “Acculturation Among the Gullah Negroes,” American Anthropology [n.s., 43 1941] p.48.

[viii] Personal interview with the Dale Senior Citizen Center in Beaufort County January 1984.

[ix] Personal interview with St. Helena Citizen Center in Frogmore, South Carolina January 31, 1984.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Folklore of the Sea Island South Carolina p. 215.

[xii] Freedom’s Journal, Feb. 22, 1927: “The Negro in Business and Professions,” p. 141; Browning, “The Beginning of Insurance Enterprise Among Negroes, “pp. 417-419.

[xiii] Today there are thirty-three Black-owned burial societies located almost exclusively in southern states.  They are located as followed:  Afro-American life Insurance Co. in Jacksonville, Florida.  American Woodmen’s Life Insurance Co, Denver, Colo., Atlanta Life Insurance Co., Shreveport, Louisiana, Benevolent Life Insurance Co. Shreveport, Louisiana, Booker T. Washington Insurance Co., Birmingham, Ala., Bradfort’s Industrial Insurance Co., Birmingham, Ala., Central Life Insurance Co. of Florida, Tampa, Florida, Chicago Metropolitan Mutual Assurance Co Chicago, Ill., Christian Benevolent Insurance Co., Inc, Mobile, Ala., Certude Geddes Willis Life Insurance Co, New Orleans, Louisiana, Golden Circle Life Insurance Co., Brownsville, Tenn., Lighthouse Life Insurance Co., Shreveport, La., Lovett’s Life and Burial Insurance Co. Mobile, Ala., Majestic Life Insurance Co., New Orleans, La., North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., Durham, N. C., Peoples Progressive Insurance Company, Rayville, La., Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance Co., Protective Industrial Ins. Co. of Ala. Birmingham Ala., Purple Shield Life Insurance Co. Baton Rough, La., Reliable Life Insurance Com Monroe, La., Security Life Insurance Co. of the South Jackson, Miss., Southern Aid Life Insurance Co., Phoenix Arizona, Virginia Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co., Richmond, Va., Winston Mutual Life Insurance co., Winton-Salem, N.C. and Wright Mutual Insurance Co., and Detroit, Mich.

[xiv] Op.Cit., p. Browning p. 419.

[xv] Personal Interview with Mr. Sam Doyle on the Island of St. Helena January 19, 1984.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] P. Maury Talbot, Tribes of the Niger Delta Their Religion and Customs (London, 1932) p. 232.

[xviii] Ibid

[xix] Elizabeth Ware Pearson ed., Letters from Port Royal, 1862-1868 New York: Arno Press and New York Times, (1969) pp. 253-254; Towne Diary, pp. 64-75; Folklore Project # 1655 D-4-27 W.R.A. SCL 28.

[xx] Pearson, “Port Royal” pp. 253-254.

[xxi] Ibid. p. 252; Irving E. Lowrey, Life on the Old Plantation (Columbia; University of North Carolina Press, 1911) pp. 81-83; Folklore Project # 1655 and # 1855 D-4-27 W.P.A. SC: 28

[xxii] Op. Cit. Herskovits, p. 202.

[xxiii] Op Cit., Chatelain p. 17

[xxiv] Interview with Mr. Leroy E. Brown at the Penn Center January 1984.

[xxv] Op. Cit., Drum p. 62-63.

[xxvi] Duncan Clinch Heyward, Seed From Madagascar (The University of North Carolina Press, 1937) p. 88

[xxvii] Op Cit., Drum p .77

[xxviii] William Bosman, Description of the Coast of Guinea: Divided into the Gold, the Slave and Ivory Coast. Printed for F. Knapton, A. Bell, R. Smith, D. Midwinter, W. Han, W. Davis, C. Strahan, B. Lintoll, T. Round, and F. Wale, 1705. p. 232

[xxix] C. K. Meek, A Sudanese Kingdom and Ethnographical Study of the Jukun-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd., 1931 p. 228

[xxx] Theodore Chinedum Opara was born in Umukwe, Ndegbelu Awaka, and Owerri on October 2, 1950, and he met his untimely death in a tragic car accident in Los Angeles at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and 43rd Street.  He was given one funeral in Los Angeles and his body was taken three months later to Owerri, Nigeria for his final resting place.   In Nigeria he was given several funerals and his body was place in his bed in his room until he was interred.

[xxxi] Op. Cit., Communication with Mr. Sam Doyle.

[xxxii] Op. Cit., Drum pp. 58-59

[xxxiii] Op. Cit., Sam Doyle.

[xxxiv] Op. Cit., Drum p. 4.

[xxxv] Lawton, “Religious Life” p. 213

[xxxvi] Edward G. Brinder, West African Psychology (London: 1951)  pp. 17-18

[xxxvii] Basden, Niger Ibos p. 275

[xxxviii] Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (New York, 1926) p. 105

[xxxix] The author observed this at an old slave grave site on the Coffin Point Plantation and on the Island of Coosaw in 1984.

[xl] Communication with the Secretary at the Penn Center in South Carolina in    January of 1984.

[xli] Op. Cit., Drum p. 59

[xlii] Op. Cit., Glave,  1893:397

[xliii] E. J. Glave, “Fetishism in Congo Land.”  One of Stanley’s pioneer officers. Century Magazine, vol. 19 (1896) p. 208

[xliv] Heli Chatelain, “Angolan Customs.” Journal of Folklore vol. 9 (1896) p. 17

[xlv] Wilfred Hambly, The Ovimbundu of Angola (Chicago 1934) p. 208

[xlvi] Torian, 1943:353

[xlvii] Thompson 1969:352

[xlviii] Personal communication with George McMillian in Progmore, South Carolina at the Coffin Point Manson.  Note:  According to Dr. Archibald Johnson (1819-1893), a long time resident of Beaufort wrote an article in the Beaufort Republican January 23, 1873 explaining how enslaved Africans made tappy. Tabby or tappy is an artificial stone or concrete used extensively, at one time, on the Sea Islands as a substitute for brick and stone in the construction of houses, foundation indigo-vats and cisterns of all kinds, as well as sea-walls, fortification, etc.  It is composed of shell lime, sand and drifts or dead oyster shells in the proportions of one part, by measure, of lime, two of sand, and four to six of shells:  quality of the latter depending upon the strength of lime and quality of the sand.

[xlix] Vlach 1978:143

[l] Communication with Winifred K. Vass.

[li] Claude and Pat Sharpe local linguists living in the areas witnessed this custom taking place at a local funeral.  They refused to identify the individual.  Later, I found out that the individual in question was the Reverend Green the minister of the historic Brick Baptist Church.  His step father had died, and at his funeral this custom was observed because his grandchildren who were very close to him saw his spirit at the moment of his death.  One grand daughter told Rev. Greene that granddaddy had just died.  He phoned his mother and found out that his step father had indeed died.  He consulted the elders of the community in regard to what it all meant.  They instructed him that this was an extremely serious matter, and that at the funeral the children would have to be passed over the coffin in order to separate their spirits from that of the grandfather.  I interviewed Rev. Greene about this important matter, and he informed me that “when in doubt you always observed the custom, so you don’t have to worry later by second guessing.”

[lii] Personal interview with Rev. Ervin L. Greene Jr. in Beaufort, South Carolina Pastor of the historic Brick Baptist Church on January 16, 1984.

[liii] Ibid.

[liv] Interview with Ruby Iyman, who was born in Opobo, Nigeria [River States] on January 1, 1954.  She was interviewed in 1984 at the University of California at Los Angeles.

[lv] Ibid.

[lvi] W. Robert Higgins, “The Geographical Origins of Negro Slaves in Colonial South Carolina.”  Pp. 40-41

[lvii] Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America: Volume IV The Border Colonies and the Southern Colonies (Washington D. C. 1935) p. 588

[lviii] Ibid.  p. 21

[lix] Personal interview with Mrs. Elizabeth Glenn South Carolina St. Helena January 1984.

[lx] Op. Cit., Herskovits, p. 214

[lxi] Interview with Reverend Ervin L. Greene, pastor of the historic Brick Baptist Beauford, South Carolina on January 16, 1984.