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Gullah Geechee Collections at the American Folklife Center

This research guide highlights collections relating to Gullah Geechee people, history, and culture at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.


Freddie Palmer, performing with the McIntosh County Shouters at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress. Photograph by Steve Winick. Library of Congress, American Folklife Center.

Gullah Geechees are communities of African Americans most often associated with the coastal areas of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. However, Gullah Geechee people reside in many parts of the United States, including urban centers outside the South. Gullah Geechees’ cultural distinctiveness derives from the West and Central African influences present in their language, foodways, music, and other forms of expressive culture. These living, intangible aspects of Gullah Geechee culture demonstrate the retention of African cultures in the New World and are a testament to the resilience of Gullah Geechee people, despite their experiences in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its afterlives.

Gullah people's cultural distinctiveness, and the “Africanisms” present in Gullah Geechee cultures, have made these coastal islanders an object of scholarly study and artistic inspiration. Indeed, historians, anthropologists, Black writers, and filmmakers, have all taken interest in Gullah Geechee culture, resulting in a wealth of publications, artistic works, and research collections. In recent years, this outside focus on Gullah Geechee history and culture has fed back into Gullah Geechee communities, inspiring a “Gullah renaissance” comprised of heritage festivals, performers, and increased dialogue with West Africans (see Campbell 2011). In 2008, the United States government created the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor—the first federal heritage corridor to be focused on a cultural group—which runs from Jacksonville, Florida to Jacksonville, North Carolina.

The American Folklife Center has been an important repository and steward of Gullah Geechee ethnographic materials for over 98 years. The earliest collection of Gullah Geechee materials dates back to 1926 when Robert Winslow Gordon—the founder of the Archives at the American Folklife Center—recorded "Kumbaya" from H. Wylie in Darien, Georgia. Nearly a century later, in 2024, the American Folklife Center welcomed Dr. Melissa Cooper to give a lecture on critical histories of Gullah Geechee scholarship. In the almost one hundred years between these events, the American Folklife Center has acquired twenty-two collections, acquisitioned fourteen books and theses, and created several public-facing programs—all focused-on Gullah Geechee history and culture. These collections have been central to knowledge of Gullah Geechee history and culture in the broader American public sphere. For example, the AFC's collections were central to “Kumbaya” being recognized as the State Historical Song of Georgia, as chronicled here by the New York TimesExternal.

Members of Ranky Tanky, a Gullah Geechee musical group, being interviewed at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress. Library of Congress, American Folklife Center.

Researchers may encounter several complications when searching for Gullah Geechee materials. While Black coastal communities in South Carolina and Georgia have been referred to as “Gullah” “Geechee” and “Gullah Geechee” by those outside these communities, members of these communities only began to self-identify as “Gullah,” “Geechee,” and “Gullah Geechee” in the last quarter of the 20th century. Before this time, these terms could be interpreted as derogatory or as intra-community insults. Researchers may find materials on Gullah Geechee communities by using other search terms such as “Sea Island” or by searching collections of materials in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida.

It is important to note that not all collectors of Gullah Geechee materials at the American Folklife Center drew interpretations that were reflective of the lived experience of Gullah Geechee people. Furthermore, some collections were documented using practices that would be deemed as unacceptable according to today’s ethical standards. Some publications on Gullah Geechee culture in the AFC's collections have inspired subgenres of Gullah Geechee studies to "correct" what authors have identified as short-cited, Eurocentric, and, yes, racist, interpretations of Gullah Geechee history and culture. Rather than exclude these collections, we include these materials in this research guide. Our rationale is that many of these collections, despite their controversial conclusions, include first-hand accounts of Gullah Geechee people’s experiences. These songs, stories, and narratives could prove valuable to contemporary researchers or inspire future work.

We encourage Gullah Geechee community members to use these collections. Given the wealth of materials at the American Folklife Center, these collections may offer ways to engage with your ancestors.

Works cited:

Campbell, Emory S. 2011. “Gullah Geechee Culture: Respected, Understood and Striving: Sixty Years Since Lorenzo Dow Turner’s Masterpiece, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect.” The Black Scholar 41 (1):77–84.