Thursday, March 1, 2018

Thursday: Prof. Joseph Opala speaks on the Gullah Geechee and Sierra Leone connection

A shared song

Posted by Will Allen on Thu, Mar 1, 2018 at 11:40 AM

click to enlarge The Sewa River in Sierra Leone - FLICKR USER TESEUM
  • Flickr user Teseum
  • The Sewa River in Sierra Leone
Tonight, the International African American Museum hosts a free presentation at Morris Brown AME Church at 6 p.m. by professor Joseph Opala on the connections between the Gullah Geechee and the country of Sierra Leone.

Opala spent more than 40 years studying Bunce Island, the largest British slave trading base on the "Rice Coast" of West Africa, and its links to South Carolina and Georgia; he also organized two Gullah Homecomings to Sierra Leone in which Gullah families with proven historical ties were hosted by the Sierra Leone Government as lost kinsmen come home. We caught up with Opala to learn more about how he started his research, and why it's so important for the Gullah community.

City Paper: How did your research into the connection between the Gullah Geechee people and Bunce Island, Sierra Leone begin?

Joseph Opala: I'm from Oklahoma and was interested in Native American archaeology; I ended up studying anthropology [in college] and when I graduated I joined the Peace Corps. I asked to be sent to Africa and was sent to Sierra Leone to work with rice farmers; the job was to introduce more productive forms of rice into production. This was 1974. I started finding ancient artifacts around the rice field (pottery, hoe blades made of stone, iron tools) and took the artifacts to Freetown to show to the director of the Peace Corp of Sierra Leone. The Peace Corps asked that I set up an archaeology department, saying it would be good for the country's cultural development.

CP: How did you end up at Bunce Island, an island in the Sierra Leone River?

Bunce Island is on a tentative list for the UNESCO world heritage site. It served as a British slave castle, where people were captured and brought to be held before being transported to America. Bunce Island was one of the few places that was sending slaves to America rather than the Caribbean.

JO: Sierra Leone's US ambassador put me on a boat and sent me to Bunce Island and I have to say, even before we docked, I was enthralled. There was a slave castle there that was something off a Hollywood set, with vegetation so thick you had to cut through doorways with a machete. It was a rare opportunity for a young researcher to have something to study with no secondary sources. I found an abundance of documents. No digging, just mapping the ruins. Oral history research led me to a village that is full of descendants of Bunce Island workers. Once back in the US, the documents came pouring in. Other countries' ambassadors were asking, “Where did these people go?” Initially, the British weren’t sending slaves to North America because they were using slaves for sugar, and the islands were better for that.

CP: Why is this island in Sierra Leone important to the history of the Lowcountry?

South Carolina was a bit of a puzzle (for growing crops in the 1700s). It was too far north for sugar, and the soil wasn't right for tobacco. SC didn't know what to base their economy on — Sierra Leone is a rice growing region. A rice farmer in Sierra Leone can tell you at least 100 varieties of rice on sight; Africans had figured out how to cultivate rice effectively from the desert to tropical environments. These are the slaves that were brought into the region. Slave advertisements in South Carolina would be specific about where they were from "slaves from the rice coast," "slaves from Bunce Island,” “slaves from Sierra Leone."

CP: Can you describe your series of "Gullah Homecomings?"

JO: People in Sierra Leone were always stopping to ask me questions about their distant American relatives. When the first group [of Gullah people from SC or GA] came it was the lead story in Sierra Leone media for the whole week. People would say that they were disappointed because they could not be sure the people came from Sierra Leone. So I started looking for direct connections. I met with a family in Georgia who knew a song that was sung in a language only spoken in Sierra Leone. I found people who still sang it in Sierra Leone, too, in one small village. It turned out to be an ancient burial song; when these people were taken to America, that song was the only thing they could bring with them.

The presentation tonight will feature a 3D model of Bunce Island and will focus on the Atlantic slave trade. Charleston is important because, as Opala says, "nearly half of the slaves brought to North America passed through Charleston."

For even more insight into this fascinating connection, join Opala tomorrow, Fri. March 2 at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens for a dinner and history lesson. The veranda of Magnolia’s main house will be the setting for a dinner to raise awareness that historians, educators, and tour guides should not just tell the story of plantation owners, but of the enslaved people who lived on plantations as well.

Fatmata Bangura Opala a Sierra Leonean chef (and Opala's wife) will prepare a traditional Sierra Leonean meal. Opala will discuss how Sierra Leone and West Africa’s Rice Coast shaped Gullah Geechee foodways. After the meal, guests will be encouraged to also spend the night in Magnolia’s former slave cabins with Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project.

The dinner starts at 5:30 p.m. and tickets are $75. To register for the cabin sleep over send an e-mail to McGill at The cabin stay is free.

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