Schooled by the Elders:

                               Things They Don't Tell Just Anybody

  Growing Up Gullah

    . . . and Other Southern Tales


                                                                                                      Read. . .

    Finding a Way Home









               African descendents in the Southern United States are representatives of an ethnic or cultural heritage                      
               that link to an African origin. DNA testing can provide a possible link to an ethnic origin. Genealogical
               and historical research takes effort and skills to find a way home from the Southern United States to a
               place of origin. Learn to make the connection and understand your cultural past. Once the connection is
               made, learn how to document the journey for preservation and storytelling so future generations can
               appreciate the continuity of heritage and the spirit of cultural legacy.
               The article below was first published June 1, 2001in The NewsLeader (Henry County, Georgia) for a series
               titled "History Revisited." The articles would introduce readers to the practice of collecting family stories
               for further generations. I would write about sitting with elders to document family stories so that the link
               from one generation to the next would not be broken. My belief in listening to elders is that  "We are still
               connected to our cultural past. Beyond the current generation, that link may be broken forever."
               I now introduce the series as a blog, with a new title and current practice. Some words have been updated
               from the original publication.
           A Way Home: Black Cultural Heritage in the Southern Story
               The perception of many blacks in the United States is that too much of our history is lost or unattainable.
               After years of personal searching, I have come to realize that black history has been documented and told
               to a sufficient degree that many stories can be put together in an understandable way. History Revisited is
               about delving into the ways I have been able to uncover the past of my family, not only as blacks in the
               South, but also as members of the Gullah Geechee culture. The culture inhabit the coastal region from
               Pender County, North Carolina, to St Johns County, Florida--the region built by rice growers from the Rice
               Coast of West Africa, which financed the antebellum image of Southern culture.
               The history of African descendants in the United States, specifically in the South, has left an indelible mark
               on the evolution of the United States. Despite the horrifying stories of survival, few people realize or
               remember that survival has helped create a legacy that should be celebrated. The focus of this blog will
               be to rediscover the legacy that has sustained a population through a difficult past. Topics will not be
               limited to the past already written about, but will include the oral stories of others, both old and young, who
               can recall facts about a place or person.  I believe in Griots, the educator/storytellers of African heritage.
               Many elders in our communities have not been heard enough, and they know plenty about history that is
               not written in books. These people are important, filling in the gaps of information in our recent past. Some
               younger people retain stories they learn at the feet of elders who are in turn glad for a patient and respectful
               Issues that I will uncover may not always conform to what is acceptable overall, which many blacks view
               as an unwritten correctness, but will examine topics such as the history of the words we use to call ourselves.
               Two examples are the words slave and African- American. Africans were not born slaves, but were enslaved
               for the economic advancement of those involved--Europeans, then Americans, and Africans. The horrific
               trade in human commodity was about money.
               The most recent term used to identify Americans of African descent, African- American, developed in the
               late 1980s following a long list of names dating back into the early 1800s.  These names do not include the
               well-known n-word. As Americans of African descent continue to define who we are, still other descendants
               of the African Diaspora (those originally displaced from Africa) continue to define the areas of the West Indies
               and Caribbean, Central and South America, in terms they themselves have chosen. With but four percent of
               the total African Diaspora in the United States, who gets to decide the name of a group elsewhere in the
               Americas?  If African descendants of the United States alone are to be named African-American, what do we
               call blacks who have recently arrived into this country? 
               Plantation is another word that generates mixed feelings among blacks. Should a housing complex targeted
               for a black community use the word plantation in its name? This brings to mind the number of plantations in
               the South owned by blacks, who also enslaved Africans. Not all Africans or their descendants in the South
               were enslaved. In fact, there were nearly one-half million free blacks in the United States by 1860, included    
               thousands living in the South. Africans were present over one-hundred years in what would become the Unites
               States before 1619 when 20 Africans were sold into slavery in the Virginia colony from a Dutch ship to trade for
               food. African descendants made a living at every level of the economic scale, no matter the hardship, building
               the economy of the Unites States, especially the economy of the South.
               So much of what is perceived by blacks currently in the Southern story is about lynching, slavery and the
               Civil Rights Movement. Other stories of black cultural heritage in the South will be explored and uncovered
               in future blogs of A Way Home. There are now-lost towns that blacks created, and unmarked historical
               locations that should draw interest enough for a visit. The rich black history of the South should make us
               proud. Between the Middle Passage out of Africa and the passage of desegregation laws centuries later,
               much information has survived.
               Documents are sufficiently intact for many blacks to trace their genealogy. I will discuss family history and
               how to search for the links to the past. Not all periods are pleasant to face--for example, pre-Civil War estate
               inventories where blacks are listed as slaves along with such other chattel as cows, pigs, and horses. Tracing
               families back to a ship’s manifest also requires tenacity and sometimes tears. Not all has been lost. 
               Let us embark on putting the pieces together about the history of the black cultural heritage of the Southern
               story. Some things may be uncomfortable, or not agreeable, but I hope to enlighten. As an academic, I will
               offer a suggested reading list. Some information published is written to please the limited viewpoint of a
               certain author or audience, but wonderful books have been written by people concerned with telling the
               truth about a person, place, or thing.
               Let us now begin to find a way home.
                 By Althea Sumpter
My father Edward Sumpter in 1950 (holding his newborn first child, Crayton, welcoming him to his family’s new home), his wife Edith, her brother Hardy Fields between them, and friends (far left and far right) who had just finished building the house. From family photo album.