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Africans Seek Trans-Atlantic Links In South

January 21, 1988

FROGMORE, S.C. (AP) _ Joko Sengova and Akintola Wyse are scouring the coasts and barrier islands of South Carolina and Georgia, seeking proof that Gullah-speaking residents are descendants of slaves brought here from Sierra Leone more than 200 years ago.

As evidence of the links between the West African nation and the American South, the two scholars cite various local customs, including a distinctive way of net-casting while fishing, basket-weaving techniques and, most telling, the pidgin dialect of Gullah.

Wyse, a historian, and Sengova, a linguist, are on leave from the University of Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College. They say their five months of traveling, talking and tape-recording will help countrymen learn more about a missing segment of Sierra Leone history and will show the contributions Sierra Leoneans have made in America.

Both men are members of the Sierra Leone Gullah Research Committee, which will examine the evidence they take home with them later this month.

″Several academic papers will come out of this project, maybe even a book,″ Wyse said last week. ″We want to add to our store of knowledge about African history and Afro-American history, about which very little is known because no written accounts were kept in our country in the 18th century, when the slave traders were raiding our coasts.″

Although little doubt exists that the ancestors of today’s Gullah speakers arrived in America as slaves from Africa, some scholars believe they came primarily from Angola and that the word Gullah is derived from Angola.

″But that’s not so,″ said Wyse. ″Our studies show that Gullah is most similar to Krio,″ the language spoken by one of three main tribal groups in Sierra Leone.

As a visiting professor at the University of South Carolina, Wyse, 43, himself a Krio, has spent much of his time poring over archives at the university and at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston.

″There were 40,000 slaves in South Carolina in the 1740s,″ he said. ″So far, I’ve been able to identify a few of the people who were brought here as slaves and then migrated back to Africa after the Revolutionary War.″

He said his research included old newspaper ads for runaway slaves.

″The ads frequently say the runaway had been brought to this country from the ‘Slave Coast’ or the ‘Rice Coast,’ both of which refer to the section of West Africa that includes Sierra Leone. But unfortunately, the slaves’ names are Anglicized.″

Sengova, 39, who has been based at the University of Georgia, has sought out islanders who still speak Gullah, a combination of about 25 western African tribal dialects mixed with English and spoken with a Caribbean cadence.

″It took a while to find people who would open up, but I talked with some old women, in their 80s, who spoke Gullah for me. I found subtle but definite links with the languages of the Krios and the Mendes, two tribes from Sierra Leone.″

Sengova also spoke with the 70-year-old niece of a couple who were interviewed in the 1930s by Lorenzo Turner, the linguist who first studied Gullah’s African roots.

″I think the tapes I made, plus the material I got from Turner’s work ... will be very helpful to our project,″ he said. ″It’s important that I come back soon because these Afro-American island cultures are fading away more and more with each passing day.″

One expedition in November took them to Frogmore, a hamlet of some 70 people on St. Helena Island. They were lured by the annual heritage celebration at the Penn Community Services Center, which began as the Penn School for freed plantation slaves in the Civil War.

Both men said the festival’s food and crafts strongly reminded them of home.

″I just saw some woven baskets that were very similar to ones made in Sierra Leone,″ Wyse said as he strolled through the festival grounds. ″Of course, the materials used to make the baskets here are different, but the designs are almost identical.″

Lillie Singleton, the basket weaver, said she had learned her craft from her father, ″and he learned from his parents.″

Wyse said Sierra Leoneans use such baskets to winnow rice. He added that slaves from Sierra Leone were brought to this region because they were rice farmers and rice was a major export crop of colonial America.

″The topography and ecology in this area are very similar to the coastal areas of Sierra Leone, especially with all the marshes,″ said Wyse. ″The food at this festival is similar, too. Last night, for instance, I had red rice; we call it jollif rice at home.″

Sengova noted similarities in speech patterns.

″When I was having breakfast I heard a man say, ’Draw me a cup of coffee,‴ said Sengova. ″At home, we use the equivalent verb.″

Wyse has a personal as well as an academic interest in the research, which was financed by a Fulbright grant.

″I am a descendent of former slaves who were captured and brought here and then later escaped and migrated back to Africa in 1792, after fighting with the British,″ he said.

Wyse said the slaves who migrated back to Sierra Leone had escaped from the plantations and had made their way to British-held territory.

″They were evacuated to Nova Scotia following the war. Later, they were sent back to West Africa, taking some of their new, Western culture back with them.″

So, he said, when he returns to Sierra Leone, he will be making the same journey his forebears made nearly two centuries ago.

″But, of course, they came under much different circumstances,″ he said. ″Much, much different.″


EDITOR’S NOTE - Strat Douthat is the AP Southeast regional writer, based in Atlanta.

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