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Who Are the Gullah-Geechee?

Woman Speaking

The Gullah-Geechee people are African Americans who were born, bred, and educated along the coastal regions of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. They are the descendants of enslaved people brought from West Africa to work on isolated coastal plantations, growing rice, indigo, and sea island cotton. Because they came from many different ethnic backgrounds and spoke different languages, they had to come up with a way to communicate with each other.

The language they created is a unique creole blend of African and European languages. In fact, Gullah-Geechee is the only distinctly African creole language in the United States. The culture that grew in this area incorporated many African elements, which can still be heard in the language and experienced in Gullah-Geechee’s arts, food, and music.

  • The Ring Shout

    Ring shout’s roots go back to traditions common to Central and West Africa. The origins of the ring shout came with them when enslaved people were brought to America in the 1700s. Drums and drumming were not allowed on plantations in Coastal Georgia during slavery; plantation owners feared it could be used to signal an outburst or uprising. Instead, the Gullah-Geechee would keep the rhythm for percussion by clapping their hands, tapping their feet, and beating the floorboards with a wooden stick.

    The stick man set the beat, then he or another male lead songster would begin to sing out the first lines of the shout. The women (shouters) moved in a counterclockwise circle, singing back or shouting the responses while pantomiming the lyrics.

    Ring shouts often followed a church service. As a form of worship that blended both African and Christian elements, it was a way for enslaved people to honor their African ancestors and traditions. The shout also provided an essential form of communication for enslaved people to send messages to each other that the white plantation owners couldn’t understand.

  • Freed Communities Passed Down the Ring Shout

    Many freedpeople remained in the region when the Civil War ended. With no air conditioning and few bridges, the Gullah-Geechee lived in isolated coastal and island communities where their cultural traditions, including the ring shout, continued to be practiced and passed down. In the early 1920s, modernization began to bring change. Bridges were built, and air-conditioning and refrigeration became more common, making the coast a popular vacation spot.

    Eventually, upscale resorts and designer homes drove property values and taxes well beyond what the coastal Gullah-Geechee could afford. They were forced to move inland to areas where real estate was less expensive. As a result, communities were dispersed and connections broken, resulting in a Gullah-Geechee form of diaspora.

  • The McIntosh County Shouters Kept the Tradition Alive

    In 1980, music folklorists discovered a group in McIntosh County (in a community known as Briar Patch) still practicing Watch Night shouts. These people were members of the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church and lived on land passed down from their grandparents and great-grandparents, London and Amy Jenkins, who were enslaved in the area until 1862. After emancipation, the Jenkins remained in the area and acquired land. They passed the ring shout tradition down to their seven daughters, who passed it on to their families.

    In 1980, the family was invited to share the ring shout for the first time at a nearby heritage festival. The group was named the McIntosh County Shouters, and every member was a descendant by blood or marriage of London and Amy Jenkins. Today, more than 40 years after and over 300 years after their ancestors arrived in the country in bondage, the McIntosh County Shouters are still working to preserve, protect, and share the ring shout and the Gullah-Geechee heritage.

    Since that first appearance, the McIntosh County Shouters have shared the ring shout with thousands of people, including school groups, folklorists, and historians, and appeared at universities, music festivals, and private and public events across the nation. They have also performed for weddings and funerals. Our music has been documented by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the Library of Congress, and the University of Georgia. We have performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In addition, we have been featured on PBS, HBO, and Travel Channel, as well as a host of international and national documentaries.

    For a partial list of notable achievements, honors, and appearances, see our milestones.

Man is Clapping

The Shouters’ Founders

Throughout the years, members of the McIntosh County Shouters have changed as older family members retire and a new generation steps up. Because of the McIntosh County Shouters’ great pride in the ring shout tradition, there have always been younger people to join our group and keep it alive. The ring shout is the genesis of African American music as it precedes spirituals, gospel, R&B, soul, hip-hop, and rap.