Exposing Jacksonville's Gullah Geechee Heritage
Historically associated with the Lowcountry region that stretches from Wilmington, North Carolina to St. Augustine, Florida, the Gullah Geechee are descendants of Central and West African ancestors who arrived in America through the transatlantic slave trade. They've had a major impact on the local culture of Jacksonville that continues to be largely overlooked and misunderstood. Prepared for the federal Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, this brief article is intended to serve as a general, high level overview and introduction of Jacksonville's Gullah Geechee story.
On September 24, 2019, the federal Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission convened a stakeholder meeting at White Oak Plantation to help them better understand the work that is being done in Nassau, Duval and St. John’s counties to help preserve, protect and share the history and culture of the Gullah Geechee communities of coastal Florida. The Jaxson’s Ennis Davis was one of several historians, preservationists, heritage sites, historical societies, government agencies and community groups invited to give a 15-minute talk about their work in order to assist the commission in answering three questions: (1) what do we already know about the Gullah Geechee experience in the state, (2) how is that history currently being interpreted, and (3) what are the gaps in our knowledge?
Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission White Oak Plantation stakeholder meeting
This brief presentation was prepared with the hopes of providing the Commission with a better general understanding of Jacksonville’s Gullah Geechee story.
The institution of slavery in Florida existed long before the United States took control of the territory in 1821. Florida’s earliest plantations were established by the Spanish in the 16th century to cultivate rice, sugar, citrus, corn and other crops using Native Americans and Africans as slave labor. Many of Florida’s planters also operated or were connected to plantations in South Carolina and Georgia, moving their enslaved workers back and forth between them and nearby countries such as Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas.
As early as 1689, enslaved low country freedom seekers found their way to independence by escaping south into Spanish Florida on the underground railroad, many mixing with Native Americans. As a result free Gullah and Black Seminole communities were established well south of Fort Mose, leading to the largest slave rebellion the country had ever seen, the Seminole Wars between 1816 and 1858. This history would pave the path of massive southward migration of former enslaved following emancipation.
Lowcountry migration to Florida also included my family. Pictured here is my maternal Great Grandfather Dr. Franklin Vereen, son of the former enslaved Jackson and Caroline Vereen of Wampee, South Carolina. A member of an once enslaved family on a Waccamaw Neck plantation (present day Myrtle Beach) where rice, indigo, salt and turpentine were produced, Franklin was once of many Gullah Geechee who migrated to Florida during the late 19th century for economic opportunity after a devastating fire decimated Horry County’s turpentine industry. Jackson Vereen, a member of the owning family also migrated to Florida, to grow oranges in Mandarin for several decades in the early 20th century.
Specifically for Duval County, this migration into and around Florida’s gateway port city meant that by 1870, several freedmen colonies consisting of former Union soldiers, enslaved Africans, primarily from Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina in search of lost family members and economic opportunities had been established along the St. Johns River and its many tributaries.
Being a port city where much of the materials needed to rebuild the south entered, freedmen flocked to Jacksonville for railroad, turpentine processing, maritime, lumber and manufacturing jobs that were clustered here. As a result, a major black metropolis emerged, transforming a city that was the size of Georgetown, SC in 1860 into the Lowcountry’s largest by 1920.
This density of kinship, heritage and collaboration, led to Jacksonville becoming a major early epicenter in the formative years of vaudeville, ragtime, jazz and blues, culminating with the Gullah Geechee neighborhood of LaVilla being the first site where a documented live performance of the blues took place in the country in 1910.
Today, Jacksonville is home to the largest concentration of Gullah Geechee descendants in the United States. As the Lowcountry’s only major urban center, with a number of reconstruction era Gullah Geechee communities remaining in existence, it offers an excellent opportunity and landscape to share, expose and promote the history of our ancestors on a grand scale.