WASHINGTON — On a scorching weekend day, hundreds of people came together in the nation's capital for a ring shout dance, a ritual of the Gullah-Geechee, who are the descendants of slaves brought to America from West Africa.
Those slaves worked on plantations in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. After the Civil War, their culture was largely neglected until the 1990s, when a revival began.
Gathering under a canopy of trees in a park outside the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, at least 400 people showed up on Saturday to take part in the ring shout dance, a musical ritual in which people move in a counter-clockwise circle while they shake their bodies, sway their arms and clap their hands.
Because they were trying to set a record for the largest ring shout ever, organizers videotaped the occasion and counted participants so they could submit evidence to the Guinness Book of Records.
"The real significance of the ring shout was as a purely religious experience. No one shouted for anybody to see them. You just were praising God," said Griffin Lotson, the manager of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters from Darien, Ga.
The seven women of Lotson's group who led the ring shout wore colorful floral tops and white aprons on top of purple dresses. The songs they sang are derived from hymnals and the call and response musical tradition.
One attendee was South Carolina native Najeema Washington, a 33-year-old analyst for the federal government now living in the nation's capital, who said she had a great time and found a sense of community there.
"Being a Charlestonian and interested in our culture and language and wanting to celebrate that, we all thought it was a good way to be exposed to more (of the culture)," she said. She brought her parents, who were visiting from South Carolina.
Camille Akeju, the director of the Smithsonian Anacostia museum, which hosted a recent exhibition on Gullah-Geechee language, said she enjoyed the diversity of the audience.
"From very old to very young and probably every ethnicity you can think of was here today," she said.
In 2006, in an effort led by Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., Congress designated the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a region that spans the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. It promotes economic development by leveraging the area's rich history for tourism.
"I've seen the transformation and I just cannot express to you how thrilled I am that what was embarrassing to us as a people at one time is now in demand and is profit-making," said Ned Felder of the South Carolina Club of Washington, D.C.
Veronica Gerald, a member of the commission that manages the corridor, said Myrtle Beach is a particularly significant area for Gullah heritage in South Carolina.
"Most people think Myrtle Beach is a beach for rich tourists, but it has a major story as it relates to the Gullah people. Gullah people helped build the service industry of Myrtle Beach and some of the ... Lowcountry cuisine came right out of Gullah cooking," she said.
She added that Beaufort, S.C., is also important for Gullah culture in showing how former slaves adapted to their freedom.
"During the whole civil war, Beaufort County was under Union control and it made a difference because they were able to experiment with things like education (and) freedom for these newly freed slaves," she said.
Before slavery ended, slaves who were from different African countries but worked on the same plantations created their own language and folk traditions in order to communicate easily with one another and to stick together.
The Creole language they devised is a mix of words and phrases from West African languages combined with words from European languages, including English.
After the end of the Civil War and slavery, many Gullah people rejected their traditions as they sought to assimilate into mainstream American culture.
Ron Daise, a Murrells Inlet, S.C.-based commissioner with the heritage corridor, said Gullah culture was stigmatized for many years, but that has changed in the last decade.
"As I was growing up, the words Gullah and Geechee were fighting words. These terms that for years people wanted to deny or say was of little value now has become something of significance," he said.
"If our children or grandchildren don't appreciate (the culture) now, they will one day," said Sherry Suttles, president of the Gullah Geechee Group, a non-profit that promotes the corridor. "And they will look back and thank us that we didn't become so neutralized.
"It's really dehumanizing when you go around the world and see other cultures thriving (and) surviving because they've kept their language. They've kept their religion intact. We had no choice. It was stripped from us. Now we can bring it back."
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