The term Gullah Geechee, refers to the descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo, and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic Coast. The Gullah Geechee culture calls to mind the Sea Islands of South Carolin and Georgia, and sweetgrass baskets. Yet the cultural legacy of the ancestors still runs warm in the veins of many. It is more than a cultural memory-it is alive and well! The Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor extends from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of the Africans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo, and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic Coast. Many came from the rice growing region of West Africa.
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, in partnership with The International African American Museum, The Upperman African American Cultural Center of UNCW, The National Park Service and The Wilmington District of the A.M.E. Zion Church, presented to the community the commemoration service of FREEDOM’S EVE at Warner Temple A.M.E. Zion Church in Wilmington, NC, on December 31st 2023.
On December 31, 1862, enslaved Gullah Geechee people gathered in sacred spaces and places of worship to await the new year and the beginning of a new life. They gathered on FREEDOM’S EVE, awaiting the break of day, January 1, 1863: the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery.
I have attended many watch night services over the years, but nothing like this. This was a truly immersive, cultural experience. We were ushered into the service by the procession of the Africn American Dance Ensemble of Durham, NC. The pulse of the drums created a shift in the atmosphere that took our hearts and minds on a journey that was enlightening and entertaining. The song of gathering “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” led by Kristen Jamison. Jamison has opened for and/or done background for the likes of Anita Wilson, Le’Andria Johnson, Travis Greene, Myron Williams, Kim Burrell, Kierra Sheard, and Donald Lawrence, to name a few. She was featured as a top 20 finalist on season 7 of BET’s Sunday Best. Her vocal instrument carries in it a yoke-destroying anointing that is undeniably a gift from God.
Rev. Sean Palmer, a local pastor and director of the UNCW Upperman Center, led us in an interactive libation ceremony. We were welcomed by Dr. Aurelio Givens, Faith-Based Engagement Manager of The International African American Museum. The Occasion and Purpose was given by Mrs. Tyanna West, Coordinator of NC Civil Rights trail, NC AAHC, who is also a Gullah/Geechee descendent. Of the event West says, “It was nice to be in a space with my people celebrating the liberation of our ancestors and ourselves.”
The service featured moving performances by the African American Dance Ensemble, and Chronicles of Adam. An extremely poignant performance by the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, of Darien, Ga, transported us back in time to what it must have been like for our ancestors. This performance included stacked bales of cotton, a noose, and the rusted chains of slavery.
Of this evert, Rev. Dr. Clifford Barnett said, “Hosting the Freedom’s Eve program this year was an honor. I thoroughly enjoyed the performances by all who performed. The part that really shook me to my core was when one of the performers put a chain around his neck, like he was being sold at an auction. At that moment the atmosphere shifted for me to be more than a performance. It became really real. I could actually see me great great-grandfather being one of those being sold on the block. More than that I saw myself with that chain choking my neck. It reminded me of the struggle I must never forget.”
There was a similar service happening simultaneously in Charleston, SC. I believe that the goal of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission is simultaneous Freedom’s Ever Services from one end of the corridor to the other, so that all of us will remember the struggle that we must never forget.
The program in its entirety can be viewed on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor’s YouTube page.
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