Quest For Freedom, Equality, Education and Recognition

yellow boat

From the outset, many African captives found active or passive ways to resist their enslavement or regain their freedom, and this continued throughout the antebellum period. Some quietly ran away by escaping to free territory in the north or west while others fled southward to Florida where they established maroon colonies or communities and were given sanctuary by the Spanish and Native Americans, especially the Seminoles. Enslaved Africans within the Corridor also saw the domestic turmoil generated by colonial and various Indian Wars as opportunities to escape from bondage.

During the American Revolution, enslaved Africans served in both the British and American Armies in return for promises of freedom, and when the British evacuated the United States, they were accompanied by many former slaves from N.C., S.C., and GA. Some, like Thomas Peters, a former slave from Wilmington, NC, were among the founders of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Free and enslaved African Americans participated in more extreme measures to gain freedom for their race. David Walker, a native of Wilmington, NC authored the Appeal which caused consternation through the slaveholding south. The Stono Rebellion and Denmark Vesey’s alleged insurrection demonstrated that overt physical violence were options in securing freedom. Enslaved African Americans knew that the outcome of the Civil War was the difference between slavery and freedom and they wholeheartedly supported the Union.

Territory within the Corridor was among the first that fell under Union control and enslaved persons, contrabands, and refugees supported the Union by serving as spies, informants, guides, pilots, and laborers. They also furnished a significant number of recruits for Union Armed forces, especially the colored volunteers and the United States Colored Troops many of whom participated in combat, combat support, and occupation missions throughout he Corridor. The Union Army, U.S. Government officials, and northern civilians sought to reconstruct the existing social and economic order within the Corridor. They provided freedmen with access to land, security, and assistance as they experimented with free labor, free education, market economy systems, and newly instituted social, fraternal, and religious institutions.

With the institution of Military/Congressional Reconstruction in 1867, African Americans became the base and a significant element within the Republican Party where they continued to press their demands for land, control over families, protection from violence, education, and civil and political equality. With the end of Reconstruction, Redeemers conspired against the advancement of the freedmen. Many of their gains were reversed and they ultimately were confronted with legalized segregation, disfranchisement, debt peonage, and racial violence. Some Gullah Geechee migrated out of the Corridor, while others attempted to create a meaningful life within the confines of Jim Crow by establishing business and professional services and recreation and leisure outlets that catered to the black community. There were black “main streets” or business district in many communities particularly in urban areas.

During the antebellum period, a few private or denominational schools for free blacks existed primarily within the urban areas of the Corridor, but most of these were closed on the eve of the Civil War. Access to education at all levels was a major priority of freedmen who believed that knowledge was power and education was the major route to upward mobility. With emancipation, freedmen’s schools supported by northern religious denominations or the Freedmen’s Bureau sprang up throughout the Corridor, and during Reconstruction public school systems were instituted. These schools were later augmented by Rosenwald Schools and institutions of higher learning. Collectively, they provided opportunities for basic education, industrial and vocational education, and post-secondary education, and they prepared students for successful careers. Quite often these schools were the most important institution in a community and they were the only institutions that cut across all lines of economic and class status, and religion. But in their attempt to prepare students for entry into polite society and success in the modern world, these schools at times also attempted to strip students of their traditional culture, especially their language and speech patterns.

The Brown Decision (1954) effectively ended legalized segregated schools and Jim Crow. However, the practical effects of the decision would not be realized unless they were implemented at local levels, and this was a major impetus for the modern Civil Rights Movement. The Movement unfolded at different times in different places, and personnel within the Corridor made some original tactical or strategic contributions. On 1 February 1960, Joe McNeil of Wilmington, N.C. was one of the four students at North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro who initiated the modern Sit-Ins movement. Esau Jenkins, a community leader, and Septima Clark, a public school teacher, both from Johns Island S.C. conceptualized and developed the concept of “Freedom Schools,” that were widely used to prepare potential black voters to pass literacy tests. The Civil Rights Movement, like the first Reconstruction brought fundamental changes to the social and political structure, and provided Gullah Geechee people with increased opportunities for success.

© 2016 Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor