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NEWS | Feb. 16, 2017

Joint Base Charleston and Gullah culture meet

By Joshua Mayes 628th Air Base Wing historian

Master Sgt. Denise McQueen, 628th Air Base Wing executive support superintendent, is responsible for the administrative element for the 628th ABW commander. McQueen is a hard-working Senior NCO like many in the Air Force, but she is also very unique. McQueen traces her heritage to the Gullah culture, which can only be found along parts of coastal South Carolina, Georgia and adjacent sea islands. The Gullah are a distinct group of African Americans living in small farming and fishing communities who have survived centuries of slavery, the Civil War and the progression of modern American culture. Coincidently, large concentrations of Gullah peoples remain around the city of Charleston.  

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World between 1525 and 1866. In an attempt to generate a lucrative crop, colonial farmers tried to cultivate rice in the swamps of the Lowcountry. However, lack of knowledge and experience resulted in failure. Eventually, the farmers and plantation owners discovered Africans living on the western side of Africa, in modern day Sierra Leone, had become proficient rice farmers. The slave traders took advantage of the demand and began importing large numbers of African rice farmers to South Carolina. 

During the hot humid summers the farmers and plantation owners vacated their property due to the influx of diseases, leaving the African slaves and a few white overseers. The absence of English culture allowed the slaves to preserve their distinct culture and create a new set of traditions based on their African heritage. They also preserved “shukublay” the basket making style of West Africa. The shukublay are identical to the sweet grass baskets found in the markets around Charleston.   

McQueen’s ancestors worked in the fields of Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation, which prospered through the cultivation of rice during the South Carolina Colonial period (1663-1763). During the Civil War (1861-1865), McQueen’s great-great-great uncle was forced to fight for the South and represented one of roughly 3,000 slaves or freedmen to fight for the Confederacy. They were referred to as “Black Confederates.” 

When the Civil War ended in 1865 many Gullah relocated to “Geechee Row,” along the Ashley River. “Geechee,” is the name for the Gullah themselves and the language that is English-based creolized (blending of two languages) and is only spoken not written. The very term “Gullah,” is thought to be a mispronunciation of the African word “Gora” or “Gola,” which are tribes in West Africa. 

According to McQueen there is more of a modern cultural awareness today than in previous generations.  She said,” No matter where I have been stationed, I always continue the tradition of cooking food I was taught to cook as a child.”  She went on to say, “Being in the Air Force, I am always able to find someone who is from Charleston and we talk about the food we want to prepare for the upcoming holiday.” 

Because of people like McQueen preserving their cultural identities, diversity is added to the U.S. Air Force.