How a young history buff is preserving the Gullah Geechee community on TikTok

The Gullah Geechee people are one of the oldest and most extraordinary communities in the United States. But if you’ve never heard of them, it may be because their history is often overlooked in textbooks and the longevity of their culture is now in jeopardy.

This distinct African-American community began on the eastern coastal islands – stretching from Florida to North Carolina in the 1600s. The slaves, mostly from West Africa, lived in a complete isolation from the American mainland, separated by rivers, swamps and difficult-to-cross waterways.

“It created an environment for us to create our own culture, apart from when white American culture developed,” said Akua Page, Gullah Geechee tour guide, entrepreneur and content creator from Charleston, NC. South.

Gullah Geechee Tour Guide, Entrepreneur and Content Creator Akua Page.Stay tuned / NBC News

The Gullah Geechee people retained histories, religious practices, farming methods, recipes, and even formed their own language, distinct from that of colonial Americans on the mainland. But now, language and culture face a new threat.

“Gullah is now considered a dying language, because my generation and younger people – you won’t find us comfortable with real Gullah,” said Page, 28.

A 2005 environmental impact statement estimated that there were 200,000 Gullah Gechee in the southeastern region of the United States. This number has likely changed as the community continues to grow. There are large concentrations of Gullah Geechee in cities like Jacksonville, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston – which are close to the isolated islands where the culture was created. However, there is no official data on how many people currently speak Gullah.

When anti-literacy laws were lifted, allowing black people to learn to read, write and go to school for the first time, Page said, “a lot of people who spoke Gullah were beaten up. So this historical trauma has been transferred.

Page took to social media to share Gullah stories with younger audiences. She has been successful, with over 55,000 followers and 700,000 likes on her TikTok, and over 440,000 views on her YouTube channel.

Viewers can find videos about traditional healing practices, such as how elders in their community put Spanish moss in their shoes to lower blood pressure and use elderberry tea to relieve inflammation.

Akua Page
Akua Page took to social media to tell Gullah stories, creating the popular TikTok account @geecheegoddess and a YouTube channel.@geecheegoddess via TikTok

Page also explains the origins of the Gullah Geechee community and the disparities his community faces, including not having access to the same high-quality rice his ancestors grew centuries ago. Along with the history lessons, Page has several videos on Gullah translations and slang that are used in the Gullah Geechee community.

Feedback on these videos has been mostly positive, with many people writing in the comments that they have never heard of Gullah Geechee culture or want to connect more with their own ancestral roots in the community.

“I love TikTok. It’s been so instrumental in the work that I do,” Page said. Her goal is to pass the torch, so that her culture, which has survived for hundreds of years, can endure.

Although she now has a deep historical knowledge of her people, Page grew up in the South Carolina foster system and wasn’t always around other members of the Gullah Geechee community. This made it difficult for her to understand her identity. She spent time at the Jenkins Institute, which was founded by a Gullah Geechee, Reverend Daniel Jenkins, in 1891 (one of her earliest locations, in the famous Old Marine Hospital in Charleston, still exists today ).

“I’ve been exposed to it all my life, but nobody really sat me down and said, ‘Girl, you’re Gullah Geechee,'” Page said.

Though it wasn’t clear to Page, his accent, vocabulary, and mannerisms stood out among his peers. “People aren’t educated about America’s linguistic diversity, so when I came to see some people they just thought what I was speaking was broken or bad English. So I would be bullied a lot,” Page said.

A historic sign for the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, SC
A historic sign for the Jenkins Orphanage, now called the Jenkins Institute, in Charleston, SCStay tuned / NBC News

“Now I’m an advocate for black kids in foster care,” Page said, “I feel like I needed to experience this to lead me down this path and connect with my ancestors.”

But his worries about the future of the Gullah Geechee community remain front and center.

“In the work that I do, I’ve seen a lot of seniors who are so passionate and enthusiastic about it,” she said, “I’m one person, you know, so I can’t do it all. TO DO.”

Page says there’s pride and purpose in all of the education she does, especially breaking things down into smaller pieces on social media. This pride is something she thinks about a lot around Juneteenth.

Many people use this day to reflect on freedom, as it commemorates the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas were told of their freedom, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

“Our liberation is knowing where we come from. … I can say just by the rice culture that we have here and that we connect to West and Central Africa and how we grow and cultivate that for eons,” she said, “We liberate ourselves by owning ourselves.

Tours from Page head to Riverfront Park, where visitors enjoy scenic views of the Cooper River, which is often dotted with people testing their fishing lines at the docks. She ends her tours at a site called the Dead House, located right next to the river.

Historians say this brick building is probably the oldest standing structure in Charleston, but local residents wonder if anyone was ever killed at the site. Page notes that the land it stands on was once part of an active plantation and that the name is likely related to this period.

At the end of the tours, “we pay a libation for the lives that were lost during slavery in Charleston,” Page said.

The tribute is not just for the known and unknown “ancestors” “who perished during the slave trade,” Page said, but also for “the people who perish now, right in the face of racism and violence, but mostly by acknowledging those who experienced slavery and the names that people don’t really call and have been forgotten.

Akua Page and Maya Eaglin pour libations outside the Dead House in Charleston, SC
Akua Page and Maya Eaglin pour libations outside the Dead House in Charleston, SCStay tuned / NBC News

Page asks guests to read some of their names out loud and pour some water with each name. She says ash after each, which has a similar meaning to Amen.

“I think it’s our job to tell the story of our ancestors, you know, we shouldn’t want somebody else to tell the story of our ancestors,” Page said, “Coming back to that African proverb, ‘Until the lioness tells her tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. So I feel like you know, I’m that lioness. I’ll tell the story.’ story of my ancestors.

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