Sarah N. Johnson
In the Beginning: The Impact of Gullah-Geechee on Afro-Seminole Creole
Afro-Seminole Creole (ASC) is a distinct language that has been spoken by the Black Seminoles of Texas and the Mascogos (Black Seminoles) of Coahuila, Mexico for over 200 years. How a form of creole travelled from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to a border town in Texas and a community in Northern Mexico is part of the rich, extraordinary history of the Black Seminoles of Texas.
Understanding ASC necessitates understanding the evolution and perseverance of the Gullah-Geechee language. Dr. Ian Hancock, the linguist noted for identifying the connections between Gullah and ASC, wrote an article that explains the interconnectedness of these languages. See “Creoles in Texas – ‘The Afro-Seminoles.’” The extensive research done by linguist and anthropologist Joseph Opala has highlighted the “Gullah Connection” that links western Africa generally, and Sierra Leone in particular, to South Carolina and Georgia. The main connector: rice. Opala highlights the American colonists’ need for African slaves who knew how to cultivate rice in a semi-tropical environment such as in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. The most sought-after slaves from the “Rice Coast” of West Africa were brought to North America and lived in largely isolated communities on the rice plantations. This enabled them to preserve much of their traditional African languages, rituals, and customs.
Language was a key factor in this preservation. When Africans from various tribes and countries were enslaved, they needed a way to speak with each other as well as with their enslavers. What emerged was a hybrid language, a creole, that blends “linguistic influences from a variety of different sources” (Opala 15). Starting in the mid-1700s, successive generations of enslaved people began using this creole as their first language. Many of the Gullah-Geechee people of today still live in South Carolina and Georgia, maintaining their distinct language and culture. Opala provides a great summary about this “Gullah Connection” in a 2017 Oklahoma Public Radio interview.
Many of the Gullah-Geechee who escaped slavery on the rice plant
ations made their way to Florida, where they came into contact with and formed a unique community with the free blacks and Seminoles living there. After relocating from Florida to Oklahoma, some Seminole Negroes moved on to Mexico in late 1849 and started to return to the U.S. – via Texas – in the 1870s. (For more on this part of history see “Exodus to Mexico” and “Return to the United States” on this website). There, the community maintained and preserved their variant of creole. Early scholars made the mistake of viewing creoles as merely ‘broken English,’ but scholars today recognize them full and complete languages (Opala 15).
The Black Seminole community continued speaking ASC privately, not as something special but as a part of everyday life. Over time, as the community began to interact with other Black and Texan communities, ASC was intentionally not spoken to outsiders, and children were actively encouraged not to speak it all in order to assimilate and to prevent people from saying that they “talked funny.” This well-meaning decision has led to the near extinction of ASC because the language has stopped being transmitted to younger generations. This is one of the reasons that Afro-Seminole Creole was not identified as a distinct language by non-Black Seminole researchers until the mid-1970s, when Dr. Hancock identified it as a distinct language; he has long helped to catalog and preserve it since. His article on the evolution of creole languages is informative for the lay reader. See Maroon Societies and Creole Languages.
After more than 200 years, Afro-Seminole Creole survives primarily in written form. One of the last people who once spoke it fluently died in 2020, and the urgency to perpetuate it and teach it to younger generations increases.
Source: Opala, Joseph. The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection. United States Information Service, Freetown, Sierra Leone (1987)