The Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor was part of the original lands granted to Spain by the Catholic Church in 1492, and in the early 1500’s England, France, and Spain attempted to establish a foothold in the North American southeast, and Spain hoped to make Santa Elana Island the capitol of Spanish Florida. Research has concluded that the first Gullah people in North American were left behind by the Spanish. Records indicate that Lucas Vasquez De Ayllon on his voyage left at least 100 Africans behind in 1526, when their colony failed, and those that were left behind were African’s from the West Coast of Africa.
Florida’s tie-in is that King Charles I of Spain issued an edict of 1600 that allowed any African who made their way to Spanish Florida would be granted their freedom. In 1693, King Charles II officially stated that any slave on an English plantation that could escape and make it to Spanish Florida would be granted their Freedom if they became Catholic and joined the Militia. Those who escaped with the assistance of the Seminoles were Gullah-Geechee from North and South Carolina, Georgia, and hence the start of the mass exodus from the Carolina’s, and Georgia to form the original Underground Railroad that originally led south. Carolina planters were outraged that their property was being given refuge in Spanish Florida, and subsequently led to the numerous wars and battles with England over the age old questions. What do we do with the Negro, Spanish, and Native American people?
The National Park Service has supported the National Heritage Area’s (NHA) Program for the past 20 years, and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor serves as a reminder of the importance of the grassroots involvement. We in Florida should feel fortunate that the Gullah Geechee Culture is being celebrated in St Johns County.
As we move toward 2012 and 2015, we would encourage St. Augustine’s 450th Commission, and NHA to work with Gullah Geechee Corridor Commission and Partnership Specialist Michael Allen. Dialogue should occur between the 450th organizers, Michael Allen, elected officials, business owners, and the Gullah Geechee Florida Commissioners. There is a possibility of the creation of another National Heritage Area (NHA) centered on the 450th Anniversary, and we know that the NHA serves as an excellent vehicle to develop and grow partnership opportunities, which extend throughout the country.
Our community has strong ties with the Gullah Geechee Culture, and the possible inclusion would provide an excellent opportunity to educate the public about the contribution of African Americans in our American journey, and could serve as a possible untapped economic engine for tourism. The nation of Haiti has historic ties to our community which is another subject that is not often talked about.
African American History through the eyes of Gullah Geechee Culture is being recognized and acknowledge by the local community, federal government, and Fort Mose can be elevated to a National conversation as it relates to the Underground Railroad, the quest for freedom, and the spirit of endurance despite the odds of enslavement.