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Dr. Melissa Cooper delivering a lecture as part of the American Folklife Center's Benjamin A. Botkin Lecture Series at the Whittall Pavilion at the Library of Congress.
Dr. Melissa Cooper delivering a lecture as part of the American Folklife Center's Benjamin A. Botkin Lecture Series at the Library of Congress on April 10, 2024. Photo by AFC Folklife Specialist, Steve Winick.

Botkin Folklife Lectures Plus: Dr. Melissa Cooper, Scholar of Gullah Geechee Cultural History

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In the Botkin Folklife Lectures Plus series, we feature online presentations from our Benjamin A. Botkin Lecture Series that also have accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post.

On April 10, 2024, Dr. Melissa Cooper (Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University-Newark) presented a fascinating lecture on Gullah Geechee cultural history at the Library of Congress, as part of the Benjamin A. Botkin Lecture Series. Dr. Cooper’s presentation, titled “Collecting Survivals: Sapelo Island, Georgia and the Search for Gullah Folk,” analyzed the work of folklorists, linguists, and writers who traveled to coastal Georgia from the 1920s to the 1940s, in search of African retentions in communities now known as Gullah, Geechee, and Gullah Geechee. Cooper detailed how the writers’ observations and interpretations of Gullah culture were based as much, or even more, on the authors’ biases and early 20th century ideas about race in American society, than what were the lived experiences of Gullah people. Cooper expands this argument in her 2017 monograph Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Island, Race, and the American Imagination (University of North Carolina Press), which was published as part of the prestigious John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. See her lecture in the video below.

Following Cooper’s lecture, Dr. Nancy Groce and I interviewed Dr. Cooper about her life and work. The discussion ranged from influences on Dr. Cooper’s research to her time as a public-school teacher. See the discussion in the video below.

Dr. Cooper’s lecture contributes to a long legacy of Gullah Geechee collections at the American Folklife Center.  In fact, the AFC has collected and stewarded Gullah Geechee ethnographic materials for over 98 years. The earliest collection of Gullah Geechee materials dates to 1926 when Robert Winslow Gordon—the founder of the Archives at the American Folklife Center—recorded “Kumbaya” from H. Wylie in Darien, Georgia. Since that time, the American Folklife Center has acquired twenty-two collections, acquisitioned fourteen books and theses, and created several public-facing programs—all focused-on Gullah Geechee history and culture. A selection of these items are listed in the “Collection Connection” section below. To learn more about the entirety of Gullah Geechee collections at the American Folklife Center, visit this research guide. And, to learn more about Gullah Geechee collections at other divisions of the Library of Congress, visit this research guide.


Collection Connection


Robert Winslow Gordon Cylinder Collection – This collection is a cross section of American folksong including Negro blues, spirituals, and ballads, Anglo-American ballads, gospel singing, Gullah Geechee songs, sermons, sea chanties, recitations, and miscellaneous recordings such as the inauguration of President Coolidge. Gordon’s collection features the first known recording of “Kumbaya,” which means “Come By Here” in the Gullah language. The song, now part of the American vernacular, was collected from Henry Wylie in Darien, Georgia, in 1926.

Voices Remembering Slavery – These interviews, conducted between 1932 and 1975, capture the recollections of twenty-three identifiable people born between 1823 and the early 1860s and known to have been slaves. The freed men and women discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, how slaves were coerced; and about their families and freedom. Gullah Geechee recordings in this collection include the experiences of Wallace Quarterman of St. Simons Island, Georgia and Ann Scott of St. Helena Island, South Carolina.

Penn Community Services Collection of Religious Songs and Services – Collection of field recordings of Gullah religious songs, spirituals, hymns, and church services recorded by Penn Community Services on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Includes a Gullah “house blessing” and 5 songs sung by an unknown congregation. Recorded by Courtney Siceloff, Director, Penn Community Services, on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, 1955-1956.

Mary Jo Sanna Collection – This collection includes field recordings, photographs, and research materials from Mary Jo Sanna, a prominent ethnomusicologist who studied African American music and the musician Bessie Jones. The materials mostly relate to Sanna’s research while at Harvard from 1981-1989.

Public Programs:

Concert from the McIntosh County Shouters – The McIntosh County Shouters hail from coastal Georgia and specialize in the performance of the ring shout–a sacred movement associated with Gullah Geechee communities. The video above is a recording of the McIntosh County Shouters, performing at the Library of Congress on December 2, 2010, as part of the Homegrown Concert Series at the American Folklife Center.

Oral history interview with Ranky Tanky – In this video, John Fenn of the American Folklife Center speaks with Quentin Baxter, Kevin Hamilton, Quiana Parler, Clay Ross, and Charlton Singleton, of the band Ranky Tanky, who mix Gullah Geechee musical traditions with modern influences. The conversation explores the musical backgrounds of each band member, the emergence of Ranky Tanky, and the ways in which their music engages with tradition and community. This conversation took place on July 28, 2022, in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress.

Folklife Today Podcast on the history of “Kumbaya” – With the help of archivists, AFC staff members Stephen Winick and John Fenn reveal the history of a great work of African American folk creativity: the spiritual “Kumbaya” or “Come By Here.”

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