Verified Gullah Geechee
By: Chief Foday Ajamu Mansaray
Date: January 29, 2021
Gullah was the name for the enslaved African population concentrated on the South Carolina Sea Islands and coastal Lowcountry plantations surrounding Charleston. Geechee was the name for the enslaved African population concentrated on the Georgia Sea Islands and coastal plantations. Those Geechee folks in Georgia distinguished themselves with those on the islands referred to as Salt Water Geechee and those on the coastal mainland referred to as Fresh Water Geechee.
Today both Gullah and Geechee consider themselves as one indigenous nation of African descendants with ethnogenesis and language evolution occurring on the North American sub-continent. Hence, the combining of formerly separate terms into our contemporary ethnonym, Gullah Geechee.
Our traditional culture and language is most retained and practiced in the traditional homeland region, known as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor spanning the southeastern coast of the United States of America from approximately Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, and 30 miles inland including over 100 small barrier Sea Islands throughout.
However, there are unknown millions of African Americans with a verifiable lineage Gullah Geechee ancestry that have been historically removed from the Gullah Geechee demographic profile and historical account. Due to several great waves of migration, the bulk of living Gullah Geechee descendants were not born within the traditional homeland region nor have they been exposed to the culture, language, cuisine, etc. but that don’t make them any less of their ancestors’ descendants.
As for me, I was destined to be born in Pennsylvania yet blessed to be the son of a self-conscious and proud Gullah Geechee mother from Orangeburg that frequently made homecomings to South Carolina annually since migrating up north in 1973. In fact, I attended 4th-6th grades while living in South Carolina as a kid and was exposed in-house to traditional Gullah Geechee beliefs ie. Boo Hags, Rootwork/Hoodoo, etc., and a rich oral archive of my lineage families history preserved in our collective memory while passed down generation after generation.
We have organized several historic “Charles & Maggie McClellan Descendants Family Reunions” in the last 16 years, we have conducted genealogical research and we have compiled records with an official family tree to verify who we are and ensure that future generations maintain the family legacy and traditions inherited from us.
Five generations ago my 3x’s great grandfather Charles McClellan was born enslaved on a plantation near Ridgeville, South Carolina (Dorchester County) in 1840. His future wife and my 3x’s great grandmother Margaret “Maggie” Rivers-McClellan was also born enslaved on a plantation in Cope, South Carolina (Orangeburg County) in 1851. Charles was the son of a man named Benjamin who was himself born in 1817 but due to the lack of records available there is still confusion concerning whether his surname was Wright or Smith with the possibility of both.
My mother used to always teach me and my siblings that our family surname used to be “Smith” but that her grandfather changed his given slave name when he got free from slavery. However, this information did not pass down through the original twelve McClellan lineages for whatever reason and there was also the claim that Charles’s given slave name was “Wright”. In fact, the majority of the elders had no idea what the original slave name was and only my mother had retained knowledge of the Smith surname while it was believed by several other knowledgeable family elders that it was Wright.
Then a few years ago in 2016, I discovered an 1890 military pension index that he filed as a 50-year-old Civil War hero, with his alias listed as “Charles Smith” with no mention of “Wright”. Regardless of what his slave name was he chose McClellan as a conscious decision to sever his legacy, and family surname from any name imposed during his life of enslavement.
What has come down directly to me through the collective memory and mouths of my lineage ancestors and elders is that Charles was kidnapped at a parade in Charleston by future Confederate soldiers before the outbreak of the Civil War and was subsequently forced to labor in one of their camps along with others that were “body-snatched”. He remained captive until eventually Union soldiers raided the Confederate camp and liberated the enslaved Africans offering the able-bodied adults to join the United States Colored Troops. Faced with the decision to fight for the end of American chattel slavery or not, my ancestor chose to accept the offer and joined the ranks of the legendary USCT. When asked whether he would keep his slave name or take a new one as a free man, my ancestor chose the latter and selected the surname McClellan in honor of Union Army General Major George B. McClellan.
After the war, the general call was for the newly freed Black men to enlist in the US military, particularly the Navy. Like many others, our ancestor answered the call of service and from 1869 until 1874 he served on the USS Shamrock, USS Vermont, and USS North Carolina. He married Maggie the same year he enlisted in the Navy and they parented 12 children together.
After the military Charles focused more on farming his 45 acres near Ridgeville where he lived as a neighbor with his elder brother Israel who was also a son of Benjamin. Israel also adopted the McClellan surname and was a farmer although I am unsure whether he served in the military or not, we do know that he eventually migrated his household to Florida while Maggie and children relocated to Cope in Orangeburg where she was born by the close of the 19th century.
The 4th child of Charles and Maggie was my 2x’s great grandmother Agnus McClellan-Montgomery. She was born on the family farm in 1877 and passed away in 1969 at the age of 92. Known affectionately as “Sister Agnus” she gave birth to two daughters, namely Margaret and Eula. Margaret was her grandmother’s namesake and gave birth to a daughter named Edna and a son named Johnny. Due to the untimely death of Margaret during her children’s infancy, her daughter Edna was raised in-house by her grandma Agnus. Edna’s firstborn of seven was non-other than my late mother Catherine who was raised in-house by both her mother Edna and great-grandma Agnus.
Agnus and her eleven siblings stayed closely connected despite the constant migration of relatives moving up north, mainly Philadelphia. Living elders like my Uncle Bubba recall her being a physically robust and highly intelligent woman who by the time of his childhood had gone blind but would measure his height by placing hands under his armpits and top of his head at the same time. She was a spiritual woman that always advised others to do their best and despite not being able to see could count money.
Others who were children during those times remember Summer homecomings to Orangeburg and visiting Sister Agnus. Most have vivid memories of my mother being there with her great granny. My mother’s proximity to the eldest living McClellan in our lineage granted her access to the rich oral history and visiting relatives.
Imagine being born in 1945 to a mother born in 1927 with both of yall being raised in-house by a grandmother who was born in 1877. By the time that Agnus transitioned in 1969 my mama was already grown and married with kids.
It was from the memory and mouth of my 2x’s great-grandma that my mama learned our family history, including the claim that Charles McClellan’s original surname during his enslavement was Smith. Only my mother retained that info and passed it on to her children, which is why the discovery of his officially documented alias on his military pension index was so monumental and Charles was a Gullah Geechee of known Mandingo ancestry through his father Benjamin according to Agnus. I have since repatriated to Sierra Leone and reunited my family with our Mandingo community in West Africa.
McClellan descendants maintain a family-centered orientation and some have taken a DNA test from several companies which reveal a very broad and diverse West and Central African ancestry that includes Sierra Leonean, Malian, Nigerian, etc. Most recently my biological sister Felicia took the African Ancestry test that revealed my 3x’s great-grandma Maggie and her descendants to share genetic lineage with the Bamilike of Cameroon. Not to mention that my grandmother’s dad was from Haiti and my mother’s dad was from Jamaica which are Caribbean heritage roots that are distinct within my lineage branch of what we proudly refer to as the “McClellan Clan”.
Throughout my early life, I learned the oral tradition from my mother’s mouth and later did my own independent research as an adult to verify what had been passed down through the last five generations of my family. The search is always on and I am confident that we will continue to uncover more gems as we dig deeper and deeper.
I felt moved to sit down and share this with the public because it has come to my attention that certain individuals are running around trying to discredit who I am, what I stand for, and the overall integrity of the service that I have unselfishly contributed to the ongoing struggle for the unity and self-determination of Gullah Geechee people around the world belittled to object of scandalous rumors.
Critics and bitter rivals have been asking me questions like “How can somebody verify if they are Gullah Geechee?” or “If all the Gullah Geechee don’t have Sierra Leonean ancestry, why are yall petitioning for citizenship in that country?” or “If your from Pennsylvania then how are you a Gullah Geechee?” and the list goes on. I have answered these questions with facts and reason but still, there is opposition to 1) me claiming to be a Gullah Geechee 2) me leading an independent community association and organization of Gullah Geechee 3) me sparking the international mission and multi-organizational union to redeem the shared historic and familial relationship between Gullah Geechee and Sierra Leone(ans) 4) our movement leading the call for Gullah Geechee citizenship in Sierra Leone.
Instead of realizing that we are within our full individual and collective human rights as Gullah Geechee people to represent our cultural heritage and community interests or simply keeping their opinions to themselves, haters keep disrespectfully circulating my name. I don’t have to be born in the federal corridor area or be known by a single so-called prominent Gullah Geechee kinfolk either. I don’t have to Ring Shout, Story Tell, make Sweetgrass Baskets, or any of that to be a verifiable Gullah Geechee descendant in the flesh either.
In most verifiable Gullah Geechee families there are those relatives that utterly refuse to self-identify as a proud Gullah Geechee but that still don’t change the fact regardless. I too have kin that rejects the ethnonym of our direct lineage ancestry right there in America. This is largely due to ignorance of our family lineages and the greatness of our peoples’ history.
So I sincerely encourage every African American to conduct intense genealogical research and gather as much family oral history as possible because you just might be a verifiable Gullah Geechee descendant as well but just not know it.
Chief Foday Ajamu Mansaray
Gullah Nation Of North America (GNONA)