The Black Seminoles: Gullah Pioneer Freedom Fighters
Penn Center's 18th Annual Heritage Days Celebrations
November 12-14, 1998
Symposium Topic for 1998
Penn Center recently learned of a people called "Black Seminoles" whose ancestors were Gullah slaves who escaped from South Carolina and Georgia plantations into the Florida wilderness. There, they joined with various groups of renegade Indians to form a new tribe - the Seminoles -- from a Spanish word meaning "wild," "free," or "untamed."
After a series of bitter conflicts with American military forces in Florida, the Black Seminoles and their Indian comrades moved West in the 1830s, ultimately settling in what is now Central Oklahoma, West Texas, and Northern Mexico. These scattered communities still exist today and, amazingly, still preserve the Gullah language and many cultural traits reflecting their Gullah roots in South Carolina and Georgia.
Penn Center selected "The Black Seminoles: Gullah Pioneer Freedom Fighters" as the symposium topic during its annual 1998 Heritage Days Celebrations. Thousands of people from the region, other parts of the US, and various foreign countries attend Penn's Heritage Days each year. This created an excellent opportunity to acquaint the public with a neglected part of African American history, and the Gullahs, themselves, with a long-lost branch of their own family.
To make the most of the occasion, Penn invited two Black Seminole communities leaders to South Carolina - Mrs. Lena Shaw from Oklahoma, and Mr. Dub Warrior from Texas. Also participating was four scholars known for their work on the Black Seminoles: Ian Hancock, a linguist; Melinda Micco, an historian; Joseph Opala, an anthropologist; and Bruce Twyman, a political scientist. Dr. Micco, a Seminole Indian, will add special interest to the occasion.
Given the list of participants, and the fact that the Gullah and Black Seminole communities lost contact more than 150 years ago, one can see that Penn Center's 1998 Heritage Days symposium created an outstanding educational experience, as well as an historic event of some importance. Penn video-taped the occasion, in order to keep a record in its archive for use by scholars in years to come.
MS. VERONICA GERALD served as moderator for the Symposium. An Assistant Professor of English at Coastal Carolina, she is widely recognized as an authority on this region's social and cultural history. Born in Mullins, South Carolina, Professor Gerald is a descendant of West Africans who once inhabited Laurel Hill and Spring Hill rice plantations (now Brookgreen Gardens) near Murrells Inlet. After graduating from Conway Public Schools, Ms. Gerald earned degrees in English and History at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, and a Master's in English from Atlanta University.
Professor Gerald was a summer research fellow at the University of South Carolina's Institute of Southern Studies in 1994 and 1995. She received Coastal's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1994 and the Governor's Award in the Humanities the following year.
MRS. LENA SHAW is one of four black members of the Tribal Council of the Seminole Indian Nation of Oklahoma. An articulate spokesperson for the "Seminole Freedmen," as the Oklahoma Black Seminoles are called, she is a frequent speaker at community groups and in the local media. Mrs. Shaw is leading the Freedmen's efforts to claim their rightful place in Seminole tribal affairs.
MR WILLIAM "DUB" WARRIOR is the foremost spokesman for the "Seminole Scouts," as the Texas Black Seminoles are called. Mr. Warrior is an authority on the "Seminole Negro Indian Scouts," a US Cavalry unit made up of Black Seminoles that distinguished itself in battles with the Apaches and Comanches after the Civil War. Mr. Warrior has been consulted for books, articles, and TV programs on the Scouts.
DR. IAN HANCOCK is the University of Texas linguist who discovered in the 1970s that the Texas Scouts were still speaking Gullah, 150 years after their ancestors escaped from slavery in South Carolina and Georgia. Before Hancock's work, no one knew that the Black Seminoles were Gullah descendants. Hancock has published several academic articles describing the Scouts' Gullah dialect, and has recently studied the Gullah speech of Black Seminoles in Northern Mexico.
DR. MELINDA MICCO, a Seminole Indian, lectures at Mills College in California. A Native American who has done extensive research on the history of African - Indian relations among the Seminoles, she is currently writing a book on that subject. Dr. Micco will provide a unique perspective to the symposium.
MR. JOSEPH OPALA is an anthropologist based at Penn Center. He did research among the Oklahoma Seminole Freedmen in the early 1980s, and published on their history and culture. While living in Sierra Leone, he spearheaded the 1989 "Gullah Homecoming" to that West African nation, involving both Gullahs and Black Seminoles. That event was highlighted in the PBS documentary "Family Across the Sea," (1990). Opala is known for his research on the "Gullah Connection."
DR. BRUCE TWYMAN, an African American political scientist, lectures at Prairie View A & M University in Texas. He has recently completed a book on Black Seminole history to be published by Howard University Press. Dr. Twyman has done extensive research in both the Texas and Oklahoma Black Seminole communities. In Oklahoma, he recently found the grave of Abraham, or "Souanaffe Tustenukke," a famous 19th century Black Seminole war leader.