The Last White Gullah Speaker on Johns Island
by Alden Davis
 
Robert Davis, the last white Gullah speaker on Johns Island SC left us on September 25, 2022. True, there are probably elderly black folk on the island who speak Gullah, but the people to whom they can speak in their native tongue are growing fewer and fewer with every passing year. More often than not, standard English is the norm today. Those who have learned Gullah as a celebration of their heritage seldom speak it the same way as the old ones did.
 
What is Gullah anyhow? Wikipedia defines it as the name of the sea island people who are generally called Gullah in South Carolina and Geechee in Georgia (presumably from the Ogeechee River). Gullah is also the language of the sea islands “a creole dialect of English spoken by Gullah and Geechee.” I believe Gullah is more than a language.  It is distinctive in its intonation, the way words are put together, and the body language of the person speaking. However, not all the people now defined as Gullah thought of themselves as Gullah. At least on Johns and Wadmalaw Islands the entire population, regardless of race, referred to themselves as “We People.”
 
I suspect the Gullah of today is not quite the same as the Gullah spoken in say, 1865. It contains more English words and the sentence construction is more English. The first words spoken in Gullah that I heard of in the Davis family were spoken sometime in the 1920s. Ralph Davis, Robert’s father, was driving his horse-drawn wagon down a dirt road on Wadmalaw Island when he came upon two little light-skinned boys. “Who pa you?” he asked the eldest.  That is to say, who is your father?
 
“Mist Eugene Glovah, sah,” the little boy replied. 
 
Satisfied with the answer, Ralph flicked the reins and drove on. As he had long suspected, these two were his brother-in-law’s children. Note that the single sentence is not put together as it would be in today’s English, nor is the pronunciation.
 
This incident also illustrates a common misconception about Gullah. It was not exclusively spoken by black people. The whites of the sea islands all spoke fluent Gullah. Else how would they communicate with their workers?
 
Robert Davis was born in 1941. At that time there were many Gullah speakers, both black and white, though their numbers were dwindling. Robert related to black friends quite differently than his father and older brother did. Although he lived with both parents and was in a community of aunts, uncles and cousins, he was in many ways a lonely little boy. His siblings were many years older than he and his father was a man who did not participate in child rearing. His mother worked and he was often in the care of his elderly grandmother. Robert was simply left to his own devices. He gravitated to the black families who lived nearby and was accepted by them as few white boys were. 
 
Rice is universally eaten on the sea islands. It is prepared in a myriad of ways and is served at almost every meal. Rice is one of the ways Robert and his black friends bonded, for growing boys are always hungry. Robert would often drop in to Annabelle Benson’s house or Babe Jenkins’ to find a large pot of neckbones and rice steaming on the wood-burning stove. Or it might be steamed rice with a seafood gumbo to pour over it. In the 1940s and 1950s everyone ate seafood of all kinds. Clams, shrimp, soft-shelled crabs, crawfish – it was all good, a free gift from the sea.
 
Liquor is another way the black culture bonded with their special friends. Johns Island was isolated from the mainland because there was not even a bridge until the 1950s. Wadmalaw Island was equally isolated. Most of the farmers used boats to get to Charleston. These barrier islands were a natural for whiskey-making entrepreneurs. In Robert’s youth there were dozens of small stills scattered in hidden areas of the woods. Not just anyone could access their products, however. The whiskey makers did not want to see the inside of the Charleston Jail. But for those who knew, good white liquor was available at any time. Robert often told of asking Peter for a pint to share with some visiting friend. Not everyone could do this, but Robert could be trusted. While he and Peter sat under a tree a small boy would dash off and reappear with a pint. Of course, it was not free. Robert would pay and would then share a drink with Peter. They would talk about the island doings. Robert usually left knowing more about the latest gossip and a lot about what was really going on in the community. Very few whites were trusted like this. 
 
When Robert and I went to Johns Island he would visit his black friends every chance he had. Babe Jenkins was a special friend. A tiny, very old lady, she knew everything that was happening on the island, for she was a lifelong resident and was related to many others there. I noticed that Robert’s soft Southern accent would increase as he crossed the Charleston County line. His language reverted to that of his youth. 
 
Sometimes I stayed with his mother while he went to visit, but once he took me to meet Babe. I was transported back to my childhood when my grandparents took me to visit rural members of their church. Like those rural church members, Babe’s small wooden house was insulated by Sunday comics pasted to all the walls. Her table and chairs were well worn wood and looked to be homemade. Her decorations were photographs of island residents. I still remember the photograph of handsome Cash Jenkins, her former husband. The picture showed him standing on a dock, smoking a large pipe. He was stolen away from Babe by a woman down River Road who worked mout’ on him, so Babe always said. Robert knew Cash well and the two of them began talking about him. At first, I could follow the conversation a little, but in a few minutes, they lapsed into pure Gullah. The two of them were laughing and slapping their knees, pointing to Cash’s picture. I could not understand a word.
 
I was very interested in the genealogy of several of the black families and even Robert did not know all I wanted to know. Once I said, “Well, let’s go to Johns Island and I’ll just ask Annabelle Benson how she and Babe are related.”
 
He looked at me as if I had lost my senses and said, “You can’t do that. No one will know anything if you ask.”
 
“Why not,” I said, puzzled.
 
“You’re not one of We People,” he replied firmly. 
 
“So, you would have to do the asking?”
 
“Yes, but it would be easier if you weren’t there.”
 
Time went by and we still wanted to make that trip, but it didn’t work out. In later years we assumed that Annabelle was deceased. But Robert heard from one of his classmates that she was still living. He promptly called her on the phone. He promised to visit her soon, just as he had done over the years. But life and illness intervened and we were never able to get to the island again. In Robert’s last year of life, he chanced upon Annabelle’s obituary in the News and Courier
 
Maybe someday I will be able to piece together the relationship of Annabelle Benson and Babe Jenkins who were always best friends and probably kin, but there is no one living who knows the story, or at least no one who would tell it to me. Babe rests in the churchyard of her church that could be seen from the wooden steps of her home, the church where Robert sat on the front row with the family at her son’s funeral. Even Annabelle, the youngest of the black folk who befriended a young white boy, has left this earth.
 
And Robert Davis, the last white Gullah speaker on Johns Island, has now gone to his final rest.
 
-  -  -  -  -
See the Writers Group's
_______________________________________