blog

Women’s History Month Spotlight:  Lynette Youson

Preserving Gullah Geechee Tradition

Tracey McKee – March 26, 2024

Drawing to mind magnificent Southern live oak trees draped with Spanish moss, the coastlines along the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida are steeped in history and culture. An intersection point of Native Americans, European settlers, and enslaved Africans during the early days of our nation, these coastlines are a testament to the complexity of our nation’s history. Emerging from this gathering of people in time and place, the Gullah Geechee nurtured their beloved African traditions in a foreign and horrific environment. Primarily descended from Central and West Africa, these people are known as the Gullah in the Carolinas and the Geechee in Georgia and Florida. In October 2006, as part of the National Heritage Areas Act, the corridor of Gullah Geechee communities that stretches the southeast coastline from Wilmington, NC, to St. Augustine, FL, was recognized because of its cultural and historical significance.

The 12,000 square-mile Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

The Gullah Geechee were brought to the states’ Southern plantations to tend and harvest rice, indigo, and Sea Island cotton. Mostly isolated to themselves, either on plantations or the 80-some islands that dot the coast, enslaved people diligently kept alive and blended their African traditions into their new homes and lives. After emancipation, many former slaves remained in the low country, choosing to form isolated and tight-knit communities; ultimately, this enabled the preservation of their culture. This Gullah Geechee culture survives today despite the encroaching modernization and accessibility to once-remote communities.

Gullah Geechee influence can be found in the low country in many ways today. Wrap-around porches, found on many low country homes, often have ceilings painted light blue, an influence from the Gullah Geechee traditions; the use of light blue at the entrance of the home is meant to ward off evil spirits called haints or boohags.  Gullah Geechee shrimp and grits is a staple dish on many fine restaurants’ menus, and you may have heard of Hoppin’ John, a flavorful rice and pea dish.  Southern cooking is a natural extension of the Gullah Geechee’s recipes and methods for preparing food. Gullah Geechee ring shouts and spirituals influenced jazz and blues musicians and inspired Gospel singers and writers (Hart 2023).

A most exquisite art has been handed down through generations of Gullah Geechee people – the art of seagrass basket weaving.  If you have ever visited Charleston, SC, you have probably seen Gullah women selling these beautiful baskets at the Charleston City market. Lynette Youson, a fifth-generation basket weaver who lives in the low country of South Carolina, dedicates her time as an afterschool instructor teaching sweetgrass basket weaving to students. Youson has weaved for over 50 years with her mother and remembers fondly learning from her great-grandmother; carrying on the tradition, she has taught her daughters and granddaughters the art. But Youson’s teachings extend beyond her family and local community; she has traveled across the country leading workshops to teach the art of basket weaving.

For over a decade, Youson has offered her expertise and knowledge to the Army Corps regarding a field of sweetgrass found near the Corps’ Cooper River Redirection project.  As a result of the partnership, the basket weavers are now invited to harvest good quality sweetgrass, a resource that has become harder and harder to find as development continues to eat away at supply.  Youson has also served as chairman of the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival, which is held every summer to highlight basket weaving and the Gullah culture.

Weaving sweetgrass Gullah Culture: Then & Now 

With baskets on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, coverage on CBS Sunday Morning, and numerous magazine and newspaper articles written about Lynette, she is ensuring the preservation of not just one of the oldest West African art forms in our country, but also that the Gullah Geechee culture is not forgotten.  When asked about her efforts, Youson shared, “It is a way of transferring our culture from one generation to the next. It helps give meaning to our history and preserve our cultural identity. When we teach children about our past, we make a connection to our ancestors.” (US Army Corps, 2022)


Here are some ways you can learn more about Lynette Youson and the Gullah Geechee:

Websites

Visit Historic Charleston: Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival

The National Park Service: Where to Go: Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

Books

Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles (American Heritage) by Professor Tyler E. Bagwell (Foreword) – August 12, 2019

The Gullah: The History and Legacy of the African American Ethnic Group in the American Southeast by Charles River Editors (Author) – October 22, 2019

Works Referenced

“Gullah Culture: Then and Now.” | Discover South Carolina.

“Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (U.S. National Park Service).” | National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

“Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor — American Latino Heritage: A Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary.” | National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Hart, Robert. “Gullah Music: From Jack to Jazz.” | Edisto Island, 10 Mar. 2023.

Jeffries, Glen. “Rooted in Generations of Family, Lynette Youson Carries on a Treasured Tradition.” | DVIDS, 31 Aug. 2022.

Jordan, Mike. “What Is Gullah Geechee Food and How Do You Make It?” | National Geographic, 21 Aug. 2023.

Opala, Joseph A. Gullah Customs and Traditions | glc.yale.edu, 27 Apr. 2015.

“Rooted in Generations of Family, Lynette Youson Carries on a Treasured Tradition.” | US Army Corps of Engineers: Charleston District, 21 Sept. 2022.

Follow Harvard Professor Sunn m’Cheaux

Instructor of Gullah in Harvard University’s African Language Program

Sunn m’Cheaux official website

Sunn m’Cheaux (@sunnmcheaux) • Instagram photos and videos 

Sunn m’Cheaux (@sunnmcheaux) · X (Twitter)

Sunn m’Cheaux | The African Language Program at Harvard


Tracey is a blog contributor for Brownicity. Her background includes training and organizational development, employee relations, and corporate recruiting in Charlotte’s banking industry.  A wife and mother of two daughters, Tracey began her racial healing journey when she participated in What Lies Between Us in 2018.  She was moved to participate in the workshop as her concern grew about the number of police shootings where unarmed black men were killed.  Colin Kaepernick’s  kneeling during the singing of the national anthem solidified her desire to learn and do more about ending racism.