Making Gullah

A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination

By Melissa L. Cooper

304 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 13 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3268-1
    Published: April 2017
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3267-4
    Published: April 2017
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-3269-8
    Published: March 2017
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4884-0
    Published: March 2017

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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During the 1920s and 1930s, anthropologists and folklorists became obsessed with uncovering connections between African Americans and their African roots. At the same time, popular print media and artistic productions tapped the new appeal of black folk life, highlighting African-styled voodoo as an essential element of black folk culture. A number of researchers converged on one site in particular, Sapelo Island, Georgia, to seek support for their theories about “African survivals,” bringing with them a curious mix of both influences. The legacy of that body of research is the area’s contemporary identification as a Gullah community.

This wide-ranging history upends a long tradition of scrutinizing the Low Country blacks of Sapelo Island by refocusing the observational lens on those who studied them. Cooper uses a wide variety of sources to unmask the connections between the rise of the social sciences, the voodoo craze during the interwar years, the black studies movement, and black land loss and land struggles in coastal black communities in the Low Country. What emerges is a fascinating examination of Gullah people's heritage, and how it was reimagined and transformed to serve vastly divergent ends over the decades.

About the Author

Melissa L. Cooper is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark.
For more information about Melissa L. Cooper, visit the Author Page.


“[An] incisive history. . . . Highlight[s] the land battles, bigotry, and poverty that beset the Gullah.’"--New Yorker

“A unique contribution to the multitude of previous studies focusing on Gullah culture, skillfully highlighting the heritage of the Gullah people and unveiling the history of the prolific studies of African America's African connection through the lens of Sapelo Island, GA. Highly recommended”—Choice

“Powerful for anyone charged with addressing cultural heritage preservation and land-rights issues because it demands readers rethink the construction and use of history within communities they are charged with serving.”—Journal of American History

“Cooper has written a book that honors these survivors and leaves the reader pulling for them to thrive.”—Oral History Review

“The book’s chief strength is its perspicacious synthesis spotlighting white and black cultural representation, a scholarly and popular culture, journalism and fiction.”—Journal of Southern History

“A classic academic monograph in the best tradition.”—Journal of Southern History

Multimedia & Links

Listen: Cooper separates fact from fiction about Gullah people on this episode of Georgia Public Broadcasting's "Two Way Street." (2/1/2018, running time 51:00)

Listen: Cooper talks to James Stancil for the New Books Network podcast. (5/19/2017, running time 53:43)