Sister Patt: Gullah Geechee Storyteller & Activist
Patt Gunn– or Sister Patt as she’ll introduce herself– is an acclaimed Gullah Geechee storyteller. She’s an activist, a small business owner and a descendant of Africans enslaved in Georgia.
Born in Savannah during segregation, Gunn can trace her lineage to her great-grandmother born enslaved on a plantation in McIntosh county and, even further, to the ship that brought her ancestors across the sea, stolen from their homelands in Africa.
In 2017, Gunn founded her own company to share her Gullah Geechee culture and ancestry. With the philosophy that healing can only happen when truth is told, she strives to shine a light on the hushed history of slavery in her city of Savannah.
The Unique Gullah Geechee Culture
The Gullah Geechee people are direct descendants of the enslaved Africans that dwelled on the coast of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and the northern tip of Florida. Gunn said the culture is marked by a deep awareness of ancestral linkage and spirituality. In her community, Gunn described her relatives as speaking with a “wonderful rhythm” that essentially amounts to another language.
“I think of myself as being bilingual,” Gunn said. “I speak the Queen’s English perfectly when I need to, but as Gullah Geechee, I know how to relax my tongue and speak the [Gullah-Geechee] language, and I enjoy it.”
However, there was a period of time when Gunn said she didn’t want to associate with her culture. She moved away from Savannah for 25 years, working in the corporate world of social justice and death sentence reform.
“When I left [Savannah], I did not feel proud to be Gullah Geechee because it was always looked at as something negative,” Gunn said. “When I returned, I realized that lots of people here are Gullah Geechee because of the direct connection to African ancestors. It’s something to be proud of.”
Looking Back To Move Forward
Gunn’s company, Underground Tours, walks visitors through the city. Shows them where her ancestors lived and died and worked. Sings sacred songs of mourning and of pain.
“It’s all going to be in Gullah Geechee dialect. That’s who we are,” Gunn said. “And it’s impromptu. We may sing “Steal Away” on one tour and the next tour we may be singing “Wade in the Water,” but it’s like a homage tour. You get a chance to know that you are walking with Gullah Geechee descendants, you really do.”
Gunn believes that learning about the past of slavery is essential for the nation to move forward.
“I don’t know about other cities but in Savannah, people don’t talk about slavery,” Gunn said. “People start at ‘Isn’t this a beautiful city? It’s romantic,’ but don’t talk about the fact that these slaves were here for 116 years– they built this beautiful city. And there are no markers downtown to say they existed.”
When Gunn began her company, she envisioned it being just a source of information. It didn’t take long for her to realize that it would also become a catalyst for activism. The more Gunn learned about the past of slavery in Savanah, the more that she realized needed to change.
Her current project involves a town square in the city called Calhoun Square, named after American Vice President Johnson Calhoun. In November 2020, Gunn discovered that the square is a burying ground of hundreds of enslaved bodies with no marker. Gunn and her team are requesting that the city rename the square Jubilee Square to honor the enslaved Africans that were laid to rest there.
“So we’re asking the city to rename that square in homage to those enslaved Africans that were buried there,” Gunn said. “And we are requesting that it be renamed Jubilee Square.”
The effort has received a positive response from the city and is on its way through various approval processes. Every month, she goes to the square and educates people– talking to folks about the history of the area and getting petitions signed.
“I want the young generation to know that, yes, black lives matter,” Gunn said. “But I want them to know as they walk through here that black lives mattered then too. And black lives matter now.”
In the past year, since the onset of COVID-19 and the tragic death of George Floyd, Gunn said she has been busier than ever.
“Get to the Water”
Before we said goodbye, Gunn wanted to share a final piece of advice for this tumultuous time:
“I think during this pandemic everybody’s full of anxieties and depression and oppression,” Gunn said. “The Gullah Geechee elders on the coast of Georgia would say that if you’re feeling overwhelmed at all about this season that we’re in, as soon as you can, get to water. Get to an ocean, get to a lake, a swimming pool, or a bathtub with candles. But take a break as soon as possible if you’re feeling overwhelmed, and get to water because water calms your soul.”
Photos courtesy of Patt Gunn, top photo by Vicki Hardy Photography.
Interested in a culture-rich trip to the South?
Check out this itinerary: Charleston, Savannah and the Golden Isles