Joseph Opala on the Black Seminoles

Joseph Opala on the Black Seminoles
Monday, November 18, 2019

Thomas Thurston talks with Joseph Opala on his work with the Black Seminoles


Joseph Opala is an American historian noted for establishing the “Gullah Connection,” the historical links between the indigenous people of the West African nation of Sierra Leone and the Gullah people of the Low Country region of South Carolina and Georgia in the United States.

Opala’s historical research began with a study of Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone that was a departure point for many African slaves shipped to South Carolina and Georgia in the mid- and late 18th century Middle Passage. He was the first scholar to recognize that Bunce Island has greater importance for the Gullah than any other West African slave castle. He ranks it as “the most important historic site in Africa for the United States.”

Opala has traveled between Sierra Leone and the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country for 25 years, producing documentary films, museum exhibits, and popular publications on this historical connection. He is best known for a series of “Gullah Homecomings” in which Gullah people traveled to Sierra Leone to explore their historical and family ties to that country. He has drawn on his original research to establish these connections, and the work of earlier scholars, especially Lorenzo Dow Turner, an African-American linguist who in the 1930s and 1940s traced many elements of Gullah speech to West African languages.

Opala’s research and public history events generated a national dialog in Sierra Leone on the subject of family lost in the Atlantic slave trade. These discussions have continued for almost three decades. The Sierra Leone media first coined the phrase, “Gullah Connection,” for the family ties which Opala has brought to light. He helped generate a similar dialog in the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country, where he has given public lectures and interviews to the local media, and organized workshops for teachers and cultural activists for many years. His work has helped Gullahs recognize their links to African traditions. More about Joseph Opala here: