Collecting Gullah Folklore

Black and white watercolor image of Black woman in headscarf tending a fire

Genevieve Chandler

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 2, "Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South." Find more from that issue here.

Editor’s note: Genevieve W. Chandler was born in Marion, South Carolina on May 20, 1890. Since her family spent summers at Murrells Inlet in Georgetown County and then moved there permanently when she was 18, Genevieve acquired firsthand knowledge of the coastal country and its people. After several years of study at Flora McDonald College (now St. Andrews) in North Carolina, and art schools in New York and Liverpool, England, she returned to Murrells Inlet and taught in the local public schools. She married Thomas Mobley Chandler in 1922 and had five children before he died in 1936.  

Before her husband’s death, Mrs. Chandler had begun working as a collector for the Federal Writers Project out of her lifelong interest in local history and Gullah* folklore. With her husband gone, this work brought in needed money for the family. She continued collecting for the FWP until 1939, when she became curator of Brookgreen Gardens. Mrs. Chandler now lives in Murrells Inlet with her daughter, Genevieve Peterkin.  

In her brief tenure with the FWP, Mrs. Chandler collected a prodigious amount of material; the 30 items which make up the bulk of South Carolina Folk Tales, published in 1941 by the University of South Carolina Press, are but a small part of the collection of her material on file at the Library of Congress and the University of South Carolina. 

William A. Stewart, Professor of Linguistics at the City University of New York, met Mrs. Chandler in the course of a National Science Foundation study of the history of Gullah, and was impressed with the work of “this great folklorist’’:  

“While Mrs. Chandler received no formal training in folklore or field interviewing techniques, her work was exemplary. Of course, her impressive background knowledge (including near-native fluency in the Gullah dialect) had a lot to do with the quality of her collected material, but she also solved highly technical problems in sophisticated and insightful ways. For example, even knowing Gullah, how was a field-interviewer to get a verbatim or even nearv erbatim version of rapid, informal speech without recording equipment? Her solution was to invent a sort of ‘shorthand’ — actually a form of speed writing — which collapsed individual word spellings (since these have normal Gullah forms which she already knew), thus allowing her to focus on sentence structure, which was less predictable. And in the case of unusual word pronunciations, she was able to expand the speed writing at that point to include the unusual vowel or consonant.  

“In certain other ways, her lack of formal training actually helped: no one had filled her with guilt and self-doubts about putting down what she heard, and her view of folklore as something much broader than it is technically defined by academicians led her to include topics and types of oral material which, sadly, a more ‘scholarly’ interviewer would have ignored. / should also add that Mrs. Chandler knew most of her interviewees quite well, which accounts for their remarkable openness. ”   The following selection, and the one entitled “Calvin’s Funeral” on page 164, were collected by Genevieve Chandler in Murrells Inlet during 1937. We wish to thank Ann Banks, compiler of a soon-to-be-published anthology of WPA material, for her assistance in locating Mrs. Chandler’s field collection, and Professor Stewart for his background material and guidance.   



Verbatim conversation with Zackie Knox, age 28 

You know, the devil a busy man! ’Fore Reb [Reverend — Zackie has it shortened to ‘Reb’] ’fore Reb come over here, I didn’t know what church was! Evelena say they going to run Revival to Heaven Gate next week and say she going to Mourners Bench. I say I ain’t going — I going fishing myself — going in the Crick. My mind tell me, “Go on in the Crick get fish and let Evelena get ’nouf religion for me and her too.” 

Monday come. Monday evening I gone in the Crick. I got back home people just gone in the church. I could a gone in but I ain’t gone. 

Tuesday night come. Evie say, “Ain’t you going to church tonight?” 

I say, “If I get out the Crick in time! ” 

I gone on. I know I wasn’t intentionally to go. Gone dragging along. Come out the Crick good time. Know Evie not home to fry my fish. Don’t feel like frying myself. Give my fish to Miss Flolmes. Know if they get cook to my house I ’ll have to cook ’em. Think I best gone on to Heaven Gate. Devil been have me blindfold, I sit down way back. Reb begin to call mourners. He say, “Anybody want to jine this church or any of us church, come on! ” 

Evie gone Monday and Tuesday she just get started. She hadn’t come through. Took her Monday night and Tuesday night and all day Wednesday. Took me Tuesday night and Wednesday night and all day Wednesday. Took all two of us two days and two nights. I had chillun. I didn’t know nothing ’bout ’em. Had to haul some from church. Had to haul me home one night. Eat. You don’t study ’bout eat. Gone on home. Put me to bed. I wake up middle night. Gone over to that old house by Bethel Church where nobody don’t live. Gone in Aunt Jane old house. Prayed. Gone in that old empty Bethel church. Prayed. Kept penetrating from Aunt Jane house to Bethel church all night. Prayed. 

You feel like you got nobody in the world but you — you one. Things don’t look changeable to you till you get over — come through. Some goes out in the middle night in the woods seeking. 

Trees, leaves and all look different. Look like you been shut up in a box all you life and never seen things before! 

(Isaac next one. He gone to seeking. Look like ’fore he die he lost it all.) 

I gone right back to Bethel ’fore daylight and come to find out Isaac been all night praying in the back of the church! Whole bunch of us been seeking at the same time. Me and Lija and David and H.E. and Jinks and Isaac and Evie. They just had a regular young army. After that Reb holler, “Come on, Christians.” 

I got up from Mourners Bench singing. 

“In me! In me! 

“It is Christ the Lord in me! 

“In me! In me! 

“It is Christ the Lord in me!” 

I got up with that song shouting. And Miss Sue sister child come through singing that. Most all come through singing. 

Some’ll fall out to the church like they dead. And maybe way middle night they’ll wake up and whole crowd settin’ round their bed. 

Yes. The world a new world when I come through! All the tree leaves. [ It was the fall of the year.] All the leaves look bright and new. Feel jest like you been shut up in a dark box a year and just turn out! 

Jinks and H.E. nuster be together all the time. They carry Jinks home stiff one night and the next night he come back in the church door singing, “Soon, ah soon.” 

Some seekers have vision. I had one. After I did go to sleep — well I wasn’t zactly sleep neither — He [the Lord] took me down to a road — seems like a long row of oaks — what He look like? You’ve seen His picture! Light was coming off from Him everywhere. They was that thing on His head — you know how it is — and light jest rayed off from that. Well He took me down this road and seemed like they was a big saw-mill biler [boiler 1 bury with the top sticking out the ground — had on it a heavy, thick led [lid], thick as that zinc tub there — and the led had the smoke and sut [soot] and all was biling out all round the edge — and I stood and looked at it and seemed like after a while a little black and red boy come out — run out that biler and he bade his hand to me and told me to come there! Then he run and sit right in that black smoke biling outer that biler. I stood way off and looked at him then I turned and walked off. 

I seen one more thing. I seen a train. A black and greasy train. Come along down the road taking its time, 



Slac k-a-tack-a! 


And it seem like Julie boy Williams hanging out the window and he call, 

“Come here Zackie! 

“Come here Zackie!” 

And seem like I answer, “No, man!” 

And I gone on. After while seem like I wake up. 


The next year they got Henry down to the Mourners Bench. They carried Henry home stiff one night. His wife tried to turn him Baptist. All the time trying to get round the Methodist. They think they going to Heaven ’thout praying, but that’s a mistake. 

Reb done some wonderful work since he been here. Sent a lot of convert to Salem, St. Peter, Mt. Nebo, Gordon — besides all he took in the Methodist to Brookgreen and Heaven Gate.  



Verbatim conversation with Lillie Knox, age 35 

I know that for a fact. Grandma was near bout crazy. She jess didn’t care bout stayin home. Come us house. Weren’t satisfy. Jess got uh wonderin mind. Not satisfy no place. 

One day man come by, by th’ name Obie Hines. He look like uh witch — funny shape ted [shaped]. Any how, ole man Obie Hines come by. Grandma wuzn’t zactly sick, but she weren’t satisfy. Obie don’t know what ail her. She sick en she ain’t sick. Sometimes she get in the road en put both hand on huh head en holler. She say, 

“Feel ef I could clear mah nostril, would be all right. Feel addled. Got mah sense but I worry. Try to sneeze. Can’t sneeze. Can’t breeve tru mah nostril.” 

He went and nobody ain know whey he gone. En ’e come back that evenin and Grandma say, 

“Ef sumpin [something] ain done fuh me, I’ll not last uh week lak this.” 

En ole man Obie ax fuh uh hanker cher [handkerchief]. Gib duh ole man duh handkercher. 

En he shake it en say, 

“Kit! Blow yuh nostril!” 

“Can’t, man!” 

“When I tell you to blow, ain’t you feel sumpin run in yuh head?” 


“Blow, Kit, blow!” 

En she blow! 

En if she wuz here live ter-day, she’d tell you. She blow en blow out uh lizard out her nose — small, slick black lizard! She kept it en show it tuh us young’uns. Grandma didn’t blive in nuthin lak goophering ner conjuring ner nuthin. 



told to Genevieve W. Chandler by Lillie Knox of Murrells Inlets, S.C., 1938

Weren’t no use havin’ things like they done. They knowed that was hard day. Ought to set Calvin hour for twelve. Havin’ the funeral preached at three! It’ll be nine tonight ’fore they get that boy covered.

[The graves — mounds of brown oak leaves — were marked with articles loved or used by the departed. One had a clock on it; one, a bottle of medicine and the spoon last used.]

Diggin Calvin grave cross the world. He have to lie north and south. Make the grave north and south when a man drownded. He had a struggle! Never put them east and west. Anybody can come here and see that grave and know that person was drownded

Was to put Calvin to Laurel Hill Cemetery but the new kennel (canal) cut the graveyard off. Old Aunt Margaret wanted Calvin put to the church, but nobody been put to the church yet; they haven’t started off the new graveyard. To start off a new buryin’ ground, you got to dig a grave and bury a log — just like it was something. The old slavery time people say this must be done; if you don’t do it this way, the first one buried lie callin’ for some one to come keep ’em company, and call so till they soon have the cemetery fulled up. Old Miss Blanton said she knew a man over in Horry, and he said he wasn’t feared to be the first. So when he died, they was a church to the foot of the hill he lived on, and they never hadn’t started a cemetery, so they put him away there — the first one. In less’n a year, he had called six members of his family.

They warn’t no use in makin’ Calvin funeral so sad. If I’d a-preached it, I would not a-made it that-a-way.

Satan try to steal my crown!

Satan try to steal my crown!

Oh, the sheep on the right,

And the goats on the left,

We ’ll never run to-gether anymore!