By Johnnie Stevens
Thousands gathered in Riceboro, Georgia, from November 3 to November 10 for the 12th annual RiceFest. The parade and festival celebrate the culture, heritage and resistance of the Gullah Geechee people, a distinct African-American community in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida that has preserved many African traditions and has its own language. It is spoken by about 125,000 people.
The Gullah Geechee community is based in small farming and fishing communities on the Sea Islands. The warm, semi-tropical climate of those islands made rice cultivation extremely profitable. In the 1700s, over 50,000 skilled rice workers were kidnapped from Senegambia and the areas now known as Sierra Leone and Liberia and enslaved on rice plantations there. Production soared, and some plantations vaulted in value from $50,000 to $700,000 by the time of the Civil War. Today, the Georgia rice industry is gone, but the wealth produced by rice workers lives on in old money fortunes from Georgia to Wall Street.
Rice production was organized on the task system, allowing enslaved workers to cultivate their own crops and hunt and fish after the day’s labor was done. The rice country was the scene of intense class struggle both under slavery and after its overthrow, including mass strikes by South Carolina rice workers in 1876.
RiceFest was founded 12 years ago by late Gullah Geechee activists and historians Jim and Pat Bacote to preserve and honor their people’s legacy. The couple also founded the Geechee Kunda Cultural Center. Mr. Bacote passed away in May of this year and they were honored at the festival.
The festival concluded with a parade of marching bands, antique cars, motorcycle clubs, truckers and cowboys on horseback that led to the RiceFest Homecoming. The festivities featured entertainer N Da Groove, R&B groups from Atlanta, standup comedian Barbara Carlyle, hip hop by DJ Giveaway and an African libation.
This year’s RiceFest took place amid the electoral challenge by Georgia Senate minority leader Stacey Abrams, the first Black woman to run for governor of the state. Her Republican opponent Brian Kemp had removed over 1.4 million voters, most of them Black, from the rolls during his tenure as Secretary of State.
Hundreds of thousands of Georgia residents were falsely recorded as having moved out of the state. On a single day in 2017, Kemp’s office removed more than 500,000 people (8 percent of the electorate) from the rolls. Removal of these voters occurred after he had announced his gubernatorial bid. Kemp also closed 214 polling stations, mostly in Black communities. This is on top of the “routine” methods of voter suppression, such as the denial of voting rights to people once incarcerated.
On November 6, Election Day, Georgia’s African-American community turned out en masse to vote, often waiting in line for hours, but tens of thousands of were turned away from the polls. Their numbers included elders who had grown up without the right to vote, which Black people in the South only won in the 1960s. Some were falsely accused of having requested absentee ballots and therefore could not vote in person. Abrams herself was almost stopped from voting with that excuse. Similar racist Old South practices characterized the nearby election in Florida, where Andrew Gillum was running for governor.
Despite the blatant rights violations, Georgia authorities declared Kemp the winner by 53,000 votes. Many people this writer spoke with compared what happened to the massive electoral fraud and racist terror that accompanied the overthrow of Reconstruction in the 1870s. Nearly 150 years later, the fight for the most basic democratic rights continues in the historic African-American homeland.