Sierra Leonean Americans

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Sierra Leonean American
Total population
(21,737 (ancestries and ethnic origin; 2014 American Community Survey)[1]
35,213 (Sierra Leonean-born, 2013) [2])
Regions with significant populations
Muslims, minority Catholics, Gullah
Related ethnic groups

Sierra Leonean Americans are Americans who are descended from Sierra Leoneans. The population of Sierra Leonean Americans is relatively large and consists, according to surveys of 2013, of 21,538 people. However, many African Americans are descended also from Sierra Leonean slaves who were exported to the United States since the 18th until the early 19th century, so the number of people with that heritage should be much higher. So, the number of slaves from present Sierra Leone exported to present United States exceeded the 25.000 people.[citation needed] A peculiar group of people of partially Sierra Leonean descent in United States is that of the Gullah, who, descendants of slaves, fled their owners at the end of the 18th and early 19th century and they established in parts of South Carolina, Georgia, and the Sea Islands, areas in which, even today, they retain their cultures. Moreover, according to the American Community Survey there are 34,161 Sierra Leoneans immigrants living in United States.[2]



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The first people from present Sierra Leone who emigrated to the United States were slaves exported to this country between the 17th and 19th centuries. The first slaves from Sierra Leone arrived to the United States are some of the Gullah ancestries, or (in Georgia) Geechee, speakers, which were sent from Barbados or directly from Africa to work in the rice along the southeast coast of the United States beginning in the 18th century.[3] The Sierra leonean slaves belonged to peoples such as the Mendes, Temnes, Vai, Loko, Fula, Sherbro and Limba people[4] and many them were Muslims (as is the case of the Fulbes). It is estimated that approximately 24 percent of slaves brought into the area came from Sierra Leone, prized by buyers in Charleston specifically for their skills as rice farmers.[3] Most of the slaves of Sierra Leone were imported to south, mainly to South Carolina (where arrived the 70% of those slaves, more of 18.300 slaves from Sierra Leone, settling in places as the Saint Helena Island) and Georgia (where arrived the 15% them, more of 3.900 slaves from this region, becoming in the most of the slaves of the colony), followed, over long distances, mainly by Virginia, Maryland and Florida (those places had in total more of 11% on total of slaves from Sierra Leone in the present U.S., having between 900 and 1,000 of those slaves depending on the American state).[citation needed] So, Professor Opala has found letters establishing the facts of this regular commerce between South Carolina plantation owner Henry Laurens and Richard Oswald, his English slave agent resident on Bunce Island in the Sierra Leone River. Moreover, between 1776 and 1785, during the American Revolution, many Gullah of Sierra Leoneans origin fled from the United States and emigrated to Nova Scotia, Canada, after of the abolition of slavery in this country.[3] Subsequently, in 1787 the British helped 400 freed slaves from the United States, Nova Scotia (many of them were Gullah), and Great Britain to return to Sierra Leone, founded the colony Freetown in 1792.[5][6]

Between 1787 and 1804, it was illegal to bring new slaves into the United States. However, a second infusion of 23,773 Africans came into South Carolina between 1804 and 1807, as new cotton plantations on the Sea Islands began to expand their need for labor, and landowners petitioned the South Carolina legislature to reopen the trade. Africans from Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa continued to be kidnapped or purchased by renegade slavers long after the importation of African was made permanently illegal in the United States in 1808. The coastlines of South Carolina and Georgia, with their numerous rivers, islands, and swamps, provided secret landing sites for the underground sale of slaves. More late, in 1841, illegally captured slaves,[3] being in his most Mende people,[7] and in lesser extent Temne people and members of other tribes, managed to take control of their slave ship, La Amistad, bound for La Havana. The Amistad eventually reached American waters and those slaves were able to secure their freedom after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Most of those slaves returned to Africa. Only some of them remained in the United States, acquiring the American citizenship. Slavery was finally abolished after of 1865, after the American Civil War.[3]

Recent immigration

During the 1970s, a new group of Sierra Leoneans began to enter the United States. To most them were granted student visas to study in American universities. Some of these students chose to remain in the United States by obtaining legal residence status or marrying American citizens. Many of these Sierra Leoneans are highly educated and entered the fields of law, medicine, and accountancy.[3] Sierra Leonean Students continued to migrate to the United States during the 1980s and 1990s decades. Many of them sent money to his families permanently in Sierra Leone and encouraged them to emigrate.[8]

In the 1980s, an increasing number of Sierra Leoneans entered the United States to escape the economic and political hardships in their homeland. While many continued to pursue their education, they also worked to help support family members at home. While some returned to Sierra Leone at the end of their studies, others sought resident status so that they could continue to work in the United States. By 1990, 4,627 American citizens and residents reported their first ancestry as Sierra Leonean. When civil war swept through Sierra Leone during the 1990s, a new wave of immigrants came to the United States. Many of these immigrants gained access through visitor or student visas. This trend continued between 1990 and 1996. So, more of 7,159 Sierra Leoneans legally entered the United States. After 1996, some refugees from Sierra Leone were able to enter the United States with immediate legal residence status, as beneficiaries of the immigration lotteries. Others received the newly established Priority 3 designation for refugees with close family links in the United States. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that for 1999, the annual number of Sierra Leoneans resettled may reach 2,500.[3] The recent refugees tend to have lower education than earlier migrants, who have high levels of education and have entered a variety of professional fields, including medicine, accounting, nursing, and engineering.[8]


Currently, the 80% of the African American that descend of slaves have some ancestries that came of Bunce Island, in Sierra Leonean. The largest concentration of Sierra Leonean immigrants lives in the Baltimore- Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Other enclaves exist with sizable population Sierra Leonean immigrants are suburbs of Alexandria, Fairfax, Arlington, Falls Church, and Woodbridge in Virginia, and in Landover, Lanham, Cheverly, Silver Spring, and Bethesda in Maryland. There are also Sierra Leonean communities in the Boston and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, and in New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, Oregon and Ohio. Recent immigrants from Sierra Leone, while scattered over a variety of states, tend to congregate in small communities for mutual support. Most Sierra Leoneans are Muslims and practitioners of native cultures, but there are also some Catholics. Many socialize or celebrate customs that bring them together regularly. The re-emergence in some cases of family and tribal support networks has made the transition to a new country easier than it might have been. The effects of the racism experienced by African Americans and other immigrants to the United States have been minimized because many Sierra Leonean Americans are highly educated and use English as a first or second language. Although it is not uncommon for newer arrivals to work two or three jobs to support themselves and their families in Sierra Leone, others have been able to attain respect and professional status in a variety of well-paid careers. Sierra Leonean Americans have also benefited greatly from the friendship and support of many former Peace Corps volunteers who served in Sierra Leone beginning in the 1960s. Among poorer men and immigrants to the United States, courtship frequently begins with friendship. Cohabitation is permitted, but any children who are born into this relationship belong to the woman's family if a mboya has not been paid. In the United States, especially among Christians, a Western-style wedding may be performed. In the United States, Sierra Leoneans commonly marry and make friends outside of their own clan. Friendships are usually formed with other African immigrants, as well as former Peace Corps volunteers who once served in Sierra Leone.[3]

Gullah and Geechee people

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The Gullah, or (in Georgia) Geechee, speakers, are descendants of slaves imported from Barbados or directly from Africa to work rice plantations along the southeast coast of the United States beginning in the 18th century and that still live in Sea Islands and the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia. Most of the early ancestors of the Gullah were exported from Sierra Leone through Brazil. It is estimated that approximately 24 percent of slaves brought into the southeast coast came from Sierra Leone, already that they were prized by buyers in Charleston, South Carolina, specifically for their skills as rice farmers. Indeed, most of the slaves that were imported to southeast coast of the United States came from the West African´s rice-growing region, established mainly in Sierra Leone, through the Bunce Island. Professor Opala has found letters establishing the facts of this regular commerce between the owner of South Carolina plantation Henry Lawrence and Richard Oswald, his English slave agent resident on Bunce Island, in the Sierra Leone River.

So, although the ancestors of the Gullah come from many places on the coast of West Africa, many of the elements that are part of their material culture, food (rice) and crops (indigo) are the same as those held by Sierra Leoneans. Thus, the Gullah have the same types and capacities of textiles, fishing, foodways, folktales, vernacular architecture, music, basket making, net making, language, belief systems, pottery and woodcarving that the Sierra Leoneans.[4] So, Dr. Hair, a British historian, said the "startling" fact that all texts in African Gullah dialect are written in languages spoken in Sierra Leone. Most African texts gathered by historian Turner, belong to the Mende language. But Dr. Cabello also said that an "unusually large proportion" of the four thousand African names and personal loans in the Gullah language come from Sierra Leone. He estimated that twenty-five percent of African names and twenty percent of African vocabulary words came from the Sierra Leonean languages, principally Mende and Vai[9](a of the Gullah words of origin not Sierra leonean is the same term "Gullah", that may derive from Angola[10]).

As we mentioned, large numbers of Gullah-speaking American citizens continue to live in the Sea Islands and the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia. Some islands with significant populations are Hilton Head, St. Helena, and Wadmalaw. In the decades before the American Civil War, many Gullah/Geechee-speaking slaves attempted to escape from their South Carolina and Georgia plantations. Of these, many went south, taking refuge with the Creek Indians in Florida. Along with the Creeks and other embattled tribes, they created the society of the Seminoles and retreated deeper into the Florida swamps. Following the Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842, many Sierra Leoneans joined their Native American allies on the "Trail of Tears" to Wewoka in Oklahoma territory. Others followed Wild Cat, the son of Seminole chief King Phillip, to a Seminole colony in Mexico across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas. Still others remained in Florida and assimilated into Seminole culture. The Gullah/Geechee tradition of making fanner, which are flat, tightly woven, circular sweet-grass baskets, is one of the most visible links between that culture and West African culture. These baskets have been sold in city markets and on the streets of Charleston since the 17th century. In Sierra Leone, these baskets are still used to winnow rice. Another holdover from West African tradition is the belief that recently deceased relatives may have the power to intercede in the spirit world and punish wrongs. The Gullah believe that it is very important to be buried close to family and friends, usually in dense woods. Some families still practice the old tradition of placing articles on the grave that the dead person might need in the afterlife, such as spoons and dishes. Among the Gullah people, there has been a long association with various Native American peoples. Over time, the Gullah intermarried with descendants of the Yamasee, the Apalachicola, the Yuchi, and the Creeks. The Gullah are devout Christians, and churches such as the Hebrew United Presbyterian and the Baptist or African Methodist Episcopal form the center of community life. One specifically African belief, however, is retained in a tripartite human being consisting of a body, a soul and a spirit. When the body dies, the soul may go on to heaven while the spirit remains to influence the living. The Gullah also believe in voodoo or hoodoo. Good or evil spirits may be summoned in rituals to offer predictions, kill enemies, or perform cures. Since the Civil War, Gullah/Geechee communities in the southern United States have traditionally relied on their own farming and fishing activities in order to earn a living. They sell produce in Charleston and Savannah, and some take seasonal jobs on the mainland as commercial fishermen, loggers, or dock workers. During the 1990s, life on the Sea Islands began to change as developers started to build tourist resorts. A dramatic rise in land values on some islands, while increasing the worth of Gullah holdings, led to increased taxes and many Gullah were forced to sell their land.[citation needed] Increasingly, Gullah students have become a minority in local schools and discover that, upon graduation, the only jobs available to them are as service workers at the resorts.[3]


Because of its long colonial association with Britain, Sierra Leone's official language is English, and most Sierra Leonean Americans speak it as a first or second language. Fifteen other tribal languages and numerous dialects are also spoken. These languages fall into two separate groups. The first is the Mande languages group, which resembles Mandinka in structure, and includes Mende, Susu, Yalunka, Koranko, Kono, and Vai. The second group is the Semi-Bantu languages, which includes Temne, Limba, Bullom (or Sherbro), and Krim. The melodic Krio language is also widely spoken by Sierra Leonean Americans. Krio was created in Freetown from a blend of various European and tribal languages. With the exception of the passive voice, Krio utilizes a full complement of verb tenses. The grammar and pronunciation of Krio is similar to many African languages.

The language spoken by the Gullah/Geechee people of coastal South Carolina and Georgia is very similar to Krio. The Gullah language retains a great deal West African syntax and combines English vocabulary with words from African languages such as Ewe, Mandinka, Igbo, Twi, Yoruba, and Mende. Much of the grammar and pronunciation of the Gullah languages has been modified to fit African patterns.

Some of the more popular Gullah expressions include: beat on ayun, mechanic—literally, "beat on iron"; troot ma-wt, a truthful person—literally, "truth mouth"; sho ded, cemetery—literally, "sure dead"; tebl tappa, preacher—literally, "table tapper"; Ty ooonuh ma-wt, Hush, stop talking—literally, "tie your mouth"; krak teet, to speak—literally, "crack teeth" and I han shaht pay-shun, He steals—literally, "His hand is short of patience."

Popular Krio expressions include: nar way e lib-well, because things are easy with him; pikin, an infant (from picanninny, anglicized from the Spanish); pequeno nino, little child; plabba, or palaver, trouble or the discussion of trouble (from the French word "palabre,"); and Long rod no kil nobodi, A long road kills no one.[3]


Traditional food

Rice is still a staple both in Sierra Leone and among immigrants to the United States. Another common staple is cassava prepared with palm oil in stews and sauces. This is often combined with rice, chicken, and/or okra and may be eaten at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Among the Gullah of the Sea Islands, rice also forms the basis of all three meals. It is combined with different meats, gumbos, greens, and sauces, many still prepared and eaten according to the old traditions, although, unlike in Sierra Leone, pork or bacon is a frequent addition. A popular Gullah recipe is Frogmore Stew, which contains smoked beef sausage, corn, crabs, shrimp, and seasonings. Sierra Leoneans also enjoy Prawn Palava, a recipe that contains onions, tomatoes, peanuts, thyme, chili peppers, spinach, and prawns. It is usually served with boiled yams and rice.[3]


With its colorful mixture of African and Western cultures, Sierra Leonean music is extremely creative and varied and forms an essential part of daily life both in Freetown and the interior. The instruments are dominated by a great variety of drums. Drumming groups may also include a lively mix of castanets, beaten bells, and even wind instruments. Sierra Leoneans from northern parts of the country, the Korankos, add a type of xylophone, the balangi. Another popular instrument is the seigureh, which consists of stones in a rope-bound calabash. The seigureh is used to provide background rhythm. Longer musical pieces are guided by a master drummer and contain embedded signals within the overall rhythm that indicate major changes in tempo. Some pieces may add the continuous blowing of a whistle as a counterpoint. In Freetown, traditional tribal music has given way to various calypso styles that incorporate Western instruments such as the saxophone. In the United States, many Sierra Leonean music and dance traditions are kept alive by the Ko-thi Dance Company of Madison, Wisconsin. Groups like the Beaufort, South Carolina, Hallelujah Singers perform and record traditional Gullah music.[3]

Dances and song

One hallmark of Sierra Leonean culture is the incorporation of dance into all parts of life. A bride may dance on her way to the home of her new husband. A family may dance at the grave of one who has been dead three days. According to Roy Lewis in Sierra Leone: A Modern Portrait, "The dance is ... the principal medium of folk art; it is the one which European influences are least likely to affect. There are dances for every occasion, for every age and both sexes." Because rice serves as one of the foundations of Sierra Leone's economy, many dances incorporate the movements used to farm and harvest this crop. Other dances celebrate the actions of warriors and may involve dancing with swords and catching them out of the air. Buyan is the "dance of happiness," a delicate interchange between two teenage girls dressed entirely in white and wearing red kerchiefs. The fetenke is danced by two young boys, moving heel to toe and waving black scarves. At times, whole communities may come together to dance in celebration of the Muslim festival of Eidul-Fitri or the culmination of Poro or Sande secret society initiations. These dances are usually led by master drummers and dancers. For Sierra Leonean Americans, dancing continues to be a defining part of many gatherings and a joyful part of daily life.[3]

Family and community dynamics

Family and clan relationships are extremely important to Sierra Leoneans living in the United States. According to Roy Lewis, "What belongs to one, belongs to all, and a man has no right to refuse to take in a relative or share his meal or his money with a relative. This is the African social tradition." In traditional villages, the basic social unit was the mawei, or (in Mende) mavei. The mawei included a man, his wife or wives, and their children. For wealthier men, it might also include junior brothers and their wives and unmarried sisters. Wives were lodged, whenever possible, in several houses or pe wa. If wives lived together in a house, the senior wife supervised the junior wives. Since polygamy is illegal in the United States, these marriage customs have created a serious problem in some immigrant households. In a few cases, the polygamous relationships have been continued secretly or on an informal basis.

Generally, a Sierra Leonean man has a special relationship to his mother's brother, or kenya. The kenya is expected to help him, especially in making his marriage payment. In many cases, the man marries the kenya's daughter. The father's brothers are respected as "little fathers." His daughters are regarded as a man's sisters. Sisters of both parents are considered "little mothers," and it is not uncommon for a child to be raised by nearby relatives rather than by his own parents. To varying degrees, Sierra Leoneans in the United States have maintained connections to clans, and several support groups based on ethnic or chieftaincy affiliations have formed, such as the Foulah Progressive Union and the Krio Heritage Society.

Within the Gullah/Geechee community, spouses brought into the community from the outside world are often not trusted or accepted for many years. Disputes within the community are largely resolved in the churches and "praise houses." Deacons and ministers often intervene and try to resolve the conflict without punishing either party. Taking cases to courts outside the community is frowned upon. After marriage, a couple generally builds a house in or nearby the "yard" of the husband's parents. A yard is a large area that may grow into a true clan site if several sons bring spouses, and even grandchildren may grow up and return to the group. When the dwellings consist of mobile homes, they are often placed in kinship clusters.[3]


Education is highly valued within the Sierra Leonean immigrant community. Many immigrants enter the United States with student visas or after earning degrees from British universities or from Fourah Bay College in Freetown. Recent immigrants attend school as soon as economic stability of the family is achieved. Many Sierra Leonean immigrant children also receive education in their cultural traditions through initiation into the cross-tribal Poro (for boys) and Sande (for girls) secret societies.

Some members of the Gullah/Geechee peoples have earned college degrees at mainland universities. As the Sea Islands have become increasingly developed, mainstream white culture has had a tremendous impact on the Gullah educational system. However, Gullah language and traditions are still energetically preserved and promoted by organizations such as the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition and by the Penn Center at Penn School on St. Helena Island. In large metropolitan areas, where the majority of immigrants from Sierra Leone have settled, many Sierra Leoneans have earned college degrees and entered a variety of professions. New immigrants often come to the United States with a strong desire to succeed. Sierra Leoneans commonly take entry-level jobs as taxi drivers, cooks, nursing assistants and other service workers. Many go on to higher education or start their own businesses, although the responsibility to support family members at home can slow their progress toward these goals.[3]

Politics and government

Few Sierra Leonean immigrants have served in the U.S. military, although Gullah/Geechee men did participate in military service during the Vietnam War. Sierra Leonean immigrants remain very interested in the political turmoil that has devastated their homeland. Many Sierra Leonean Americans continue to send financial support to their relatives back home. Numerous organizations have been formed to try to assist Sierra Leoneans. Sierra Leonean Americans have also created several Internet sites to disseminate news about the latest events within their home country. The largest site is the Sierra Leone Web, founded in February 1996. Since a 1989 visit by then-President Joseph Saidu Momoh to the Sea Islands, there has been a marked increase in interest among the Gullah in their Sierra Leonean roots. Before the outbreak of the civil war, Sierra Leonean Americans returned often to their homeland and were welcomed as long-lost relatives.[3]


Although Sierra Leoneans in United States belong to a variety of ethnic and religious groups have been created organizations to help Sierra Leonean community entire. So, the Chicagoland Association of Sierra Leoneans, formed in 1996, is a nonprofit organization to unite Sierra Leoneans in a community, socialize newcomers, and help to Sierra Leoneans living in Chicago and abroad. Also in 1975 it created one organization named Tegloma ("let's progress" in Mende) in Washington DC, the largest nonprofit, nonpolitical Sierra Leonean organization in the world, and it help Sierra Leoneans in te world and promoting Mende culture, the culture of the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone.[8]

See also


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  4. 4.0 4.1 Transatlantic linkage: The Gullah/Geechee-Sierra Leone Connection. Retrieved December 29, 2011, to 20:51 pm.
  5. U.S. Departament of State: Relations of United States With Sierra Leone
  6. Creoles of Sierra Leone.
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  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Encyclopedia ofChicago: Sierra Leoneans in Chicago. Posted by Tracy Steffes. Retrieved September 4, 2012, to 00:03 pm.
  9. The Gullah Language. Posted by Joseph Opala
  10. "Geechee and Gullah Culture", The New Georgia Encyclopedia

External links