If you have traveled across the South, you may recognize this eponymous color that can be found in every corner of the region. Everything from sky blue to mint green to turquoise has been labeled haint blue. But, how can all these colors be the same thing?
Oftentimes surrounding entryways like doors and windows, the color is found most often on the porch ceilings of hundreds of buildings in cities like Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans. Over time, it became so prolific that it can now be seen in mansions as well as modest rural farmhouses. And while its popularity is seemingly endless, few know the history that entangles this color or how it got its name.
Indigo and The Slave Trade
As early as 1739, indigo crops were being planted in the British colony of South Carolina to supply the European markets- where pigments created from indigo were precious in the days before synthetic dye was invented. Within 30 years, indigo was a common crop for plantations in the South which were producing approximately 1 million pounds of indigo dye per year to be exported to England where it was used to create fine fabrics for clothes and furniture for the wealthy aristocracy.
But the cultivation of these crops was labor-intensive and tedious, and the processing of it required skill. The market needed cheap labor and the British turned to Africa, where indigo had been cultivated as far as five centuries back. The color blue played an important role in many of the traditions and customs of the people of certain parts of Africa where- blue items would be gathered to make ‘lucky’ amulets and blue clothes were worn for protection. Their knowledge of indigo was passed down over the generations and when plantation owners realized this, approximately 70,000 Africans were taken from Western and Central Africa to America to cultivate indigo. Tribes from this region were gathered and sold to enslavers who filled their fields with people who had no choice. The knowledge they brought along with them made them invaluable to the indigo cultivation process. The inexpensive labor they provided created more than $30 million worth of indigo products per year that they saw no benefit from.
Who Were The Gullah-Geechee?
The group of people who became enslaved here, taken from Africa to America via the West Indies, became known as the Gullah-Geechee People. Taken from their homelands and forced to work in a foreign place in terrible conditions, the enslaved people of the coastal Southeast were able to carry on elements of their native culture, despite unimaginable hardships. As their ancestors had believed, blue was a powerful color and worked to ward away bad spirits or ‘Haints’ (haunts). According to the tradition, the color blue was thought to trick haints into believing that they’d come upon water or sky. Unable to cross water, these malevolent spirits could presumably be deterred by the color blue from entering one’s home.
How Haint Blue Came To Be
To keep up with the traditions of their ancestors in a place where they were not able to own anything like amulets or clothing, the Gullah-Geechee found another way to honor their customs. From the 1730s until the 1770s, indigo crops were common at plantations in the South and easily accessible for enslaved people to obtain. Mixed with dirt, milk paint, and lime, the indigo pigment would turn a shade of blue-green that replicated the water or sky. Enslaved people would smear the paint on the entryways of their homes to protect them from evil spirits. Thus, the color Haint Blue (or the spectrum of blue-gree it encompasses) came to be.
And without knowing it, they had also created a natural bug repellant. Traditional milk paint recipes (composed of milk, lime, water, and pigments) made for a mixture that created lye, a well-known insect repellant that would help to keep the swarms of bugs away that proliferate coastal areas.
Haint Blue Over The Years
After the American Revolution, the plantations that produced millions of pounds of indigo products were obsolete instantly when they were no longer supplying the British market. In the mid-1800s, synthetic dye was discovered, making the indigo plant obsolete, but by then, the crops had long been replaced with rice or cotton.
And while indigo crops disappeared from the maps, Haint Blue was far from gone. The color continued to be used amongst the Gullah-Geechee people but spread in popularity in places where the impact of these people was prolific, like Beaufort, South Carolina. Over time, it became widely used in the mansions of cities like Savannah, Charleston, St. Augustine, and New Orleans.
The color continues to be used to adorn the entryways of homes across the South- and like it has for its history, the color continues to come with a set of legends. Just like the belief that the color could deter bad spirits, in more recent years, the legend has expanded to thinking that the color would confuse wasps and spiders who would be deterred from building nests or webs. While this has never been proven, you’d think it had been if you took a survey of the porch ceilings across the South that are painted a variation of this iconic color. Nowadays, you’re just as likely to find the color decorating the structures of the rural roads as you would be in the townhomes of Savannah.
What Happened To The Gullah-Geechee?
The tale of the Gullah-Geechee that began in Africa passed through the West Indies, and came to the shores of America is a fascinating one that continues to this day. This culture has survived centuries of displacement because of the legacy of generations of people who have carried it on. But also because of the unique story that unfolded at the coastal plantations of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.
Indigo crops became rice crops, which became cotton crops- all of which were increasingly difficult and costly to run in the coastal South due to factors like bugs, disease, and extreme heat. The wealthy white planters (who all lived on estates far away from their coastal plantations) began to grow less interested in growing crops in such difficult conditions and many abandoned their efforts and lands completely. As they moved away, some planters offered freedom to the people they enslaved, well before Emancipation, which created unique communities along the coast of freedmen and women in a time when there was no clear place drawn up for them in society.
As such, many were forced to stay on the plantations they had lived on the isolated coastal marshes. These communities were small, but for the first time in generations, were able to live, and govern as they saw fit. Many clung to the traditions that had been passed down to them from their ancestors and their customs were able to thrive in a time when this was uncommon. Their independence and isolation created a scenario that allowed many aspects of their culture to live on today.
Where Are The Gullah-Geechee Now?
Over the years, many moved away for better opportunities, but in recent decades, a resurgence in interest in this group and their incredible story has grown. Descendants have established community efforts and museums to highlight the culture of the Gullah-Geechee who still count thousands among their descendants today.
Many visual artists, authors, and filmmakers have emerged in recent years to educate and highlight this community, as well as artisans who are reviving the craft of indigo cultivation, processing, and dying.
Learn More About The Gullah-Geechee and Indigo
- The Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor website
- Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor National Heritage Area on Facebook
- The Gulla-Geechee Nation website
- “Daughters of the Dust” Book by Julie Dash
- “Daughters of the Dust” Film by Julie Dash
- “Blue Alchemy” Film by Mary Lance
- “Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life” Book by Andrea Feeser
- “Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo” Book by Ntozake Shange
- “Gullah Days: Hilton Head Islanders Before the Bridge 1861-1956″ Book by Thomas Barnwell
- Diane Britton Dunham- Visual Artist
- Ariane King-Comer- Indigo Artist
- “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island” Book by Emily Meggett
- “The Gullah Geeche Cookbook: 365 Days of Traditional Grandma’s Recipes Rich in History and Flavor” Book by Abebe Kimathi