Origins of the Charleston: the Jenkins Orphanage Band and the Gullah Community

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I had always understood that what we know as the "Charleston" dance has its origins in African dance traditions that came to America from the slave trade. Music historian Julie Hubbert of the University of South Carolina describes a more nuanced and interesting story: how a remarkable band composed of orphaned boys and a unique African American community were intertwined in the spread of distinctly American art form. 

There are several competing claims of where the Charleston came from. Dawn Lillie in notes that some saw links of the Charleston to the ancient Ashanti dance or dances from the Cape Verde islands in West Africa. Katherine Dunham found Charleston steps in Haiti in dances she observed.

Hubbert instead traces the origins of Charleston to the Gullah African American community, who lived in parts of Georgia and South Carolina:

From pre-colonial days, South Carolina was one of the most active participants in the slave trade importing slaves from all over the African continent and Caribbean plantations. Charleston, South Carolina’s and one of the nations largest ports throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, became the center for this mass migration. As a result, an intermixed community began to thrive in the sea islands off the Charleston harbor, a community that soon developed its own language (a mixture of English with many African dialects and syntax structures) and culture. The Gullah, as they came to be known, exists still today in the isolated community of John’s Island. Their music, too, reflected a mixture of African, Caribbean and western influences.

Meanwhile, in 1891 the Reverend Daniel Jenkins, pastor of an African American church in Charleston, established the first orphanage for African American children in that city. To support the orphanage financially, he created the Jenkins Orphanage Band, composed of young people at the orphanage who received musical instruction. Over the years the band became more and more popular, eventually touring the United States and Europe to great acclaim. 

By the 1920s, the band had started evolving their repertoire from Souza marches and ragtime to more Gullah-inspired music. These "Geechie" tunes (another term for Gullah) were often accompanied by a young person dancing in front of the band. Here's a video from 1928 of the band taken by Fox Movietone:

Here's the excerpt of just the young boy dancing.

That kid is tearing it up! You can see a lot of movement and styling that should be familiar to lindy hoppers in this young boy's dancing. 

Hubbert describes how the Jenkins Band would perform "Geechie" songs accompanied by dancing wherever they went, including in Harlem. She surmises that this exposed other musicians to this unique musical and dance form. One of whom, pianist James P. Johnson, wrote several geechie-inspired songs, or "Charlestons," as they came to be known that became very popular.

Soon Charleston music and dancing came to sweep the nation and the world from the 1920s and beyond. So whenever you dance any version of the Charleston, thank Daniel Jenkins, the Jenkins Orphanage Band, and the Gullah community for bringing us this remarkable artform.

Read the full article at

Also check out Bobby White's own research into the origins of the Charleston.

[Hattip: Mightierthor on Reddit]