Do US Southerners paint porch ceilings blue to ward off ghosts?

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In recent years, various media outlets have published commentary on a custom in some parts of the southern United States where homes are painted light blue on the outside, particularly porch ceilings, eaves, doors, and shutters. The blue in question is often a soft robin egg shade and is known as “Haint Blue”.

“The most beautiful shade of Haint Blue for your porch,” reads the 2022 headline for lifestyle magazine Southern Living, for example.

The article and similar articles report that the custom of painting houses blue originated with the Gullah community, descendants of enslaved Africans who historically inhabited the Lowcountry Sea Islands, a chain of islands lining the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida lines. And the reasons for this are supernatural.

The color of the veranda ceilings has a name – haint blue. The word “Haint” basically means evil spirit or spook, and the color blue is said to confuse such ghosts.

As travel and culture site Atlas Obscura documented in 2020, the color is meant to ward off ghosts, or “Haints”:

Originally derived from the dye produced on Lowcountry indigo plantations, this “Haint Blue” was originally used by enslaved Africans and later by the Gullah Geechee to combat “Haints” and “Boo Hags” – evil spirits who have escaped their human form at night to paralyze, injure, ride (just as a person would ride a horse) or even kill innocent victims. The color is meant to trick Haints into believing they’ve stumbled into the water (which they can’t cross) or into the sky (which will lead them further from the victims they’re looking for). Blue glass bottles were also hung in trees to trap the malicious looters.

As Atlas Obscura further noted, the tradition is also steeped in trauma, as the paint was made using indigo plants grown on plantations through the labor of enslaved people.

But the Atlas Obscura article quotes Louise Miller Cohen, founder of the Gullah Museum on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, who said she had never heard of such a tradition mentioned in her family.

“People say we paint our houses blue to ward off evil spirits. If that were true, all the houses on the island would be painted blue,” Cohen is quoted as saying.

In 2019, Charleston newspaper The Post and Courier reported that the earliest newspaper mention of “haint blue” found by architectural historian Christina Butler was as late as 1985. Our own search for reputable sources on the subject yielded mostly articles about travel destinations. Home decor themed stories like Southern Living linked above and paint company blog posts.

The article raises questions as to whether the idea of ​​the supernatural tradition was hyped to stimulate interest in tourism in the region. It also points out that a lack of documentation by the news media does not mean that the tradition is not a genuine historical feature. That makes its history difficult to trace, but hardly means the tradition lacks genuine historical roots, The Post and Courier noted:

But it’s no surprise that the mainstream press has been slow to embrace the concept, said Damon Fordham, a professor at the Citadel who has studied Gullah folklore.

Gullah culture developed in the Sea Islands of the Southeast when African slaves working in remote areas formed a common culture and language that blended European and African influences with English.

For a long time, Gullah culture has been looked down on, especially for black people trying to climb the social ladder, Fordham said. Between generations, some traditions have been lost or blurred, and it is unlikely that the media of past decades would take cultural traditions seriously.

Doubt at your own risk, said Charleston tour guide Alphonso Brown.

“People don’t think they can’t get in,” he told the newspaper. “Meanwhile, the witch is having a great day with humans.”

Sources:

Johnson, Chloe. “‘Haint Blue’ Porch Ceilings have a difficult history to trace.” The Post and Courier, December 7, 2019 https://www.blufftontoday.com/story/news/2019/12/11/haint-blue-porch-ceilings-have-tough-history-to-track/2109006007/.

Parks, Shoshi. “What the Color ‘Haint Blue’ Means to the Descendants of Enslaved Africans.” Atlas ObscuraJanuary 14, 2020, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-haint-blue-means-to-descendants-enslaved-africans.

“The Most Beautiful Shades of Haint Blue for Your Porch.” Southern livingJuly 22, 2022, https://www.southernliving.com/home/colors/haint-blue.

Haint Blue, a traditional enamel color with a haunted history.” Franklin Painting. July 24, 2012, https://www.franklinpainting.com/blog/haint-blue/.

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