The unusual collection of Sea Islands or the Gullah/Geechee islands as they have been called stretch along the South Carolina and Georgia coast to the northern tip of Florida in the United States.
Islands such as John, Edisto, Daufuskie, St. Helena and Hilton Head were inhabited by African Americans whose ancestors were brought there to work the cotton, tobacco, indigo and rice plantations. After the Civil War, many of the Black people stayed on the islands living as they always had, passing property they had managed to purchase down to successive generations.
Because of the isolation from the mainland and the inhospitable climate they were left mostly alone and developed a type of Creole English they spoke amongst themselves. They also preserved many of the songs, African folk tales and crafts such as basket weaving which can be traced directly to West African countries that were frequently raided by slave traders looking for laborers skilled in rice farming.
“At one time when people called you a Geechee, it was meant as an insult,” said Amir Touré who teaches while entertaining tour groups about his native Gullah culture as the character The African Spirit. “To be called Geechee meant you were the most backwards of all African people in the U.S.”
Today, people from all over the world come to the Gullah/Sea Islands to share in Gullah food, basketmaking, songs, and other well-preserve elements of the fascinating culture. Events such as the Hilton Native Islander Celebration, the Gullah Festival and regularly scheduled events at Penn Center offer visitors a chance to absorb varied aspects of Gullah culture, oftentimes from original descendants.
The residents of Daufuskie Island recall taking boats to nearby Savannah, Georgia to obtain supplies and listening to battery powered radios as late as the 1960s. Faced with limited opportunities, many of the Gullah people left their ancestral lands for better economic opportunities in major cities. Fortunately, many retirees have returned to their ancestral homelands to help preserve the folkways, strengthen the economy and assistant with land preservation for native islanders.
Residents frequently point to the 1956 construction of the bridge that connects Hilton Head Island to the mainland, and the introduction of modern conveniences such as electricity and air conditioning as the beginning of encroachment on the Gullah way of life.
The Gullah people of Hilton Head refer to the thousands of new residents as “Come Hea,” and the people who grew up on the island as “Bin yas.” Today the culture is embraced through Gullah restaurants, art, music, and other businesses and people come from all over the world to enjoy it.
Congress has deemed Gullah/Geechee culture so important it has established the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Act’ to assist with promotion and preservation.
Others such as Anita Singleton Prather have also developed businesses to showcase the unique island culture. Singleton Prather teaches Gullah culture through a performance art as Aunt Pearlie Sue, a character based on stories learned from her grandmother while growing up on St. Helena Island. Prather also performs with a group she founded called the Gullah Kinfolk, which is comprised of relatives who sing powerful religious, cultural and work songs.
The beaches here are among the most beautiful anywhere and the warm, year-round climate makes the area a popular golf destination as well. Beaufort, South Carolina is known for its stunning collection of ante-bellum homes and Civil War history.
For comprehensive information, pick up a copy of the Gullah/Geechie Guide at South Carolina welcome centers or contact the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce.
Address: 801 Bladen St, Beaufort, SC 29902
Phone: (843) 986-1102