In Gullah, that means “come by here.” In Hilton Head, South Carolina, that’s just what we did.
Who are the Gullah?
Most of you have probably never even heard of the Gullah people. Sometimes also referred to as Gullah Geechee, this is the name ascribed to the African descendants enslaved on the low coastal islands of North & South Carolina and Georgia. Most came from West Africa where they typically worked in rice fields. Coming to the marshy islands off the southern coast of the U.S. was very similar to the homes they’d been forced out of and they quickly adapted to their new environment.
The Gullah Geechee people thrived in their new environment and brought with them many of their old traditions and ways of living. They retained many of their spiritual beliefs and craft-making skills. Even today, the Gullah are known for making baskets from reeds, and fishing nets that they’d used in West Africa.
Their adaptability lead to their autonomy despite their status as slaves.
I do not mean any disrespect at all when I say that these enslaved people thrived in their Gullah communities. Actually, they were instrumental in preserving their way of life and many were able to buy not only their freedom, but property, too. In fact, many Gullah were emancipated from slavery in a town called Mitchelville even before Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation.
How did this happen? It all goes back to the lowcountry region the Gullah were farming.
Because the low coastal islands along the southeastern coast of the U.S. were so conducive to rice farming, this swampy region was also home to mosquitoes. Lots and lots of mosquitoes. As you’ll recall from your history lessons, mosquitoes carried yellow fever and malaria.
Yellow fever epidemic in the Savannah area (close to the Gullah islands) resulted in at least 10,000 deaths. Plantation owners began turning over the running of the rice plantations to their Gullah slaves. Because these diseases had been common in West Africa, many of the enslaved Gullah had built up some immunity and continued to prosper while other populations were succumbing to the epidemic outbreaks. The communities of Gullah grew strong without much interference of white slaveowners, and their African traditions continued.
Then war broke out. White plantation owners abandoned their plantations and fled to the mainland. Many Africans on the Sea Islands joined the Union army and South Carolina sea islands became the first place where slaves were freed.
In the late 20th century, the sea islands began to draw tourists and developers and the Gullah people fought to keep ownership of the land they’d owned since the Civil War. Some of the land area has been protected as “heir’s land” meaning that all members of a family must agree to sell a family plot of land, or there will not be a sale.
As you can imagine, on Hilton Head Island, land is at a premium. The island is now famous for its affluent gated communities. Retirees and “snow birds” flock to its mild climate in the winter and the former homesteads and acreage that once belonged to Gullah families is becoming less and less Gullah-owned.
In 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the “Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act“, providing $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites in the Low Country relating to Gullah culture. There is a strong movement to preserve the culture, even as more developers move to buy the land.
The foods we think of as “Southern” are often derived from the dishes they cooked and prepared in their West African ways. Diets consisted largely of local seafood (shrimp, crawfish, oysters), vegetables such as potatoes and corn, and rice. If you’ve ever had a Lowcountry Boil, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t tried that dish, make sure you do when you’re in the American South.
Gullah artists have done their part to preserve the history of their people, too. While we were there, we stopped into the Arts Center for a celebration of Gullah art as part of Black History Month. My mom and I were so taken that we couldn’t resist buying a couple prints by artist Amiri Farris.
In the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn Plantation, we found a book of works by Jonathan Green and wished we could own a few of his pieces, too.
Gullah Heritage Tour
We took advantage of the island’s Gullah Heritage Tour on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The tour was lead by Irvin, a 5th-generation Gullah who shared stories of what it was like to grow up on Hilton Head Island when it was still more of a remote destination. Families like his grew vegetables and indigo leaves — which combined with an ammonia solution creates an indigo blue dye that was a huge commodity for the Gullah people. You’ll notice that much of the Gullah artwork I shared here incorporates that indigo color.
The Gullah language is based on creole, with some adaptation. Irvin shared a few common Gullah expressions:
E mout na know no Sunday (Your mouth doesn’t know Sunday; using profanity)
E teet da dig e grave (Your teeth are going to dig your grave; watch what you eat)
E aint crack a teet (Haven’t said a word)
E got long eye (Lustful; greedy)
Ebry shut eye aint sleep (Every shut eye isn’t asleep; always someone watching)
Milk aint dry off e mout yet (Still a baby)
Can you guess the meaning of this one?
Cow need a tail more than fly time
I loved learning about the culture, but I was a little disappointed that the tour didn’t include stops where we could get out of the bus and step inside some of the important places that shaped Gullah history. That’s something I should have planned to do on my own. There are plenty of places to learn more about the influence of the Gullah culture in the Sea Islands. I’ll be sure to schedule that into my itinerary next time.
For now, I can enjoy my souvenir artwork and think about this little-known piece of Black History. There is so much rich Gullah culture to be experienced and absorbed in the coastal Carolina states. If you find yourself there, take a break from the beaches and step back in time to a period of history that many of us know nothing about.
Are you familiar with the Gullah Geechee culture?
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