The Atlantic coast of South Carolina is home to a culture and language that has faded away in many places, but nevertheless continues to thrive far from mainstream American culture in both place and time.
The Gullah people of South Carolina and Georgia are the descendants of enslaved people from West Africa who now live on the relatively remote islands that make up the states’ “Lowcountry” and ocean islands. The strip of islands between Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, are often referred to as the “Gullah Geechee Corridor.”
Linguistic anthropologists have posited that “Gullah” is a mutation of “Angola,” while “Geechee” may refer to the Kissi people of Sierra Leone and Liberia, which provides some clues as to the exact origins of the Gullah. The Gullah people also have their own language, an English creole with many words and phrases adopted from a number of West African tongues such as Yoruba, Wolof, and Fon. In the 16th and 17th centuries, enslaved people came from an extremely diverse mix of ethnicities and cultures, and the development of a creole language was essential for communication. Many believe that the Gullah language is the most accurate reflection of the vernacular used by enslaved people in America.
Due to the relative remoteness of the coastal islands, Gullah language and cultural traditions have remained largely intact. Nowadays, the Gullah are quite happy to share their traditions and beliefs with the tourists who seek them out. Gullah Heritage Tours, a company operating on popular resort destination Hilton Head Island, offers a comprehensive tour of the Gullah Geechee Corridor, as visitors can travel through ten Gullah villages and learn of their history.
These villages stand in stark contrast to upscale tourist-oriented downtown Hilton Head. Most of the Gullah still live a somewhat old world lifestyle, with many continuing to sustain themselves with small personal farms. Visitors can also witness traditional Gullah ceremonies and listen to village storytellers. Near the starting point of the tour is the Coastal Discovery Museum, which also features Gullah presentations and performances year round. An annual Gullah culture festival is also held on Hilton Head Island in February.
Know Before You Go
Don't just stop in South Carolina. There is such a rich history of Gullah culture, food, museums and more all along the southeast coast.