The Atlantic coast of South Carolina is home to a largely forgotten culture and language that nevertheless continues to thrive far away from mainstream American culture in both place and time.
The Gullah people of South Carolina and Georgia are the descendants of West African slaves living on the relatively remote islands that make up the states’ “Lowcountry” and ocean islands. The strip of islands between Charleston, SC, and Savannah, GA, 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. 16th and 17th century slaves made up an extremely diverse mix of ethnicities and cultures, and the development of a creole language was essential for communication. Thus many believe that the Gullah language is the most accurate reflection of original slave vernacular that can still be found today.
Due to the relative remoteness of the coastal islands where ancestors of the Gullah worked mostly as rice farmers, their language and cultural traditions have remained largely intact, while most mainland slaves lost much of their traditional cultures as 2nd- and 3rd-generation slaves assimilated into American culture.
Nowadays, the Gullah are quite happy to share their traditions and beliefs with the small number of 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.