The “Gullah” is a name given to slaves who were brought to the South to work on the rice plantations. During the 1800s, lowcountry rice was known as “Waccamaw Gold.” The South Carolina Lowcountry from Georgetown area to Beaufort was the one of the largest producers of rice in the world, second only to China.
They came from places that are now known as Angola, Gambia, Liberia, Nigeria, and Senegal. They brought their folklore, traditions, and beliefs with them. Gullahs practice a unique blend of Christianity, herbalism (herbal medicine), and folk magic (some call this black magic or hoodoo, also known as Lowcountry Voodoo). Many of the descendents of these men and women still call the lowcountry home. It is believed that roughly 250,000 Gullah still live on sea islands on the northern tip of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. In Florida, and Georgia, they are also known as Geechee. But some dispute the accuracy of this count, citing a much smaller population.
It is uncertain where the name “Gullah” came from. Some believe that “Gullah” was shortened from “Angola,” a region on the West African Coast. Some believe that the term derives from a Liberian group, the “Golas,” who also come from the West African Coast. Still others believe Gullah was the language spoken by slaves and that the term later came to encompass their culture and way of way, as well.
Most of the Gullah are deep in the Lowcountry but there is a Gullah community on Sandy Island, which is thirty miles southeast of Myrtle Beach. The 12,000-acre island is mostly state-owned, but twenty-five percent of it remains privately owned by Gullah descendents. Electricity didn’t reach the island until 1967 and there was no running water until 2001. Many attempts have been made to develop this lovely island both for residential and commercial use, but that has not happened and hopefully never will. Kids are transported by the only remaining public school boat in South Carolina over to the mainland where they attend school. They live in three island settlements: Mount Arena, Annie Village, and Georgia Hill. The largest population of Gullah descedents, about 30 families, live in Mt. Arena. Wildlife includes lots of deer, bear, reptiles, and birds, such as ospreys and eagles. The island, which sits just three miles west of the Atlantic Ocean, is full of maritime forests and wetlands. The Gullah collected healing herbs from the marshes and forests and many of the inhabitants still rely on these remedies.
Gullah history, folklore, beliefs, traditions, recipes, and more can be found in my titles, Lowcountry Voodoo and Coastal South Carolina.
If you’re interested in visiting the Lowcountry and learning more about the Gullah…
Sites & Insights Tours offers Black History and Porgy & Bess Tours. These include stories of the Gullah culture and visits to Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Catfish Row, Old Slave Mart Museum, City Market, Site of Hanging Tree, and more. They also offer Sea Island Tours, which shares Gullah culture and takes visitors to James Island, Johns Island, Angel Oak, Burn Churchyard Cemetery, and more. www.sitesandinsights.com
Sample authentic Gullah cuisine at the Gullah Cuisine Restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, SC. 843.881.9076.
Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival is a lowcountry tradition. It is held in Mt. Pleasant, SC every June. http://www.sweetgrassfestival.org/
Native Islander Gullah Celebration is held on Hilton Head Island every February. Highlights include gullah and gospel music, local art, storytelling, a dance, barbecue, and more. www.gullahcelebration.com
Penn Center on St. Helena Island was founded to preserve the unique history, culture, and environment of the SC Sea Islands. Brick Church, near Penn Center, was built in 1855 by Gullah slaves. There is a Heritage Days celebration every November. www.penncenter.com
Gullah-N-Geechee Mahn Tours shows visitors St. Helena Island and other area sea islands while sharing stories about the Gullah. http://www.gullahgeechietours.net/
FYI: After more than thirty years work by translators, a CD version of the Gullah Bible is now available. This is the largest collection of Gullah recordings ever made available to the public. http://www.penncenter.com/ There is also a good book written by thomas Pyatt, The Gullah People of Sandy Island. www.tjpyatt.com