Gullah Geechee’s Story on the South Carolina Sea Islands


In South Carolina, stunning sea islands tell a unique story about southern culture.

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Jhere is a crisp silence blowing among the trees of South Carolina. Spanish moss drapes the living oak trees, as if they could conceal the stories and truths of the region from those who wish to generalize and minimize the great history that has unfolded on the ground. The waters cross humbly, as if to pay homage to the spontaneity of nature in the region. Homes stand guard a few miles from the shore, seemingly battling the impact of climate change and unfettered development. Outside of Charleston, a favored travel destination in the southern United States, South Carolina’s Maritime Islands tell their own story of southern identity.

South Carolina is home to more than 30 marine islands. These islands, a chain of barrier and tidal islands in the Atlantic Ocean, line the coast of the southeastern United States. They touch South Carolina, Georgia and Florida and remain the home of many Gullah Geechee: American blacks who descend from African slaves and who remained on the southeastern coasts of the United States. They have their own language and dialect, as well as their own cultural and culinary traditions, many of which have been confused with the more general southern cuisine.

Despite years of racism, private development and aggressive climate change, approximately 200,000 Gullah Geechee reside in the United States; many still live on the beautiful Sea Islands. Those who remain continue to protect and preserve the traditions of their ancestors and elders who have shaped Lowcountry cuisine, culture and community.

These traditions, like many in the black American community, start on the water. On the shores where captured Africans were brought to the Americas, the Gullah Geechee (descendants of some of these Africans) maintain a relatively peaceful way of life by fishing and shrimping in the area. Marine islands such as Edisto Island, St. Helena Island and Johns Island, the country’s largest marine island, are full of lakes, rivers, ponds and seashores that have long produced some of the most important seafood from the Gullah Geechee foodways, such as shrimp, oysters and crab.

Culinary stalwarts of Gullah Geechee like Emily Meggett, BJ Dennis and Germaine Jenkins have spent their lives and careers showcasing these culinary traditions, ensuring that dishes like red rice, okra okra and chicken perloo don’t are not lost or generalized in the southern food canon. . The Gullah Geechee, and therefore African, roots of these Lowcountry dishes remain both relevant and essential when traveling through the region.

The sea islands are connected to the mainland by small highways and bridges. Existing on their own, the islands carry their own weight and identity. Indifferent to the shops and bustle of nearby Charleston, they are quiet and quaint and have served as a respite for people looking to indulge in a restorative, yet uniquely southern experience. Like many off-the-beaten-path places, the Islands of the Sea stand at the crossroads of preservation and development. Kiawah Island, once an oasis for freed slaves, is now almost unrecognizable as largely white tourists have developed private beaches and golf courses. Johns Island still retains the story of some of its Indigenous and Gullah Geechee heritage, as evidenced by the McLeod Plantation, where the Gullah Geechee tell their own stories, but it faces the same challenge: enthusiastic developers complicit in the cultural erasure.

Weaving sweetgrass baskets is a long-standing Gullah Geechee tradition.

And yet, the marine islands, in their own way, persist. Edisto Island has managed to keep much of its atmosphere of peace and community intact. It was once home to the venerable Black Kings of Edisto, a group of freed slaves who fought for land ownership, the right to vote and general prosperity, and who helped preserve Edisto Island as the one of the main sites for the Gullah Geechee. Emily Megget, descendant of one of the kings, James Hutchinson, continues to cook for the community and is deeply respected as an island mother. The Edisto Island Museum shows the complex history of slavery, colonialism and modern life.

On Hilton Head, Gullah Heritage Trail Tours allow visitors to experience the harrowing and heroic history of the legendary community. They can observe the still practiced art of sweetgrass basket weaving, learn about the distinctive history and language, and see how art and religion take center stage. Importantly, the Gullah Geechee are the primary storytellers, shaping and driving their own narrative.

Many visitors travel to the Lowcountry to see the Angel Oak Tree, an oak tree over 60 feet tall that serves as the centerpiece of Johns Island. The striking tree overlooks centuries of Gullah Geechee history and heritage and is a popular stop along the Gullah-Geechee Corridor, a Federal National Heritage Area that includes Johns Island and stretches north to the Florida.

In the Carolinas, travelers can explore parks and centers significant to Gullah Geechee heritage, such as Brookgreen Gardens on Myrtle Beach, Penn Center on St. Helena Island, Mitchelville Freedom Park on Hilton Head Island and the Gullah Museum in Hilton Head. The Caw Caw Interpretive Center on Ravenel is not to be missed. Exhibits show the mastery exhibited by slaves in architecture, evidenced by their ability to carve paddy fields out of cypress swamps. Next, travelers can stop at Gullah-owned Ravenel Seafood, where an order of garlic crabs will lead to a finger-licking good meal.

The Gullah Geechee people are a diverse and wealthy group of Americans who are the foundation of Lowcountry cuisine, culture and identity. Absorbing their histories, culture, and heritage is imperative to understanding South Carolina and understanding the true range of American identity.

Kayla Stewart contributes to the forthcoming book, Gullah Geechee Home cookingwhich will be released on April 25, 2022.

>> Next: Gullah Geechee Cuisine finally gets its due in Charleston


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