Isolated on South Carolina’s Sea Islands for generations, the Gullah/Geechee preserved more of their heritage than any other African-American community in the United States. Today, native islanders are still serving up flavorful Gullah dishes, weaving baskets from sweetgrass and sharing their heritage in tours, galleries and museums.
Here are some of the best ways to experience the Gullah/Geechee culture:
Gullah Heritage Trail Tour on Hilton Head Island
Fourth- and fifth-generation Gullah guides bring to life the history of West African slaves brought to the Sea Islands to work on cotton and rice plantations and their freed descendants who survived for generations in virtual isolation by adapting their ancestors' simple lifestyle. During the two-hour bus tour, you’ll drive through Gullah family compounds and make stops at several historic sites, including Mitchelville, the first freedman village in the US.
Sallie Ann Robinson Gullah Tour on Daufuskie
Take a golf cart tour of Daufuskie Island with renowned Gullah chef Sallie Ann Robinson, a native islander who was one of the schoolchildren taught by famed author Pat Conroy and featured in his best-selling book, “The Water is Wide.” Accessible only by ferry, the island is home to a dozen historic landmarks, including Mary Fields Elementary School where Conroy taught in the 1960s. For a more immersive experience, you can stay with Robinson at the restored Frances Jones House, an authentic “oyster house” built in 1865.
The Penn Center on St. Helena Island
A National Historic Landmark, this former school for freed Sea Island slaves went on to serve as a meeting place and retreat for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s. Today, it offers cultural performances, workshops, historical presentations, walking and island tours, and the York W. Bailey Museum, featuring photographs and exhibits chronicling the history of the school.
Gullah Geechee Visitor Center in Beaufort
Described as the “doorway to the Gullah Culture,” this little shop at 1908 Boundary St. serves as a hub for information on the area’s Gullah/Geechee businesses, events, history and culture. Exhibits, books and documentaries showcase the Gullah lifestyle and the traditions and contributions of the Gullah people, among them Beaufort native Robert Smalls, who helped change the course of the Civil War in the Lowcountry. The center also features colorful artwork and a wide assortment of goods created by local Gullah/Geechee artists.
McLeod Plantation on James Island
Once part of a 1,700-acre sea island cotton plantation, this Gullah/Geechee heritage site tells the story of the daily life of both the planters and slaves who lived and worked here before and after the Civil War. Included in your admission are several 45-minute interpretive tours that focus on topics from cotton cultivation to the transition to freedom for the generations of African-Americans who called the plantation home for nearly 200 years. You can also take self-guided tours of the first floor of the main house, six slave cabins, and other plantation outbuildings and structures, including the gin house where the long-staple cotton was prepared for sale.
Gullah Museum in Georgetown
Founded by a Gullah story quilt artist and a scholar who has lectured widely on the African Diaspora, the museum provides insight into the role African slaves played in the Lowcountry’s lucrative rice and indigo industry. Shopkeeper and chief storyteller, Andrew Rodrigues, is happy to share his vast knowledge of the artifacts on display and the history of Gullah.
Tour the site of the former Avery Normal Institute, a hub for Charleston’s African-American community from 1864-1954. Now part of the College of Charleston, the center develops new exhibitions each year from its rich archival, art and rare manuscript collections. It also hosts temporary art exhibitions featuring prominent and emerging artists whose work documents the history, traditions, legacies and influence of African-Americans. Guided tours are offered daily.
Take a two-hour bus tour with the author of “A Gullah Guide to Charleston” and explore important historical sites in the history of Charleston’s African-Americans. Tour stops include the place where enslaved Africans were auctioned to plantation owners, the original Catfish Row neighborhood featured in the opera Porgy and Bess, and a hiding spot along the emancipation’s underground railroad.
Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet
Join Gullah descendant Ron Daise, star of the popular Nickelodeon children’s TV show "Gullah Gullah Island," for his entertaining and educational talk on the culture, food, language and history of the Gullah Geechee people. The interactive program is offered from 1 to 2 p.m. every Wednesday. Visitors also can take an audio tour of the Lowcountry Trail, a quarter-mile boardwalk overlooking a restored rice field of the former Brookgreen Plantation. Along the way are interpretive panels that describe life on the plantation for the owner, overseer, and the enslaved African men and women who worked the fields.
Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston
Built in 1859, the Old Slave Mart is the last surviving slave auction gallery in South Carolina. Located between Chalmers and Queen streets in downtown Charleston, the museum offers a haunting reminder of the human cost of the slave trade that fueled the South’s plantation economy. Informative displays, photographs and posters shed light on the history of slavery in the United States and its abolition after the Civil War. Among the artifacts on exhibit are a slave yoke, whip and shackles.
You’ll find restaurants all along the Gullah Geechee Corridor offering farm-to-table cuisine rooted in the culinary traditions brought to the US by West African slaves. Among the most popular are Buckshot’s Carryout in McClellanville, Bertha’s Kitchen in Charleston, Gullah Grub on St. Helena Island and Burnin’ Down South in Bluffton.