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:
The International African American Museum
Located on the historic site of Gadsden's Wharf, where thousands of enslaved Africans arrived in the United States, the International African American Museum showcases the resilience, struggles, achievements, and triumphs of African Americans, highlighting their pivotal roles in shaping American history and society. Through immersive displays, interactive installations, and thought-provoking artifacts, visitors gain a deeper understanding of the African American experience. Beneath the building is the African Ancestors Memorial Garden. Designed by landscape architect Walter Hood, this conceptual garden serves as a reflective space open to the public. One of the garden’s most defining features is the Tide Tribute, a poignant installation that showcases relief figures representing those who suffered in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, their shapes revealed and covered by the changing tide.
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 bus 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.
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, the Penn Center 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.
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 Gullah 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.
Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture
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 Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture 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. The center is not currently open for walk-in, guided tours. Self-guided tours are available on the second Wednesday of the month. Advance registration is required.
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.
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 U.S. by West African slaves. Among the most popular are Buckshot's Restaurant in McClellanville and The Gullah Grub on St. Helena Island.