Gullah Culture: Then & Now

By:Staff Writer

Date:2/6/2015

South Carolina’s Gullah Culture: Then and Now

The Gullah Corridor of the South Carolina coast is a landscape rich with tradition, stretching from the Sea Islands of the Lowcountry to the northern border of the state.

Stemming from the 18th century when West Africans were brought to this region and enslaved on Southern plantations, the Gullah culture is still very much alive here — and its major historical landmarks remain popular South Carolina tourist attractions today.

The Gullah/Geechee people were brought to this area primarily for their expertise in rice cultivation, as well as their familiarity with the vegetation, climate and conditions of the Lowcountry — which very closely mirror the western coast of Africa. Plantation owners here were not able to bear the heat, humidity and mosquitos to cultivate crops in this region, so they sought out slaves that were familiar with what was then a very rugged landscape.

As time has passed and the Gullah people of South Carolina’s Sea Islands have been exposed to cultures of every variety — thanks to emancipation, the construction of bridges to and from the mainland, tourism and the modernization of these areas — the culture itself has become a part of the foundation of South Carolina history.

But that’s not to say that the cultural legacy the Gullah/Geechee have left on South Carolina is an antiquated one. In fact, as the Gullah culture transitions into the 21st century, the next generation maintains pride and authenticity in their spirituality, cuisine and art forms — and many even continue to carry on the traditions of communal living and farming in South Carolina. Many of the historic sites, attractions and popular souvenirs of the Lowcountry speak to how the Gullah culture has transcended generations.

In West Africa and later on the plantations, hand-sewn sweetgrass baskets were used for carrying rice and other crops, and today they can be seen decorating the homes of South Carolina tourists and residents all over the state. The soup mixes for sale today in Charleston’s City Market were once sold to post-bellum housewives as a quick dinner fix. Masterfully painted Gullah scenes and their modern counterparts hang side by side in galleries throughout the state, and classic Gullah dishes like shrimp and grits can now be found in upscale restaurants across the country.

For example, St. Helena Island’s Penn Center was once a school and cultural center for the Gullah people after emancipation and is now a museum with a mission of educating visitors about Gullah history. Ann Caldwell and the Magnolia Singers, an a cappella group out of Charleston, SC, tours the Lowcountry singing powerful Gullah spirituals — bringing the stories and the musical legacy of her ancestors into the modern era.

There is a popular Gullah saying that “Cumya can’t tell Binya,” or in other words, those that have come here (the Cumyas) can’t tell those who have been here for generations (the Binyas) how to best live life in these parts — because they are the true natives of this land, and the Gullah spirit is ingrained in the culture here, then and now.

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