But if you look closely -- in between resorts, beyond crowded thoroughfares, underneath the shade of Spanish Moss, off the beaten paths and in the nooks and crannies of the island -- you’ll find vestiges of a culture that runs as deep as the tidal creeks on the island and wide as the ocean waters over which early inhabitants were brought ashore.
The Gullah culture has a rich tradition on South Carolina’s coastal islands, especially in Beaufort County. Gullah, a blend of West African and European-based language and tradition, survived and flourished because of the isolation of plantations of the coastal South.
During a trip to Hilton Head, I was anxious to learn as much as I could about the Gullah culture. I figured the Gullah Heritage Trail Tour was a good place to start my exploration. The tour, which leaves from Hilton Head’s Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn Plantation, has been giving visitors an up-close and personal look at the Island’s Gullah heritage for about 14 years.
As I waited on the tour bus to arrive, I decided to walk inside and check out the museum. The place was a treasure trove of information. Coastal Discovery has several different educational displays that outline the history of Hilton Head from the Plantation Era of the 1700s through the island’s development phase of the 1960s and '70s. The displays on the island’s Gullah culture really captured my attention and gave me a pretty good idea of what I could expect to see and also hear during the tour. I was able to make my way through the entire museum before the tour bus arrived.
Just as I expected, Gullah Heritage Trail Tour Guide Irvine Campbell, a 4th generation Gullah family member, brought the words of the museum display panels to life. At the start of the tour, he gave a brief history of the island and explained how the Gullah culture came about.
The island’s Gullah, as he explained, can be traced back to the late 1600s when slaves were brought to South Carolina’s coastal islands. The word Gullah is believed to be derived from Angola, a West African country from which many of the slaves came. Another idea is that the word ‘Gullah’ came from the word ‘Gola,’ a tribe found near the border of Liberia and Sierra Leone, West Africa. Even though the exact origin of the word is not known, there’s little doubt that the Gullah culture has African roots. As we learned during the tour, those African roots are represented in the Gullah language, food traditions, religious life and structures that can still be found on Hilton Head Island.
During the tour, we visited about 10 Gullah neighborhoods, sometimes referred to as compounds because many families live on shared tracts of land. We learned that the island’s current Gullah families are the descendants of slaves who, after the Civil War, reverted back to their West African culture of relying on the land for sustenance and each other for survival.
As we visited neighborhoods like Spanish Wells, Jonesville, Gardner, Squire Pope and others, it was interesting to hear Campbell share stories of how families once worked their land, farming, fishing, hunting and using their net making, basket weaving and boat building skills for survival.
Mitchelville was one of the most interesting stops along the tour. Organized in 1862, Mitchelville is considered the first freedman village in the United States. The community was originally established as an experiment to prepare newly freed slaves for democratic participation in a post Civil War society. Freed men and women at Mitchelville elected their own officials and passed their own laws.
Current-day Mitchelville is located off of Beach City Road. Pieces of the area’s history exist in old structures like tabby ruins that can be found on Bay Gall Road. About five chimneys made of tabby (a mixture of burnt oyster shells) are all that remain of slave quarters that used to be part of Drayton Plantation. A short driving distance from five tabby chimneys is one of the island’s hidden jewels: Mitchelville Beach Park.
A short walk through a wooded path leads visitors to Mitchelville Beach, which fronts the Port Royal Sound. The beach is a good place for fishing and shelling, although swimmers are advised to stay out of the water because of the sharks that feed there. Mitchelville Beach is remote and beautiful. During my visit, there were only three families on the beach. Becky Self of Deerfield Beach, Fla., said she and a friend were really surprised at how different Mitchelville was from the other beaches on the island.
“It’s more private, very secluded and calm and relaxing,” she said. “Our beaches (in Florida) are more hectic with a wall of people. This is a very nice place.”
In addition to the beach, the park area also includes a boardwalk that crosses the marsh and leads to Barker Field Park, where there are paved bicycle and walking trails, a wooden pier and an observation deck where visitors can get a glimpse of Parris, Fripp and other nearby islands.
Mitchelville was the last stop on our tour. As we made our way back to Honey Horn, I thought about all that I had experienced during the tour. There was so much more I wanted to do and see before leaving the island.
As I was thinking, Campbell, our tour guide, was quizzing the crowd on popular Gullah phrases and words. When he said, “Dog got four foot, but can’t walk but one road,” I thought, how apropos? The translation is that you should take things one day, one step at a time.
In my case, that was very true. South Carolina’s Gullah heritage is vast and wide. I realized that it would take much more than a day to fully experience the culture in all its uniqueness and richness. As Campbell told me at the end of the tour, in order for the Gullah culture to remain alive, its story and history must be passed down from generation to generation. As the day cooled and came to an end, I was happy to have played a very small part in that effort.
If You Go
The Gullah Heritage Trail Tours on Hilton Head Island are offered Tuesday-Saturday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and Sunday at noon. Tours are 2 hours long and leave from the Coastal Discovery Museum, located at 70 Honey Horn Drive. The fare is $32 for adults and $15 for children. There are few opportunities to get off the van and take photos, so be sure to take good notes and consider revisiting some of the sites once the tour is over.
Hungry? Don’t leave Hilton Head without a meal from Dye’s Gullah Fixins. The restaurant specializes in succulent Southern cuisine ranging from shrimp burgers to bourbon whiskey pork chops. Dye’s is open Monday-Saturday.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Gullah culture, consider the following:
Penn School National Historic Landmark Districton St. Helena Island is the site of one of the country's first schools for freed slaves.
The Gullah Museum and Gullah Ooman Shop on Pawleys Island provides educational lectures on Gullah history as well as handcrafted Gullah items. 123 King St, Georgetown.
Gullah Tours -- Charleston is another good offering. Tours leave from the bus shed at the Charleston Visitor's Center at 375 Meeting St., Monday-Saturday at 11a.m. and 1 p.m.
Bin Yah -- There's No Place Like Home is a documentary presented by the ChasDoc Film Society that explores the changing landscape of historic African American communities in Mount Pleasant.