During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, approximately 40 percent of enslaved Africans sent to the colonies went through Charleston. By 1860, 10 percent of the Black population—enslaved and free—lived within the territory known as South Carolina today. Here, and on sea islands along the North Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts, emerged the Gullah culture, a blend of West African ancestral languages and customs and newly discovered European ones. Also referred to as Gullah Geechee, the culture cemented itself in this region during slavery and during the Port Royal Experiment in the 1860s and flourished during Reconstruction in the decades following.
Between 1919 and 1970, when Jim Crow laws and segregation strengthened inequality in the South, a Great Migration occurred. Black people from Southern states fled north and west seeking better opportunities and lives. It gave birth to many African American communities we see across the country today, including the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City, where my mother was born after her parents relocated from South Carolina in the late 1940s.
As the daughter of a mother whose roots went back to those same marshlands, I became one of many who went out in search of learning more about my family roots and what it means to be Gullah. The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is a National Heritage Area that stretches along the sea islands and coastal areas from North Carolina to Florida. Today, many visitors come to the corridor to learn more about the people and, for many African Americans, to trace their familial roots.