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Origin Story: Tracing African Ancestry in South Carolina’s Gullah Community

Contributing Writer Contributing Writer
Whether they’re checking out the newest restaurants or enjoying a stay at a bed-and-breakfast, contributing writers share their unique insight and stories from exploring the Palmetto State.
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Descendants like Louise Miller Cohen have dedicated themselves to teaching Gullah traditions and language.

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.

The culinary traditions of the Gullah people have helped to shape some of the Lowcountry’s most famous dishes.

From the time I arrived in the small town of Beaufort to driving down to the breathtaking views of Hilton Head Island before making my way across the water to Daufuskie Island, I learned about how lands that were once deemed barren had been transformed into lush greenery that is now worth millions in real estate. Some descendants of Gullah people who never left now dedicate themselves to teaching their rich history, leading tours and imparting knowledge of Gullah customs, traditions and language. My mother could share the stories she knew, but they were limited to only the oral storytelling of her older aunts and her mother. I wanted to travel to the Gullah corridor to learn more about the community my family is from because it is something I will pass down to my children.

Within the cultural corridor, I was able to not only learn more about the legacy of Gullah culture but also connect with people who still occupy their ancestral lands and have used their skills to continue telling the stories of the Gullah people before them. I remember leaving South Carolina feeling a new sense of pride in my roots because I could see them with my own eyes and learned their place in my heritage and the African diaspora.


Find Your Family Tree

Originally made to winnow rice, sweetgrass baskets are now highly sought after works of art.

Interested in learning more about your heritage? Whether you’re just getting started or are an experienced genealogist, the International African American Museum’s Center for Family History offers a treasure trove of resources to help you on your genealogy journey. A one-of-a-kind resource, the Center is home to a robust collection of photos, records, archival tools and the largest collection of United States Colored Troop records outside of the National Archives. Admission to the museum includes access to the Center for Family History, its FamilySearch kiosks, storybooth and more.

If you can’t make it to the museum, their digital archives of marriage records, bible records, obituaries and funeral programs, and more can be explored online. Their online resource center will help you get started navigating the countless documents, understanding legal and medical terminology found in old documents, and even tricks and tips for reading old handwriting.


Additional Resources:

  • Ancestry websites let you see your racial breakdown. Some also offer detailed descriptions of migration patterns within the U.S.
  • Visitors with roots in South Carolina can also go to to look more into the family tree before planning their trip to the Gullah corridor.
  • If you have names and dates within your family tree, you can look them up in archival databases. The African American genealogical research within the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and the South Carolina Historical Society both possess extensive collections of records.
Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer
More from "Contributing Writer"
Whether they’re checking out the newest restaurants or enjoying a stay at a bed-and-breakfast, contributing writers share their unique insight and stories from exploring the Palmetto State.