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The Gullah Way of Life

Staff Writer Staff Writer
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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For hundreds of years, the Gullah people have lived on the coast of South Carolina. The descendants of enslaved Africans who worked these lands have managed to preserve much of its culture, language, food history and other West African traditions—like storytelling and sweetgrass weaving—and now, they’re sharing these things with the world.

 

Historic Sites, Museums & Galleries

Once occupied by William Aiken Jr., a former Governor of South Carolina, the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston is a historic home and museum that exists just as it did when the Aiken family lived there. In the interest of preservation, the property was left intact, including the Aiken-Rhett slave quarters, where the original furnishings, floors and paint are as they were in the 1850s.

With nine historic slave cabins built between 1790 and 1810, Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens in Mount Pleasant features a Black History in America exhibit that allows visitors to follow the journey of enslaved Africans from their arrival in America into modern times.

Founded in 1865 on St. Helena Island, the Penn Center served as a place for the Gullah community’s development—first as a school, then as a training center for midwives, and later, a safe gathering place for civil rights activists working to push America towards equality. Today, the 50-acre property is designated a National Historic Landmark District, and it is devoted to promoting and preserving the history and culture of the sea islands.

The Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island is dedicated to maintaining Gullah customs, traditions, language, stories, songs and structures. Also on Hilton Head Island, the Coastal Discovery Museum seamlessly intertwines natural and cultural histories, telling the story of the area’s coastal waterways and the Gullah’s presence in them. The Gullah Museum in Georgetown offers presentations and demonstrations of traditional Gullah and Lowcountry crafts.

Arts and crafts are central to the Gullah identity and several galleries along the coast are dedicated to helping visitors understand the culture’s aesthetics. Established in 1977, LyBensons Gallery & Studio in Beaufort specializes in antiques, rare collectibles and original artwork that illustrate the link between West African, Gullah and African American life. Located in Charleston, Gallery Chuma features work by emerging artists as well as internationally renowned masters of the Gullah genre, like painters Jonathan Green and John W. Jones. The Sonja Griffin Evans Gallery highlights the artistry of the Beaufort-born artist and the influences Gullah folkways have had on her life’s work. 

Authentic Flavors

As people who live along the coast, the Gullah place a heavy emphasis on seafood, and offerings like the deviled crab dinner at Nana’s Seafood & Soul in Charleston do not disappoint. Dishes such as the crawfish bites and catfish stew put Gullah Gullah Fish in Manning high on the must-stop list.

Bill and Sará Reynolds Green, the couple behind Gullah Grub Restaurant on St. Helena Island, place a heavy emphasis on eating locally and seasonally, the way their ancestors have for hundreds of years. Hannibal’s Kitchen in Charleston is a family-owned restaurant that has managed to keep its charm, even as their specialties of shrimp and grits and crab rice find themselves on foodies’ must-try lists.

 

Guided Tours & Talks

For a better understanding of the intersection of the Gullah community’s role in American history, several tours and programs offer guided educational experiences that enhance visitors’ understanding of the region.

Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, which operates out of Hilton Head Island, offers a two-hour bus tour narrated by native Gullah people from the region. With stops at the Plantation Tabby Ruins, First Freedom Village Historic Marker and the community’s old one-room schoolhouse, visitors will get a sense of what life was like in this area when the region consisted of isolated communities surrounded by farmland and the sea.

Charleston-based Gullah Geechee Tours present visitors with a number of tours focused on specific topics, like a walking tour with an emphasis on the story of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin’s opera, which takes place in Charleston.

After strolling the botanical gardens of Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, join Gullah descendent and Vice President of Creative Education Ron Daise for an informative program on the history, culture and cuisine of the Gullah Geechee people.

 

Sweetgrass Souvenirs

The Gullah people practice the art of sweetgrass basket weaving, which is the official craft of the state of South Carolina. Sweetgrass basketry is known for its intricate designs and time-honored technique, which has a direct connection to the craftsmanship found in West Africa. These baskets once had a functional purpose: helping families store food and other essential materials. They are now considered works of art.

Driving along North Highway 17, you’ll see several roadside stands where artisans sell their wares. Beaufort’s Original Gullah Festival, which takes place annually on Memorial Day Weekend, often features many practitioners talking about the history behind their designs and showing visitors their design process. Well-known artists often can be found working in stalls at the Charleston City Market. Historically based pieces can be purchased at places like the gift shop at Angel Oak Tree on Johns Island.

 

Featuring a variety of great stories and exciting trip ideas, the 2021 South Carolina Vacation Guide makes planning your next getaway to the Palmetto State easy. Request your free copy or download the guide today.

Staff Writer
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.