When most travelers think of coastal South Carolina, they have visions of white sandy beaches, great restaurants, and all the glitz and glamour of Myrtle Beach. While those attractions are great, there’s a fantastic culture here that is often overlooked by vacationers: The Gullah Geechee culture of the Low Country.
The term “Gullah” most likely originates from the people of Angola, in Western Africa. When slaves were brought to the Low Country, they kept many of their traditions. Through the years, with relative isolation from whites, their culture, dialect, religion, and talents have melded with the Native American and Creole influences in the area. Gullah culture stretches from the Cape Fear River in Wilmington all the way to the Sea Islands of Georgia. The term “Geechee” is derived from the Ogeechee river, near Savannah. The proud history and traditions of these amazing people are fascinating and have had a PROFOUND influence on the Low Country.
When rice fields were established in South Carolina and Georgia, the descendants of people originating in Africa’s “Rice Coast” were able to use their skills and talents to help establish a tremendous food source and cash crop which has had lasting effects on our economy. The first freed slaves of South Carolina were in the Low Country, the majority of which were Gullah. After the Civil War ended, the Gullah people were able to develop and sustain their culture with isolation from the rest of the world. To this day, you are able to visit markets, vendors, and see, hear, and taste the amazing impact of the Gullah culture.
So, what are some of the things you might see, hear, and taste when you want to experience Gullah culture on your next trip to the beach? You’re in luck, because you won’t have to go far to broaden your love of our area.
The dialect of our locals (our true locals) include many Gullah Geechee words you may hear when you are out and about. You might hear someone say “I’m broke as a haint!” (a “haint” is a haunt or ghost – my best friend says this all the time!) or you may hear peanuts referred to as “Goobers”, which comes from the Gullah word “guber” for peanut. Even the word “Cumbaya”, which is sung and said all over our nation, comes from the Gullah. It means “Come over here” and is spelled “Kumbaya” today. The word “Gumbo” comes from the word for okra in Angola, from the Umbundu language.
When traveling to any area, I feel that to truly know the people, you have to know the food – especially in the south. We are very proud of our food here, as it brings folks together and Gullah cuisine is no exception. Based on rice, of course, you’ll find many great dishes to satisfy your tastebuds! The Gullah gumbo, also called “Okra Soup” is a little different to that of what you may think of, like the usual New Orleans gumbo. Gullah Gumbo uses lots of tomatoes (a huge creole influence) and includes squash (introduced to the Gullah by Native Americans), corn, shrimp, bacon, and sometimes smoked fish. While the majority of black southern cuisine has been lumped into the “Soul Food” category, Gullah fare stands out as there is little to no battering and frying, and lots of meals are lumped together and cooked into a communal pot. This comes from having to feed large groups of people and those with different ingredients wanting to add to the flavor.
Gullah music finds its roots in African songs, which served to entertain, ease the monotony of work, educate children, and for religion. Following an “AAB” pattern, with lots of call and response, Gullah songs involve everyone! Simple drums, hand claps, feet stomps, and voices make up the instrumentation. Gullah music has some great syncopation, which had a definite influence on South Carolina’s jazz history. There are lots of Gullah playlists out there on services like Spotify and YouTube. It’s very soothing music to have on while you work, cook, or simply relaxing. Just like the cuisine, Gullah music is made up of sounds and stories borrowed from Europeans, Native Americans, Southern, and African people. Ostinato patterns are the staple of Gullah songs and compliment the music of the soul, like great food and company.
Art, Crafts, and Architecture
Again, you won’t have to go far to get a great dose of Gullah Culture. When you make a quick trip south to nearby Georgetown, you’ll start to see some really cool things, including indigo painted doors and shutters. This tradition comes from putting indigo (a huge cash crop of the area) there to keep out boogers, witches, or haints – especially “The Boo Hag” (a great South Carolina legend that my Granny used to scare my cousins and I when we were kids – definitely a subject for a future blog around Halloween!). You’ll also find vendors on the side of the road selling sweetgrass baskets which are absolutely beautiful and very sturdy. You can see the African influence in the simple and intricate designs in these gorgeous creations. They are extremely popular and can range from $30 for a small basket and up to $500 for a large one. One of my family’s most prized heirlooms is a sweetgrass basket made by Annabelle Ellis, who is considered to be the greatest basket maker in the Low Country. Ms. Ellis’ family still makes the highest quality baskets today and be sure to look for their label when you purchase one.
The Future of the Gullah Geechee
As with any culture that has a history based on oral tradition, The Gullah Geechee is extremely fragile. Not a lot had been written down early on, but the cultural roots have been very strong. In 2006, Congress passed the “Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act”, which provided $10 million for the preservation and interpretation of historical Gullah sites in the Low Country. There are many events through the year along the coast, particularly in Georgetown and in Conway, SC at the Horry County Museum. Each March, there is a Gullah Geechee community day in Conway, where you can see Gullah exhibits, musical performances, lectures, and more. Brookgreen Gardens in Murrell’s Inlet also has many Gullah exhibits and features a weekly Gullah program (Wednesdays at 1pm) that showcases language, food, and history. One of the best places to experience Gullah history is at the Gullah Museum in Georgetown.
We are very fortunate to still have the many traditions and culture of the Gullah Geechee in our area today. On your next visit, take some time to take a quick trip to Georgetown, Murrell’s Inlet, or Conway to experience and support this amazing and rich culture.
Jason Coker is originally from the metropolis of Burlington, NC and is passionate about vacation experiences. An aficionado of music, low country history, and spooky stories, Jason spends his free time performing music, grilling out, and relaxing with his son, daughter, and lovely wife, Amy.