By J.A. Young and P.J. Thomas
One of the devastating effects of slavery in the United States was the loss of culture, language and sense of place for the Africans held in bondage.
It has been estimated that as many as 40 percent of newly arriving Africans came through the port of Charleston, South Carolina, and most were quarantined on Sullivan’s Island. Historians estimate as many as half of all African-Americans can trace their ancestry through Sullivan’s Island, likely including the ancestors of First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama.
The Gullah/Geechee people, as they are called, are descendants of West Africans, brought to the marshy wetlands for their skills in copper mining, blacksmithing, and indigo farming. But the skill that provided the most value, and transformed South Carolina into one of the wealthiest colonies, was an expertise in rice cultivation.
Much of the rice farming was on isolated low country barrier islands such as Sapelo, Sullivan’s, James, Hilton Head and Daufuskie that stretched from the southern part of North Carolina to coastal Georgia.
Because the Gullah/Geechee people lived in relative isolation on the coasts and islands, they were able to maintain more of the African culture, heritage, customs and linguistic patterns than any other black people in the United States.
Against a backdrop of live oaks and sea, the plantation era rose from the marshy ground to foster a culture formed by the Gullah people, who may have taken their name from Angola in Africa.
Beaufort, the state’s second-oldest city, was historically a challenging place to live and it was quite common for plantation owners to abandon the plantations during “fever season” April through November, allowing the remaining Gullah people to live largely on their own.
Thanks to the isolation of the area and the fact the people were often left to fend for themselves, strong African cultural influences –art, music, cuisine and a special “patols” language–remained largely intact over centuries.
As the years progressed, limited employment opportunities and rising real estate taxes threatened their culture and many people left for cities where opportunities were greater.
However, many Gullah people remained in close-knit communities along the coastal islands. Documentaries, festivals, historical research, anthropologists, Gullah tours and even a planned Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor support the preservation of the Gullah people.
Even as individual Gullah leave for major cities, others return. Dr. Emory Campbell, who operates Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, returned after retirement to work successfully as an activist on Hilton Head Island.
Anita Singleton-Prather also returned to the land and culture she so passionately loves. Singleton-Prather performs as the storyteller “Aunt Pearlie Sue” (often accompanied by a group of singers called The Gullah Kinfolk). She is a leading artist championing the Gullah way of life as one of the cultural ambassadors of the low country.
Institutions such as Penn Center, established in 1862 as one of the first schools to educate formerly enslaved black people, reflect the culture’s long past through exhibits, lectures, and special events, while Beaufort’s Original Gullah Festival and Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration promote yearly celebrations to honor the irreplaceable culture.
The sea, beaches and gentle wave of the sea grasses demand a slower pace. Sit quietly on the porch of one of the historic waterfront homes to decompress.
“Beaufort is a very, very special place”, she said, “and people come from all over the world to experience this Gullah culture”.
Other remarkable Gullah artists, such as Diane Britton Dunham, Cassandra Gillens, Hank Herring and James Denmark, celebrate their heritage painting the landscape and people of this rich history.
According to Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, spending time in Beaufort “is better than any high-blood pressure pill you may be taking”.