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What is Gullah?

December 12th, 2017

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A large part of the cultural history of Charleston and the Charleston area comes from the Gullah, who are the ancestors of the African slaves brought to the Sea Islands from South Carolina south to northern Florida. Their culture lives on today in the regional food, crafts, and the Geechee language.

Charleston, one of America’s first cities, played a dominant role in growth of the country, and the slaves made it largely possible. Seventy percent of the slaves in the U.S. landed on the South Carolina coast’s Sea Islands that included Edisto, Coosaw, St. Helena, Daufuskie Island.

By the turn of the 18th century, the majority of the population in Charleston was from Africa or African descent. Today, the Gullah population in the region numbers 300,000.

Want to learn more about who and what is Gullah? Read on.

What is Gullah?

Their Heritage

Geechee: The Gullah language. The summer heat, humidity and mosquitoes drove the plantation owners and their families inland, leaving them isolated on the Sea Islands. It gave them plenty of time to develop their own language, a mix of English and dialects from their native lands in Africa.

Since they were isolated during slavery and afterwards on the Sea Islands, this language and their culture flourished among the Gullah and you can still hear it in practice today in the Lowcountry.

Gullah farming and food. Rice became a staple crop in the region because the Gullah were experts in its cultivation, from cultivation to irrigation to harvesting. This skill enhanced the relative independence and autonomy the Gullah experienced that gave them the luxury of time to develop their own culture.

The food indigenous to the Gullah includes gumbo, an Angolan word for okra, shrimp and grits, and red rice. Today, the Gullah influence can’t be denied on the menus of Charleston’s most noted restaurants. Look no further than local seafood dishes and stews that include vegetables, shellfish and meat or sausage.

Gullah Crafts. The Gullah refined sweetgrass basket craft to transport the produce and grains from the fields. The craft lives on and you can find these baskets at the Charleston City Market, where artisans demonstrate their basket weaving skills.

See also The History of Fort Moultrie

What is Gullah History?

The Penn School, where the Gullah learned to read and write just after Emancipation, celebrates the food and culture with a four-day event in November. They feature storytelling, basket and fishing net crafting, food and music.

The Penn School is on St. Helena Island, where the Frogmore and Fripp plantations are located. You’ll find restaurants throughout Charleston that feature Gullah dishes on the menu, or you may see blue ceilings on porches rooted in Gullah spiritual beliefs.

Learn more about Charleston’s History

Experience the Gullah Firsthand

Charleston residents and visitors have the opportunity to explore the imprint the Gullah once made and continue to do so in this area. Their invaluable contributions started at the birth of the region and continue through the present day.

Can’t get enough Charleston, SC history? Sandlapper history tours share the stories you want to hear most and show you the best historical sights right from the Charleston Harbor. Book your tour now.