The Gullah people are descendants of enslaved Africans originating primarily from the West African nations, especially Sierra Leone and Ghana. Those enslaved on coastal sea islands from South Carolina ato northern Florida lived an isolated existence on plantations growing rice, indigo, and sea island cotton. It is from this shared experience of isolation and displacement with those of uncommon language, customs, and heritage that a new and unique American culture was born. The Gullah people of today enjoy the pride and history of their own language, society, and traditions handed down to them from their enslaved ancestors. We urge those of you visiting the area seek out and experience the sights, sounds, and flavors of the rich Gullah culture to be found here in the Lowcountry.
The Gullah Language
The Gullah language is understood to be a creole dialect; in other words, a mixing of various languages into one. Unfortunately, the Gullah language is no longer widely used by those living in the area, but there are still some native speakers to be found and some words have even worked their way into general use that we all use today. The words, “okra”, “yam” and “tote” all originated from the Gullah language.
Historic Gullah Sites
There are many locations to learn more about the Gullah heritage during your visit to Hilton Head. We suggest all visitors seek out Historic Mitchellville Freedom Park, to learn about the first freedman’s town in the United States, founded during the height of the Civil War. History buffs may also want to sign up for a Gullah Heritage Tour while visiting the Coastal Discovery Museum where traditional sweet grass baskets can be purchased, and Gullah artwork is on display. There are also several Gullah cemeteries to be found throughout the island, including the Amelia White Cemetery, adjacent to the Green Shell preserve. Founded in the 1800s, it has over 125 graves and is still in use for burials today. The cemetery is maintained by native islanders organized as the Amelia White Cemetery Preservation Committee, who strive for the preservation of Gullah land and culture.
The Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration is an annual event held during the month of February. This event showcases the rich cultural heritage of the Gullah people and their history. The Gullah Celebration includes a variety of events designed to attract “Beenyas” (locals) and “Comeyas” (visitors). These events have been recognized by the Southeast Tourism Society as one of the “Top 20 Events in the Southeast”. The Gullah Celebration incorporates many facets of the culture. Visitors have an opportunity to experience the food and music, receive first hand historical information, and take a journey through the culture via the visual arts.
The history of Gullah islanders is an American story. The people are a part of the progress of Hilton Head Island. Pack your bags and experience the rich Gullah culture that exists today. See you soon.