Discover Gullah Country

In this land of marshes, where weepy moss hangs like patterned lace from live oaks, the Gullah people live isolated from the world.
Farrah Austin

"Not everything needs to be bought or sold," says Marquetta L. Goodwine, or "Queen Quet," Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. A native of St. Helena Island, South Carolina, Marquetta has given Gullah tours for more than 14 years. "Some things need to remain within," she explains. "We've chosen to be insulated or isolated so we can keep what we have and keep it alive."

What they have is a rich heritage that has seeped into the rest of the South. They are descendants of enslaved West Africans who were brought to the Sea Islands as early as 1670 to cultivate rice, cotton, and indigo and provide labor on plantations. Over the past few centuries, the Gullah people have developed a unique culture in the small, remote communities they have lived in for generations. Pockets of this culture stretch from Georgetown County, South Carolina, to Amelia Island, Florida. The marsh-lined shores of St. Helena Island, still 90% Gullah owned and home to the largest Gullah population, serve as both a haven for the people and a gateway to the outside world. Those who leave often find themselves compelled to return to the land of their origins, the land they love.

"I left here 30 years ago and couldn't wait to come back," says one resident. "I love the place so much. I couldn't stay away from the land. I couldn't stay away from the marsh."

The most obvious blend, however, is seen in the kitchen. "Soul food" such as collard greens, okra, and gumbo originated from African cuisine and forms the basis for many Southern meals. No proper Charleston supper tastes complete without a bowl of fluffy rice, a staple on Gullah tables. Shrimp and grits make for a scrumptious Lowcountry breakfast, and oyster dressing completes Gullah Thanksgiving meals. "We like to think of it as our Charleston style," says one resident of the city, "but, in actuality, it's all Gullah."

Patrons at Gullah Cuisine Restaurant in Mount Pleasant enjoy nothing but the freshest Lowcountry ingredients. "I only use the seasonings that my mom taught me," says owner Charlotte A. Jenkins. "If you went to China, you'd want to find the best Chinese food that country has to offer, right?" she asks, standing near a pitch-black skillet of frying catfish. "Well, when people come to Charleston, they expect to find the best food the South has to offer, and that means Gullah food."

Gullah folklore and beliefs have crossed into surrounding cities. Among Beaufort's streets sit stately homes with strong elements of Gullah influence--particularly painted blue shutters believed to keep evil spirits away.

 

Alphonso Brown introduces Charleston visitors to all things Gullah during his guided bus tours. A favorite stop is the home of Philip Simmons, a world-renowned 89-year-old Gullah blacksmith and gate maker. Scores of elegant gated homes in Charleston showcase his work, which can also be found at the Smithsonian.

During the excursion, visitors not only see significant sights, but they also hear stories told in the Gullah language--a combination of some 32 different African languages and bits of English. The language developed as a way that Africans of various tribes could communicate with one another so that their owners could not understand. "You can hear Gullah in its purest form from Georgetown, South Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia," Alphonso says. The tour starts at the Gallery Chuma, which features Gullah crafts and artwork by notable artists such as Jonathan Greene and Cassandra Gillens.

A few miles up the road along U.S. 17, another art is being made--sweetgrass baskets. At a stand in front of Mount Pleasant's Heritage Presbyterian Church, sweetgrass basket maker Vera Manigault skillfully continues the handed-down art form, one that is still practiced in Senegal. Vera works alongside her mother, Ethel, who has continued the craft in the same spot for more than 50 years. "I put myself into each basket," Vera says, wrapping a piece of bulrush around her right hand. "Baby Moses' basket was made out of bulrush," she adds sweetly.

Those baskets speak of the beauty and strength of Gullah culture--a culture as tightly interwoven into the Deep South as the palmetto used to tie Vera's sweetgrass. Threatened by increasing land development on the Sea Islands, the Gullah remain undaunted. They cling fast to their traditions, and their sacred connection to the shore gives them a resilience that awes us all.

This article is from the March 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.