Gullah Magic in Charleston, South Carolina

A culinary tour of the city's African American legends.
By Rosalind Bentley
March 10, 2020

For about 20 years, my mother-in-law, Linda, lived in Charleston, South Carolina, on Queen Street just a couple of blocks from Colonial Lake. We walked everywhere when I visited.

Oleander and palm trees shaded us on the brick path through the Unitarian Church cemetery, part of a shortcut we took to the shops along King Street. At the Marion Square farmers’ market, we bought shrimp from men and women who’d netted them that morning. From there, we’d scurry to the corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, where I’d buy a sweetgrass basket from one of the ladies on the sidewalk outside St. Michael’s Church. Sometimes I’d linger and watch their nimble brown fingers weave the blades into what would become magnificent vessels.

Then about eight years ago, Linda, a Northerner who was tired of being told she was “from off” (what native Charlestonians call non-natives), packed up, sold her batter-yellow town house, and moved to Maine.

I still haven’t forgiven her.

Atlanta has been my home for 16 years, a symbol of African American progress and achievement. But when I walked the streets of the Holy City, past its historic single houses with sky blue piazzas, past black wrought iron gates and curly shutter dogs, I felt the energy of those thousands of enslaved Africans whose hands built this storied place. From Gadsden Street near the Ashley River to Gadsden’s Wharf along the Cooper River, that spirit abides. As it should, since Charleston was the landing place of almost half of the nearly 390,000 Africans who were brought directly to what’s now the U.S. during the transatlantic slave trade.

“This place was saturated by African people and African culture because for years they made up the majority of the city’s population,” professor Bernard Powers told me recently. He is a scholar on the history of slavery at the College of Charleston and also the interim president and CEO of the International African American Museum (IAAM), slated to open in late 2021. “The African signature is endemic in this place.”

Rev. DeMett E. Jenkins and Elijah Heyward III of the IAAM
| Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

Charleston is one of the nation’s top tourist destinations. This is the fourth consecutive year that Southern Living readers have voted it South’s Best City. Visitors wander along Tradd Street or Rainbow Row and for a moment imagine they are in some quaint English town. But I can’t make the trip without thinking of what life was like for the Africans who lived in and around this city from its founding in 1670 until the Civil War’s end. Most of them were not free. They created a unique culture, language, and cuisine that thrives to this day, yet many aren’t aware of their contributions. But corner to corner, alley to alley, here are the testaments. On a recent visit, I opened my eyes to their legacy—an American legacy—in ways I hadn’t before.

I arrive late Friday morning, and I am getting hungry. Hillery Douglas, a native of the Charleston area and a chemist who at 79 years old doesn’t know how to retire, takes me to Bertha’s Kitchen. It’s a James Beard Award winner, an institution started nearly 40 years ago by Albertha Grant and now run by her daughters in the working-class neighborhood of Union Heights.

Diners lineup to enjoy the food at Bertha's Kitchen
| Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

I feel right at home sucking the fragments of tender meat from stewed chicken necks swimming in a thick gravy. Gizzards bob beside them. The only green on my plate is pale and stewed until rendered sweet: cabbage. I spoon the gravy over my peas and rice. Douglas tells me that in the years after the Civil War, one of the jobs that was open to black men was working in phosphate mines nearby. Bertha’s isn’t far from Ashley Phosphate Road, a reference to that industry.

The restaurant, with its radiant aqua exterior and welcoming interior, serves a few tourists. But working people know it’s a place where the calories consumed at lunch might be burned by day’s end through hard physical labor. Men in paint-splattered coveralls eat plates of lima beans and ham hocks, fried and baked chicken, and greens. A lady in a silk sleep bonnet orders pork chops.

Bertha’s ribs, collards, green beans, and cornbread
| Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

“They serve good food, and they serve enough,” Douglas says as he wraps my leftover piece of cornbread that I’m too full to eat in a napkin to save for a snack (for himself).

I’m still stuffed two hours later when I meet Paul Garbarini of Uniquely Charleston Tours for a walk through the city. I’m grateful for the exercise—even more grateful for what I learn.

On my tour, Garbarini focuses on the foundation of the city: its bricks. Brick plantations lined the banks of the Cooper River before the Civil War. Enslaved Africans made them, including the ones used to construct Fort Sumter. As we move around the walls of the Old City Jail, Garbarini points to indentations in some of the oldest bricks, thick and rounded along the corners. “Those are the fingerprints of enslaved people,” Garbarini tells me. “Sometimes they’re really small, so that was probably a child because we know they also worked in the brickyards.”

Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

We find our way to the Unitarian Church and cemetery. Outside the historic sanctuary to the right of the front steps is a rectangular memorial of brick topped with shells. Attached to it is the silhouette of a Sankofa bird, a West African symbol, rendered in iron. Etched on a granite slab beneath it are the words: “In Memory of Those Enslaved Workers Who Made These Bricks and Helped Build Our Church C: 1774-1787.” During a renovation project about 10 years ago, the colonial-era bricks were uncovered, and some were saved. The church used them to build the memorial and dedicated it in 2013. The Sankofa symbol means, loosely, to learn from the past yet move forward.

Left: Bucket of blue crabs at Charlie Brown Seafood in Charleston | Credit: Peter Frank Edwards
Right: Charlie Brown’s steamed crabs | Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

Although I’d rather go back to my hotel room and sit with what I’ve learned, I still meet Douglas for dinner at Nigel’s Good Food, located in North Charleston. We start out with Geechie Wings, chicken wings tossed in a sauce of honey and vinegar with mild heat from peppers. Douglas orders a plate of gumbo, its slices of okra winking next to plump shrimp. I have a Charleston staple, lima beans studded with nuggets of ham hock.

Left: Martha Lou Gadsden of Martha Lou’s Kitchen | Credit: Peter Frank Edwards
Right: Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

The name Geechie Wings is a nod to the Sea Island culture that stretches from North Carolina to North Florida. In Florida, where I’m originally from, it’s known as Geechie or Geechee. Here it’s called Gullah. They are distinct cultures, created by enslaved Africans from different countries who were put together indiscriminately on plantations on the barrier islands and coasts. They created a Creole language by melding their native words and phrases with snippets of English. A spirit of independence and resistance nurtured by distance from the heart of the mainland developed and thrived. It lives on today, expressed by new generations who are bent on preserving it through music, photography, and scholarship.

Lorraine Smalls of My Three Sons of Charleston
| Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

But Gullah and Geechee are also foodways. Such neighborhood institutions as Charlie Brown Seafood, My Three Sons of Charleston, and Martha Lou’s Kitchen keep it alive. I have breakfast at Hannibal’s Kitchen on Saturday. The place is plain and rough around the edges. It feels familiar. A quartet of older black men sit at a table rehashing the week. They are clearly regulars. I’m served sautéed shrimp and crab over grits. I slather grape jelly on my white-bread toast. This is joy.

Safiya Grant of Hannibal’s Kitchen
| Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

Charlotte Jenkins, who is considered by many to be a matriarch of traditional Gullah cuisine, later told me my breakfast, minus the jelly, was a typical Gullah meal. The overall diet was seafood rich. “When I was growing up, the fishermen would get their catch and go to their customers’ houses to sell it,” explains Jenkins, author of Gullah Cuisine: By Land and By Sea. “You didn’t need a license to go out and catch. Black folks made a living off the river.”

After breakfast, I join Alphonso Brown for a two-hour Gullah tour. He is Gullah, a “been-yeah” (Charleston native), and speaks the language. One stop is the backyard shop of the late Philip Simmons, the legendary blacksmith who, through his seven-decade career, made some of the city’s most intricate and revered wrought iron gates. He died in 2009, at 97 years old. His work stands in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. He always paid homage to Peter Simmons (no relation), the formerly enslaved man who taught him to render iron as though it were a lyric.

Before the sun sets, I dash through Hampton Park to see the monument to Denmark Vesey, the carpenter who in 1822 led an ill-fated and ultimately thwarted rebellion of enslaved people in Charleston. The bronze statue wasn’t there last time I visited. Vesey was a founder of what is now Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or “Mother Emanuel,” where nine souls were murdered in 2015 during Bible study.

Sweetgrass baskets by Corey Alston
| Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

For old time’s sake, I stop outside St. Michael’s Church and buy myself a sweetgrass basket, made with a weaving tradition still alive in Sierra Leone and other West African nations. Dinner is from Dave’s Carry-Out, a couple of blocks off King Street: shrimp lightly battered with an egg wash and flour and then flash fried, red rice, and a salad.

Chef Kevin Mitchell and BJ Dennis are dedicated to preserving Gullah Geechee culture and food.
| Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

A few days later, BJ Dennis (chef and national face of what he likes to call a “Gullah renaissance”) says I chose my meals well. However, he laments the fact I missed out on “soup bunch” at Dave’s, explaining the term.

Sandra McCray, owner of Dave’s Carry-Out
| Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

“When farmers came in from James Island, whatever they had left—a cabbage, collards, a potato, a hot pepper, a rutabaga, maybe a little smoked meat, maybe not—they cooked it all down to where it was like a stew,” Dennis says. “That’s as African as you can get.”

That Saturday night, I curl up on the hotel bed and devour the shrimp, rice, and salad. I am leaving the next day.

I’ll have to return for soup bunch, and another sweetgrass basket, and a walk along Gadsden’s Wharf, especially after the IAAM opens. Odds are, one of the ancestors who began the initial leg of my family’s journey in America took his or her first uncertain steps onto that wharf along the Cooper River.

Yes, Charleston is the Holy City, but it is also a sacred one.

Rosalind Bentley is a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and received her MFA from the University of Georgia.