No visit to Charleston is complete without learning about the role of the Gullah, who helped shape the Holy City as it stands today. Learn about their culinary and cultural traditions, and how to honor their legacy through educational tourism.
THE GULLAH GEECHEE PEOPLE
In the Antebellum South, hundreds of plantations once dotted the Sea Islands: a collection of islands on the coastline of South Carolina and Georgia. When the Civil War broke out, slavers fled to the mainland and abandoned these plantations, leaving the land to the workers. They reclaimed the land they had long toiled upon, and the Sea Islands became the first place in the South where slaves found freedom.
Due to the islands’ geographical isolation and the inhabitants’ meaningful connection to the land, these communities remained where their ancestors were once enslaved. These are the Gullah, or, less commonly, Geechee. On these lands, the Gullah have maintained resilient traditions that have remained largely unchanged for centuries. Indeed, the Gullah have held on to their ancestors’ traditions more than any other area of the United States.
CULINARY AND CULTURAL TRADITION
No Lowcountry meal is complete without rice. By the end of the 18th century, South Carolina was the biggest producer of it in the United States. This came at a human cost: the complex agricultural knowledge needed to grow the crop was brought to the country by enslaved West Africans. Slavers hand-picked people from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia who had expert knowledge of growing and cultivating rice in humid conditions.
Rice remains an indisputable staple of Gullah dining. One of the most essential dishes is Perloo, where the grain is cooked with crushed tomatoes and finished with smoked sausage and vegetables. Often, shrimp from local creeks and waterways is used also. A family meal or community gathering often includes many different types of rice dishes, including parsley rice or crab rice.
Locally sourced fish, meat and produce is key to Gullah cuisine. Indeed, many families’ livelihoods revolve around farming and fishing. Many meals will include spottail bass, okra soup, she-crab soup, and shrimp and grits. Many top chefs in Charleston tip their culinary hats to Gullah cookery. The cuisine is responsible for many of the soul food movements and signature dishes popular in the city today. What’s more, the Gullah were originators of the farm-to-table movement that characterizes many Charleston restaurants.
Another influential tradition is sweetgrass basket weaving. It is a treasured tradition, passed down through generations of Gullah families. These culturally important baskets, crafted by Gullah artisans, are found everywhere from Charleston City Market to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
GULLAH GEECHEE CULTURE TODAY
Many plantations in the area have introduced educational programs that confront their legacy of slavery. In 2015, the McLeod Plantation renamed itself the McLeod Plantation Historic Site, positioning itself as a Gullah heritage site. Boone Hall Plantation now employs Gullah storytellers, who lead live presentations to educate about those who were enslaved there and the injustices they faced.
2022 is set to mark the opening of the International African American Museum in Charleston. This new museum will explore “the diverse journeys and achievements of these individuals and their descendants in South Carolina, the United States, and throughout the African diaspora.”
To learn about Gullah culture from your corner of the world, why not turn to the silver screen? The 1991 film Daughters of the Dust was the first film directed by an African-American woman to be distributed theatrically in the United States. It tells the story of three generations of Gullah women, exploring the community’s emphasis on honoring their ancestors’ connection to the land. Not only was the film a landmark, but it continues to inspire: Beyoncé took direct inspiration from it for her Grammy Award-winning visual album Lemonade.
When you are ready to plan your trip to the Holy City, Charleston Place is here to welcome you. Our experts are on hand to help you plan your trip, with a wealth of historical excursions available to learn about the Gullah.
Header image: Communal, 2019
Oil on Canvas 36” x 48” © Jonathan Green
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