Before arriving in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, we had never even heard the word Gullah, but now, with our curiosity piqued about Gullah history and society, we set about googling with a vengeance.
We searched for articles on anything and everything Gullah, background, historical sites, language and, oh yeah, food.
The first thing we tend to look for when exploring a new region or culture is the food. It’s not just that we like to eat, although we do, but foods give an unique insight into how and where people live.
Discovering Real-deal Food
A short drive down the Sweetgrass Basket Maker Highway, a stretch of U.S. Highway 17 lined with little makeshift booths where Gullah women make and sell traditional sweetgrass baskets, would lead us to Gullah Cuisine.
According to our newfangled technology, this restaurant is said to have the best authentic Gullah grub in the area. Lucky for us, it was right about dinner time.
The menu features classic Gullah dishes like She Crab Soup, Hoppin’ John, fried okra, okra gumbo, shrimp & grits and Gullah rice.
With no idea what to expect, we ordered up some She Crab and a gumbo, to see how this compared to Louisiana Creole cooking.
The soup is like a cross between a bisque and a chowder, made with blue crab, cream, dry sherry and crab roe – the roe puts the “she” in the She Crab.
The gumbo was similar to the Louisiana variety but with a little less heat in the spices.
Next we went with the Gullah rice and a sampler plate of Hoppin’ John, fried okra and collards.
Gullah rice is a close cousin to jambalaya, with sausage, chicken and shrimp jazzing up the seasoned rice.
Gullah seasoning employs some of the usual suspects; garlic, pepper, onion, salt, bay leaf and paprika, but then mustard, mace, cinnamon and ginger jump in and give the tastebuds a completely different, and slightly sweet twist.
These flavors were also present in the gumbo and the Hoppin’ John, the Gullah version of beans and rice, using field peas in place of beans.
At the end of our meal, Charlotte Jenkins, the chef and owner, came out to greet us. To help answer our questions, she brought out a copy of her book, Gullah Cuisine: By Land and By Sea, and allowed us to browse through it at our leisure.
Her stories of growing up in the Lowcountry are fascinating and her recipes come from the experience of cooking Gullah foods passed down through generations.
It is so much more than a mere cookbook.
With the culinary component of our research complete, we were ready to venture out to the Sea Islands to learn more about Gullah history. These one hundred or so islands along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina became home to thousands of enslaved Africans.
Once it was discovered that rice could be grown, slaves were stolen from the West African rice-growing regions.
Generally left alone due to these islands’ inaccessibility and the plantation owners fear of malaria, much of the Gullah people’s African culture remained intact.
They became known as Gullah, perhaps from the word Angola or the Gola people of West Africa.
In our Google frenzy we discovered that we hit the area in time for the Annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration.
Hilton Head is only a few hours drive from Charleston, but we had a couple days leeway, so we had a chance to mosey through the heart of the Gullah Sea Islands.
St. Helena Island, South Carolina just might be that heart.
Two of the area’s most renown landmarks are on this island. Only a couple of dozen miles from Charleston as the crow flies, we drove over fifty miles to get there because of the bays, rivers and marshland.
Once on the island, we proceeded down Lands End Road to the Penn Center.
In 1862 philanthropists, abolitionists, and missionaries from Pennsylvania opened the Penn School to educate the Sea Island slaves who were freed at the beginning of the Civil War.
The Center operated as a school for nearly one hundred years before shifting its focus to other services such as child care and health training.
Today the Center is focused on preserving the unique culture of the Sea Islands through the History and Culture Program, the Land Use and Environmental Education Program and the Program for Academic and Cultural Enrichment.
A Haunting Chapel
Just down the road from the Center, through a thick growth of live oaks so heavily draped with Spanish moss that they darkened the afternoon sky, we came upon The Chapel of Ease.
Chapels of ease were built by the plantation owners because churches in the cities were too far away.
Less travel, more ease. This particular example dates back to the 1740s.
We pulled off the road to meander through the haunting, roofless structure and adjoining cemetery.
Upon closer inspection, we found the walls of the chapel filled with oyster shells.
The material used, called tabby, employed the local ingredients of lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash.
The shells were plentiful and, judging by how sturdy these 270-year-old walls still are, made a pretty good version of concrete.
Off to one side of the chapel we found several unkempt graves and an open, empty mausoleum.
Many of the headstones bear the name Fripp, one of the island’s most prominent families before the Civil War.
Peeking in to the broken entrance of the crypt, we got a pretty creepy feeling gazing down at the empty tomb, formerly occupied by Edgar and Eliza Fripp.
Turns out that there are a couple ghost stories that circulate in these parts.
One involves the mausoleum, which was broken into and raided by Union soldiers.
When repairs were made, the next morning the bricks had all been removed again and neatly stacked next to the broken entrance.
Local authorities assured everyone that no one had been allowed near the cemetery that night so naturally supernatural forces were suspected.
The other spooky legend has a eerie orb of light traveling down Lands End Road after dusk on many nights.
We didn’t learn about this phenomenon until after our visit, but with the way the oaks and moss closed in even in the daylight, it must get crazy dark when the sun goes down and we might have believed anything.
Since we didn’t see it, we’re going to go with that good old catch-all explanation, swamp gas… perhaps from some shrimp and grits.
Anyway, we had a good excuse to keep moving, the Gullah Celebration was awaiting us.
The day for our visit to the Annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration dawned blustery and rain soaked, but we were not to be deterred.
We drove through the precipitation to the prescribed point, only to find that the Freedom Day Parade was not only deterred, but detoured, deferred, delayed, diverted, disassembled, and finally postponed.
Disappointed but undaunted, we slogged through a soggy parking lot into the old schoolhouse across the street from the Historic St. James Baptist Church for the Ol’ Fashion Gullah Breakfast.
These schoolhouses were built throughout the Sea Islands to serve the Gullah people, who have a proud tradition of education dating back to the founding of the Penn Center in 1862.
Outside, a tent had been set up to serve as a kitchen, De Gullah Ooman (woman) Kitchen, with plates being passed back and forth through a side door.
As we have learned in our travels, people eat what is regionally available, so breakfast on the Sea Islands means a plate of fried fish, shrimp & grits and stewed oysters.
Not what many folks would consider breakfast foods perhaps, but mighty good eating anytime of day.
With the parade postponed, we had plenty of time to linger and chat about history and folklore with many of our fellow breakfasters, including a ghost story from local Lowcountry columnist Ervena Faulkner.
Although she has not seen the spirit herself, she knows some who have witnessed the light of a beheaded lost lover desperately trying to return to his love.
When not spinning yarns, Ervena writes a food and lifestyle column for The Island Packet.
The next event, a film “Remnants of Mitchelville” and a presentation about the Mitchelville Preservation Project, was held across the road in the St. James Church. Founded in 1886, this church is one of the few remaining ties to Mitchelville.
In 1861, during the Civil War, when Union troops landed on Hilton Head Island the plantation owners fled, leaving the slaves behind.
Considered “contraband,” as slaves were not yet free in America, the Union faced a dilemma.
Were the Gullah people slaves or freedmen?
In 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the slaves of the Sea Islands were freed by military order. Major General Ormsby M. Mitchel suggested a town be built for the new freedmen.
The first compulsory education laws in the state of South Carolina were enacted in Mitchelville.
Most of the residents worked as contract labor for the military, so the end of the war brought hardship.
The town diminished through time, but survived for several decades with residents who raised subsistence crops and fished.
By the time the Great Depression rolled in, Mitchelville had disappeared.
All of the original buildings were wooden structures and the town has been completely lost.
The Mitchelville Preservation Project is working hard to bring it back.
The plans for The Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park include a recreation of the first Freedman’s Village, as well as a memorial to commemorate the Gullah people’s “experiment in freedom” and a Welcome Center / Pavilion for exhibits and special events.
Worthy goals for bringing attention to this often overlooked episode in American history.
In our conversations that morning, the Gullah Heritage Trail Tour came up again and again – a tour of the island led by guides who have lived in the community their entire lives.
With all of the high praise, it seemed the perfect way to complete our Gullah experience.
So we bid adieu to the church and headed to the Coastal Discovery Museum to meet up with the tour.
While we waited, we browsed the museum’s displays of vibrant works by Gullah artists and sweetgrass baskets along with several botanical and sea-life exhibits. Within minutes, we were introduced to our guide, Irvin Campbell.
Mr. Campbell is a fourth generation Gullah Hilton Head descendant so he really knows the island firsthand.
He began with a little background on the Gullah language. Still spoken by about a quarter million people along this coast, almost all Gullah are bilingual, speaking English as well.
Once considered just a dialect of English, more recent studies have deemed it a unique language. The roots come from the native languages of the enslaved Africans brought here, mixed with English. This makes for some recognizable words, but the overall effect is a wholly distinct language.
For example, “Cuz dis ya sum fa eat, ga mek hunnah knock hunnah mammy.” meaning “Don’t sit next to your mother while you eat.” had been written on our breakfast menus the other morning.
Not something we could have figured out without help.
Perhaps the best known example of the Gullah language is the song “Kumbayah,” which is Gullah for “Come By Here.”
With our language lesson learned, it was time to see the island. As Mr. Campbell drove us around, he gave us details about not just the area, but the lifestyle.
“We used to fish over there,” or “My cousin’s family lives there” was an ongoing banter as we went along. He personally knew so many of the people and places we passed by, it was like having an old friend show us around. He told stories of the fields and beaches where he played as a child, now filled with condos and hotels.
Change came very slowly to Hilton Head because there was no electricity until 1951 and no bridge to the mainland until 1956.
But once the connections to the outside world were made, the pace picked up drastically. Within ten years resorts had sprung up all over the island and land speculating ran rampant.
As property values skyrocketed, families that had lived on the land for generations had to sell just to pay taxes on the new values.
The amount of land owned by Gullah families dwindled to a tiny portion of the island, but a few of the families have held on by renting out parcels or building their own developments.
After the tour and our conversations with Mr. Campbell, we realized that it would be easy to visit Hilton Head and never get an feel for its rich history.
The island has been completely transformed into a golf, shopping and beachhouse playland.
Hopefully the Mitchelville Preservation Project can bring a more visible reminder to visitors and residents alike.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com