From North Carolina to Florida the Gullah have lived a life little known beyond their communities. For generations, a string of tidal islands along the United State's southeastern coast called the Sea Islands were considered marshy wastelands. But in fact, the very geography of the Sea Islands allowed the Gullah people to preserve their culture.
That isolation has fostered a rich culture with longstanding traditions that date back over 100 years to the continent of Africa. The stories, history and legacy are now on full display at these southeastern destinations that celebrate Gullah culture. Here are a few places to explore.
The history of the Gullah
Thanks to Sea Islands, the Gullah were able to live among themselves for generations after slavery.
“We were not influenced by any other cultures,” says Emory Campbell, a Gullah Historian from Hilton Head, SC. “These islands were hot and hard to get to – and wet. Mosquito infested. This was like a wasteland after slavery and during slavery. People who had other means didn’t stay here.”
Unlike most Black Americans, modern Gullah can trace their ancestry back to West Africa, in particular Sierra Leone, and are considered to have the most intact African cultural heritage than any other group of Black Americans. They have their own language – a creole mix of English and African words – similar to Sierra Leone Krio. They make African crafts like woven baskets, sing and orate folklore and cook flavorful dishes influenced by West African traditions.
In 2006, the US Congress established the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor as a National Heritage Area. The 12,000 square miles stretch from Pender County, North Carolina, to St. John’s County, Florida, and are dotted with Gullah (islanders from the Carolinas) and Geechee (people from Georgia) communities.
Poplar Grove Plantation – Wilmington, North Carolina
Poplar Grove is a designated historic site and museum in Wilmington, North Carolina, and it marks the beginning of the Gullah Geechee corridor. It operated as a peanut and sweet potato plantation, and according to records, enslaved people arrived there before the Revolutionary War. The on-site exhibits reflect traditions during the Reconstruction Era.
Like a growing number of plantations around the country, Poplar Grove has worked to widen its scope to include the stories and experiences of the enslaved people and their impact via tours and exhibits.
“It is our desire to shine light on the generations of enslaved peoples at Scotts Hill whose legacies are especially relevant today,” a statement on the museum's website reads.
Poplar Grove's "Basket Gallery" showcases the enslaved Gullah people's basket-making and weaving skills.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is modified access to Poplar Grove Plantation.
Caw Caw Interpretive Center – Ravenel, South Carolina
Spread over six miles of trails, the Caw Caw Interpretive Center is part outdoor expanse equipped with boardwalks and bridges and part educational site featuring several exhibits and interpretive displays that tell the tale of enslaved Africans who “applied their technology and skills in agriculture to carve the series of rice fields out of cypress swamps,” according to the Gullah Geechee heritage website.
Caw Caw was part of several rice plantations during the 18th and 19th centuries and is one of the sites of the 1739 Stono Rebellion in which enslaved men and women took up arms against white English colonists in pursuit of freedom.
Visitors can take part in Cultural History Group Interpretive Programs which highlight the roles enslaved African and African Americans had on the cultivation of rice and indigo.
The site is open Tuesday - Sunday 9am - 5pm.
McLeod Plantation – James Island, South Carolina
The McLeod Plantation is a comprehensive historic site located on James Island, South Carolina, and dedicated to sharing the history of the Gullah culture from the perspective of the enslaved and their descendants.
It’s named after William Wallace McLeod, who acquired the plantation in 1851, where they grew “sea island cotton,” a strain unique to the region. Today the museum spans 37 acres and is landmarked with a 600-year-old oak. The plantation house still remains, along with six clapboard cabins where enslaved people lived.
What’s special about McLeod is that you can see the record list of some of those who were enslaved, although the museum recognizes that “names by themselves do not reveal anything about people’s complex and individual experiences, but they can be a beginning in our quest to remember their humanity and individuality.”
Visitors can walk the grounds with an interpretive guide or take a self-guided tour following along with the museum’s app. Recreations, festivals and other special events are scheduled year-round.
The site is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9am-4pm.
The Wanderer Memory Trail, Jekyll Island, Georgia
The Wanderer Memory Trail is the site of what is believed to be the port where one of the last known slave ships, the Wanderer, arrived in the United States. Landing at Jekyll Island, Georgia, on November 28, 1858, it was an illegal voyage. The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 had banned the importing of enslaved people half a century earlier.
The trail opened in November of 2018 with free outdoor exhibits that tell the stories of the survivors of the Wanderer, including one of an African boy named Umwalla’s journey from being kidnapped to freedom. The Wanderer Memory Trail has also received the Unesco Slave Route Project “Site of Memory” designation.
The Wanderer Memory Trail is free and open to the public to explore.
Pin Point Museum – Savannah, Georiga
From the food to the language, the Pin Point Heritage Museum in Savannah, Georgia, provides visitors with comprehensive information about Gullah and Geechee history from those who lived it. The building is located in the former A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory, which served as the primary employment for most of the community until 1985. The museum serves as a testament to the community that was established by freed enslaved people in the 1890s.
The museum is open three days a week, Thursday - Saturday from 9am-5pm.
Fort Mose – St. Augustine, Florida
If you’re looking for a site to celebrate the resilience of a people who pushed past slavery to freedom, then Fort Mose will be a stop of inspiration. Established in 1738 by the Spanish, it's believed that more than 100 people escaped slavery to live there, making it the first free black settlement.
These formerly enslaved people, along with American Indigenous Peoples allied with the Spanish to help defend Spanish Florida from British attacks, as well as their individual freedom.
Today, Fort Mose is a National Historic Landmark. Visitors can camp, bird watch, and kayak on parts of the 40-acre waterfront property. There’s a museum and interpretive center where there are monthly events, including living history reenactors and Gullah culture exhibits.
The Fort Mose museum is open daily from 9am-5pm. The visitor center and museum are open Thursday through Monday from 9am-5pm.
Like the culture itself, Gullah cuisine is a unique blend of West African and American flavors. Fresh seafood and seasonal vegetables like okra, yams, peas and peppers (don't forget the rice) are hallmarks of stick-to-your-ribs comfort food.
Finding a Gullah spot to dine is getting more difficult these days in the wake of rising rent prices and economic upheaval around the country. But here are a few establishments to sample the Low Country cooking:
The Gullah Grub Restaurant – Saint Helena Island, South Carolina
Bill Green and his family have owned and operated The Gullah Grub Restaurant for over 15 years. The menu is filled with dishes like LoCountry crab soup, shrimp gumbo, fried fish, barbecue ribs, collard greens and lima beans. Green adheres to Gullah food traditions such as eating in season and buying locally.
Gullah Grub is open Tuesday-Friday noon - 5:30pm; Sundays 11:30-4:30pm
Virgil's Gullah Kitchen & Bar – College Park, Georgia
Virgil's Gullah Kitchen & Bar is named after Virgil F. Smalls, the late father and father-in-law of owners of Gregory and Juan Smalls. The recipes, which include items such as fried okra mix, crab rice and shrimp n'gravy wit' crab, are inspired by Virgil's family recipes.
Virgil's Gullah Kitchen & Bar is open Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday noon-10pm; Friday-Saturday noon-11pm
Catch – Wilmington, North Carolina
To satisfy that seafood itch, Catch is the place to visit. Opened in 2006 by owner and chef Keith Rhodes, Catch's menu includes a host of flavorful seafood with a global twist like Dirty South oysters, maple-scented firecracker shrimp and catch signature NC lump crab cakes. All the menu items at this higher-end establishment are naturally caught in the wild or sustainably raised at local fisheries.
Catch is open Monday - Saturday 5:30 - 9pm
Celestia's Coastal Cuisine – Jacksonville, Florida
There are lots of items you can order at Celestia's Coastal Cuisine, but there is one dish you must order – the crab boil. The heaping mounds of crab, corn and sausage are smothered in a Cajun garlic butter sauce. Opened in 2017 by chef Celestia Mobley, the classic southern style soul food spot also serves up fried fish, oxtails, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, string beans and of course, okra.
Celestia's Coastal Cuisine is currently only open for takeout 11am-9pm