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The South Carolina Sea Islands Preserve Gullah Geechee Ingenuity

By Kayla Stewart

Feb 22, 2022

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A canopy of live oaks lines a path at McLeod Plantation Historic Site, which examines the difficult history of sea island cotton.

Photo by Prentiss Findlay/Shutterstock

A canopy of live oaks lines a path at McLeod Plantation Historic Site, which examines the difficult history of sea island cotton.

In South Carolina, stunning sea islands tell a unique story about southern culture.

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There’s a crisp silence that blows among the trees of South Carolina. Spanish moss drapes the live oaks, as if they can conceal the stories and truths of the region from those who wish to generalize and minimize the great history enacted upon the grounds. Waters traverse humbly, as if to pay respect to the spontaneity of nature in the region. Homes stand guard mere miles from the shoreline, seemingly fighting back against the impact of climate change and unfettered development. Outside of Charleston, a prime travel destination of the American South, the sea islands of South Carolina tell their own tale about southern identity.

South Carolina is home to more than 30 sea islands. These islands, a chain of barrier and tidal islands in the Atlantic Ocean, line the coast of the southeastern United States. They touch South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and remain the home of numerous Gullah Geechee people: Black Americans who descend from enslaved Africans and who remained on the southeastern shores of the United States. They have their own language and dialect, and their own cultural and cooking traditions, many of which have been conflated with more general southern cooking.

Despite years of racism, private development, and aggressive climate change, about 200,000 Gullah Geechee people reside in the United States; many still live on the stunning sea islands. Those who remain continue to protect and preserve the traditions of their ancestors and elders who crafted Lowcountry cooking, culture, and community. 

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These traditions, like much in the Black American community, begin on the water. On the coasts where captured Africans were brought to the Americas, Gullah Geechee folks (descendants of some of those very Africans) maintain a relatively peaceful way of life by fishing and shrimping in the area. Sea islands like Edisto Island, St. Helena Island, and Johns Island—the largest sea island in the nation—are rich with lakes, rivers, ponds, and oceanfront that have long produced some of the most important seafood in Gullah Geechee foodways, such as shrimp, oysters, and crab.

Gullah Geechee culinary stalwarts like Emily Meggett, BJ Dennis, and Germaine Jenkins have spent their lives and careers highlighting these culinary traditions, ensuring that dishes like red rice, okra gumbo, and chicken perloo don’t get lost or generalized in the southern foodways canon. The Gullah Geechee, and thus African, roots of these Lowcountry meals remain both relevant and essential knowledge when traveling through the region.

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The sea islands are connected to the mainland by way of small highways and bridges. Existing on their own, the islands carry their own weight and identity. Unfazed by the shops and bustle of nearby Charleston, they are quiet and quaint and have served as a respite for people looking to indulge in a restorative, yet uniquely southern, experience. Like many off-the-beaten-path locations, the sea islands stand at the crossroads of preservation and development. Kiawah Island, once an oasis for freed enslaved people, is now nearly unrecognizable as largely white tourists have developed private beaches and golf resorts. Johns Island still retains the history of some of its Indigenous and Gullah Geechee heritage, evidenced through the McLeod Plantation, where Gullah Geechee people tell their own stories, but it faces the same challenge: eager developers complicit in cultural erasure. 

Sweetgrass basket weaving is a long-practiced Gullah Geechee tradition.

And yet, the sea islands, in their own special ways, persist. Edisto Island has managed to keep much of its atmosphere of peace and community intact. It was once home to the venerable Black Kings of Edisto, a group of freed enslaved people who fought for land ownership, voting rights, and general prosperity, and who helped to preserve Edisto Island as one of the premier locations for Gullah Geechee people. Emily Megget, a descendant of one of the kings, James Hutchinson, continues to cook for the community there and is deeply respected as a mother of the island. The Edisto Island Museum shows the complex history of slavery, colonialism, and modern-day living.

Over on Hilton Head, Gullah Heritage Trail Tours allow visitors to learn of the harrowing and heroic history of the storied community. They can watch the still-practiced art of weaving sweetgrass baskets, learn about the distinctive history and language, and see how art and religion take center stage. Importantly, Gullah Geechee people are the primary storytellers—shaping and driving their own narrative.

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Many visitors travel to the Lowcountry to see the Angel Oak Tree, a more than 60-foot-tall oak that serves as a centerpiece for Johns Island. The striking tree overlooks centuries of Gullah Geechee history and heritage and is a popular stop along the Gullah-Geechee Corridor, a Federal National Heritage Area that includes Johns Island and stretches all the way to northern Florida.

​In the Carolinas, travelers can explore parks and centers important to Gullah Geechee heritage, like the Brookgreen Gardens on Myrtle Beach, Penn Center on St. Helena Island, Mitchelville Freedom Park on Hilton Head Island, and Hilton Head’s Gullah Museum. The Caw Caw Interpretive Center on Ravenel is not to be missed. Exhibits show the mastery enslaved people demonstrated in architecture, highlighted by their ability to carve rice fields out of cypress swamps. Afterward, travelers can stop by Gullah-owned Ravenel Seafood, where an order of garlic crabs will lead to a finger-lickin’ good meal.

The Gullah Geechee people are a diverse, rich group of Americans who are the foundation of Lowcountry cuisine, culture, and identity. Absorbing their stories, culture, and legacy is imperative to understand South Carolina and to understand the true range of American identity.

Kayla Stewart is a contributor to the forthcoming book, Gullah Geechee Home Cooking, which will be released April 25, 2022.

>> Next: Gullah Geechee Cuisine Is Finally Getting Its Due in Charleston

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