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The Gullah are African Americans who live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia, which includes both the coastal plain and the Beaufort Sea Islands.
The Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States. They speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and significant influences from African languages in grammar and sentence structure; Gullah storytelling, cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming and fishing traditions, all exhibit strong influences from West and Central African cultures.
Most of the Gullahs' early ancestors in what is now the United States were brought to the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry through the ports of Charleston and Savannah as slaves. Charleston was one of the most important ports in North America for the Transatlantic slave trade. Up to half of the enslaved Africans brought into what is now the United States came through that port. A great majority of the remaining flowed through Savannah, which was also active in the slave trade.
The largest group of enslaved Africans brought into Charleston and Savannah came from the West African rice-growing region. South Carolina and Georgia rice planters once called this region the "Rice Coast", indicating its importance as a source of skilled African labor for the North American rice industry. Once it was discovered that rice would grow in the southern U.S. regions, it was assumed that enslaved Africans from rice-growing regions in Africa would be beneficial, due to their knowledge of rice-growing techniques. By the middle of the 18th century, the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry was covered by thousands of acres of rice fields. African farmers from the "Rice Coast" brought the skills for cultivation and tidal irrigation that made rice one of the most successful industries in early America.
The semi-tropical climate that made the Lowcountry such an excellent place for rice production also made it vulnerable to the spread of malaria and yellow fever. Fearing disease, many white planters left the Lowcountry during the rainy spring and summer months when fever ran rampant and they left their African "rice drivers," or overseers, in charge of the plantations. Working on large plantations with hundreds of laborers, and with African traditions reinforced by new imports from the same regions, the Gullahs developed a culture in which elements of African languages, cultures, and community life were preserved to a high degree. Their culture was quite different from that of slaves in states like Virginia and North Carolina, where slaves lived in smaller settlements and had more sustained and frequent interactions with whites.
CIVIL WAR PERIOD
When the U.S. Civil War began, the Union rushed to blockade Confederate shipping. White planters on the Sea Islands, fearing an invasion by the US naval forces, abandoned their plantations and fled to the mainland. When Union forces arrived on the Sea Islands in 1861, they found the Gullah people eager for their freedom, and eager as well to defend it.
The Union quickly occupied Beaufort and many Gullahs served with distinction in the Union Army's First South Carolina Volunteers. Beaufort’s Sea Islands were the first place in the South where slaves were freed. Long before the War ended, Quaker missionaries from Pennsylvania came down to start schools for the newly freed slaves. Penn Center, now a Gullah community organization on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, began as the very first school for freed slaves.
After the Civil War ended, the Gullahs' isolation from the outside world actually increased in some respects. The rice planters on the mainland gradually abandoned their farms and moved away from the area because of labor issues and hurricane damage to crops. Left alone in remote rural areas in the Lowcountry, the Gullahs continued to practice their traditional culture with little influence from the outside world well into the 20th Century. Click here to discover more about the US National Park Service's Reconstruction Era Monument.
CELEBRATING & PROTECTING THE GULLAH CULTURE
In recent years the Gullah people—led by Penn Center and other determined community groups—have been persistent in keeping control of their traditional lands. In 2005, the Gullah community unveiled a translation of the New Testament in the Gullah language, a project that took more than 20 years to complete. The Gullahs achieved another victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the "Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act" that provides $10 million over ten years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture. The "heritage corridor" extends from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. The project will be administered by the US National Park Service with extensive consultation with the Gullah community.
Over the years, the Gullahs have attracted many historians, linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists interested in their rich cultural heritage. Many academic books on that subject have been published. The Gullah have also become a symbol of cultural pride for blacks throughout the United States and a subject of general interest in the media. This has given rise to countless newspaper and magazine articles, documentary films, and children's books on Gullah culture, and to a number of popular novels set in the Gullah region.
Gullah people now organize cultural festivals every year in towns up and down the Lowcountry. the Gullah Celebration on Hilton Head Island in February, The Gullah Festival in Beaufort in May, and Heritage Days at Penn Center on St. Helena Island in November.