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Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida

“The Old Plantation” was painted c. 1790 by slave-holder, John Rose.It depicts South Carolina slaves dancing near their quarters with traditional West African headwear and instruments

“The Old Plantation” was painted c. 1790 by slave-holder, John Rose. It depicts South Carolina slaves dancing near their quarters with traditional West African headwear and instruments
Public Domain

The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor extends from Wilmington, North Carolina in the north to Jacksonville, Florida, in the south. The National Heritage Area includes roughly 80 barrier islands and continues inland to adjacent coastal counties, defining a region 30 miles inland throughout the United States Low Country. The Gullah/Geechee Heritage Corridor is home to the Gullah people in the Carolinas, and the Geechee in Georgia and Florida – cultural groups descended from enslaved peoples from West and Central Africa. The Gullah and Geechee share similar linguistic, artistic and societal traits that have remained relatively intact for several centuries due to the geographic isolation of the region. The cultures represent the many ways that Africans in the Americas maintained their homeland roots while simultaneously assimilating aspects of new cultures they encountered during and after enslavement. The Spanish came into what is now the heritage area in the 16th century.

The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is managed by a federal commission made up of local representatives who collaborate with the National Park Service, Community Partners, Grass Root organizations and the State historic preservation offices of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Through research, education and interpretation, the corridor aims to preserve and raise awareness regarding the Gullah/Geechee, among America’s least-known and most unique cultures. Visitors to the southeastern coast of the country have the chance to experience Gullah/Geechee heritage through historic sites, local tours, traditional foods, cultural events, and art galleries.

Gullah/Geechee in the Southeastern United States

Many African cultural traditions were continued by slaves brought to the states. Weavers in Georgia, c. 1900; Modern example of a Sweetgrass basket; Today the modern and traditional collide in Gullah culture along the southeastern shore; Winnowing Hands; A tree-lined path at the Cumberland Island National Seashore; Gantt Cottage; Photo of an original drawing by Minnie Evans; St.Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church; Fort Mose.

Images from top to bottom:

Many African cultural traditions were continued by slaves brought to the states. Weavers in Georgia, c. 1900, Courtesy of the Vanishing Georgia Collection

Modern example of a Sweetgrass basket, South Carolina, Courtesy of the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association

Tabby Cabin Row, Kingsley Plantation, Duval County, FL, Courtesy of Commissioner Jeanne C. Cyriaque

Winnowing Hands, Oakland Plantation Market Place, South Carolina, Courtesy of the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association

A tree-lined path at the Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia, Courtesy of Linda N., Flickr's Creative Commons

Gantt Cottage, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, Courtesy of Tom Brown Architects, Flickr's Creative Commons

Photo of an original drawing by Minnie Evans, Wilmington, N.C., Courtesy of the Cameron Art Museum

St.Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church, Wilmington, N.C., Photo Courtesy of The Wilmington Journal Newspaper

Fort Mose, Photo Courtesy of Surfneng, Flickr's Creative Commons

There are multiple theories as to where the Gullah/Geechee people received their name. It is possible that the name “Gullah” is derived from the country of Angola, where many of the Gullah/Geechee people may have originated. Another possibility is that the name came from Gola, an ethnic group that lives in West Africa. The term “Geechee” may come from another West African ethnic group known as the Kissi. It has also been suggested that the “Gullah/Geechee” name may have Native American roots. When the Spanish arrived to the South Carolina and Georgia region, they decided to call it Guale after a Native American tribe they encountered. Guale became one of four primary Spanish mission provinces along with Timucua, Mocama, and Apalachee.

When the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution banned slavery in 1865, most of the African and American-born slaves along the southeastern coast remained in the region that had come to be their homes. Life on the barrier islands was quite isolated from that of the mainland, and few outside visitors ever made contact with the newly freed communities. Because of this geographic isolation and a strong sense of cultural connection amongst the people, the African Americans who today self-identify as Gullah/Geechee retained their African heritage to a strong degree.

Most of the Gullah/Geechee still live in rural communities of low-level, vernacular buildings along the Low Country mainland coast and on the barrier islands. Towns once were often dotted with dirt roads and traversed by oxen, mules, and horses. The Gullah/Geechee are the speakers of the only African-American Creole language that developed in the United States – one that combines elements of English and over 30 African dialects. Oral traditions, folklore, and storytelling are cultural traditions that have gone largely unchanged for generations. Religious ceremonies such as ring shouts, artisan crafts like sweet grass basket weaving, and culinary traditions such as “hoppin’ john” and sweet potato pone are all preserved as part of the culture of the Gullah/Geechee.

Recently life has changed for the Gullah/Geechee. The barrier islands were accessible only by boat until the building of the first bridges starting in the early 1950s. Since that time, many traditional Gullah/Geechee communities on the islands have been altered by cultural infiltration from mainlanders, or been lost entirely to real estate development. The advent of air-conditioning transformed the hot, humid islands into desirable, ocean-side property bringing outsiders into what was once solely Gullah or Geechee territory. Despite recent losses, the Gullah/Geechee people remain a testament to the power of human adaptability and cultural survival, even in the face of outside pressures from the modern world.

Because of the nature of the Gullah/Geechee culture and its associated corridor, many aspects of the area’s heritage are intangible and cannot be experienced through a solitary site. Local institutions and organizations thus offer regional tours and assistance. Both The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society in Georgia, and Gullah Tours out of Charleston, South Carolina provide boat tours that focus on Gullah/Geechee culture, language, music and storytelling. Carolina Food Pros also offers an extensive culinary tour of coastal South Carolina featuring traditional Lowland and Gullah cooking. Please call 843-723-3366 for scheduling.

The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor protects, bolsters, and showcases the traditional Gullah/Geechee culture that remains in the region, and its relation to the overall history of slavery, plantations, abolition and emancipation in the South. Several cultural and educational institutions interpret this heritage for visitors. Geechee Kunda is a museum and community education center in Riceboro, Georgia, which features exhibits, galleries, classes and events about Geechee culture, a gift shop, and a family research center. For more information, call 912-884-4440. The Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture in Charleston, South Carolina focuses on Gullah heritage in the Low Country as well as the wider theme of the African Diaspora in America. The center offers exhibits, public programming, tours, and an extensive archival collection. Call 843-953-7609 for upcoming events and information.

In addition to museums, visitors to the heritage corridor can experience the area through many federally recognized historic places. The National Park Service administers Cumberland Island National Seashore. Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest, southernmost barrier island, with four major historic districts and 87 structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The island is still home to Geechee descendants of slaves who worked the plantations there through the mid 1800s. Park interpretive services include guided ranger tours and a museum with exhibits on the history and culture of the area that is open on Sundays from 1:00pm to 4:00pm.

Visitors interested in plantation history may also enjoy another unit of the National Park System, the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The site interprets one of the authors and signers of the United States Constitution. In addition to the c. 1828 Farmhouse, the site focuses on plantation life and agricultural history on the 28 preserved acres of the original 715 acre property. This includes regularly scheduled Gullah heritage celebrations and a Gullah film festival.

One of the most notable historic places to visit within the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is the Penn School Historic District on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. The site is a National Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The 47-acre area contains 18 historic buildings dating from the mid 1800s. Brick Church, the oldest building still standing, was constructed in 1855 by slaves for early Baptist planters in St. Helena. It was later used as a church, community center and school for both black and white abolitionists during the Reconstruction Era and is one of the earliest schools for the newly freed slaves. Missionaries constructed the other buildings on the island when they came there to assist former Gullah slaves with their newfound freedom after their owners abandoned the island during the Civil War. In addition to the early school and missionary buildings, the district also includes Gantt Cottage where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Leadership Conference often met during the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Locals showcase the Penn School Historic District, or “Penn Center” with pride, and visitors are welcome to attend annual Gullah festivals and community events. The York W. Bailey Museum interprets the history and culture of the island and is open Monday through Saturday, from 11am to 4pm. More information is available on the Penn Center website.

Florida’s connection to the Gullah/Geechee culture and heritage corridor is rooted in the longest standing tradition of black and Native American freedom. Spanish Florida was established within the Guale chiefdom in the late 16th century. Disease and warfare greatly reduced the size of the Guale. Those who survived migrated to the Spanish missions; many of these members became known as the Yamasee.

Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose or Fort Mose in Saint Augustine is not only located in the nation’s oldest city but also is recognized as the oldest sanctioned free black community in the United States. In the 17th century, Spanish control in the southern region was threatened with the establishment of English colonies in South Carolina. In 1687, Spanish officials reported the first runaways from the nearby English settlements. The Spanish crown, interested in maintaining control in the southeast, began to encourage runaways to abscond from English settlements and colonies. In 1693, an edict was issued granting freedom to all runaway slaves from English settlements. Then, in 1702, the English forces from South Carolina invaded Spanish Florida and destroyed refugee missions located in the Guale region. In 1738, Spanish authority issued a charter to create Fort Mose and as early as 1739, fugitive slaves inhabited Fort Mose.

Blacks agreed to help defend St. Augustine from outside European invasion in exchange for certain liberties. The protection served three primary functions: to maintain a social and strategic relationship with the Spanish, to maintain the Spanish foothold in St. Augustine, and to advance Blacks within Spanish society. The Spanish provided food until the first crops were harvested, a priest for religious instruction, and established a military unit. In time, Fort Mose was considered the first line of defense for Saint Augustine.

Today, Fort Mose historic state park is a national historic landmark. Visitors enjoy both the ecological treasures and historical past of Fort Mose. The museum and interpretive center is open on Thursday to Monday from 9:00a.m. – 5:00p.m. On the last Saturday of each month, living history re-enactors provide visitors with a glimpse of the past. For more information, please contact the Fort Mose Park Office at 904-823-2232 or visit the park website.

Self-taught and visionary artist Minnie Evans was born and raised in Pender and New Hanover Counties, the northernmost points of the Gullah/Geechee corridor. The Cameron Art Museum of Wilmington, N.C. houses the Minnie Evans Study Center, a central repository for archival material regarding the life of Minnie Evans. In addition, the lands around the Cameron Art Museum once witnessed the Civil War "Battle of Forks Road," in which U.S. Colored Troops played a critical role.

In Winnabow, N.C., the St. Philips Church at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson occupies land once cultivated by enslaved workers for the long leaf pine-based naval stores industry, and on Lower Cape Fear River rice plantations. This land also witnessed the liberation of former slaves as it served as a camp for black refugees in 1865. Another site, St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church, of Wilmington, N.C. represents the fortitude and innovation of African Americans in the northern section of the Gullah-Geechee Corridor. The church sits on Campbell Square, on land designated for "the Negro population of New Hanover County," since 1845. In May of 1865, not even one month after the close of the Civil War, "642 Negroes joined the African Church," under the leadership of Rev. W. H. Hunter, an African American chaplain with the Union Army. In 1866, the Wilmington Board of Alderman passed an ordinance rededicating Campbell Square to the use of "colored people," specifying that four churches and a school should occupy the land. St. Stephen is one of those churches.

Plan your visit

The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area, stretches from Wilmington, NC to Jacksonville, FL. The corridor includes coastal lands and offshore barrier islands in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida that all are connected by Interstate 95, which runs through, or near much of the heritage corridor. For additional information, visit the National Park Service Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website or call 843-881-5516. Directions and a map can be found on the National Park Service website. For additional information, visit the National Park Service Cumberland Island National Seashore and Charles Pinckney National Historic Site websites.

Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file for the Penn School Historic District: text and photos. Reservations for tours of the island can be made by calling 843-838-2432.

The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is also featured in the National Park Service Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary. Rice plantation farming and slavery in Lowland South Carolina are the subjects of an online lesson plan, When Rice Was King. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places homepage.

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