When you think of Beaufort, South Carolina, you probably think about Spanish Moss trees, Lowcountry food, coastal charm and scenic views. But there is another side of Beaufort, one that is not as well known, but growing significantly in interest and prominence from heritage enthusiasts and leisure travelers alike — gullah culture. While you may remember Gullah Gullah Island, the beloved Nick Jr. television show from the ’90s, exploring Beaufort is an opportunity to connect childhood memories with a complex and beautiful history that makes up a large percentage of this Southern population.
The Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States. The English-based creole language contains many influences from African languages in grammar and sentence structure, with a southern drawl added to it (think West Africa, meets the South meets the Caribbean). The complex and beautiful history includes storytelling, cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming and fishing traditions, all derived from West and Central African cultures — which of course, makes sense considering 40% of all enslaved people in North America came through the harbor in Charleston.
What many don’t realize, and part of what makes Beaufort County special (and also unique, in comparison to many other slave ports), is that it became the first place in the Southern United States where former slaves could begin melding themselves into a free America. Descendants who remained were able to claim land from abandoned plantations, opened businesses and as Jim Crow laws took hold, distance themselves within their private community along the Sea Islands.
Located on Port Royal Island, one of the largest Sea Islands along the southeast Atlantic coast of the United States, visitors interested in learning more about Gullah culture will find plenty of opportunities in Beaufort and the surrounding area. Here are a few recommendations on exploring gullah culture in Beaufort’s low country.
Travelers embarking on Beaufort will make their first stop at the 50-acre Penn Center. Founded in 1862, this is one of the nation’s most historically significant African American educational and cultural institutions. Formerly known as “Penn School,” this was one of the country’s first schools for formerly enslaved individuals. It is also one of four sites that make up the Reconstruction Era National Monument, a National Park — one of the last efforts that Barack Obama cemented during the end of his presidency.
When you visit, be sure to request a private tour of the property with Victoria Smalls, the Park Ranger with the National Park Service Reconstruction Era National Historic Park and also a Gullah descendent. She’ll share more on Gullah Geechee history, stories, beliefs, and creative expressions that are critical antecedents to Black culture and the broader American mosaic, as we know it today. The tour will include Darrah Hall, Brick Baptist Church, and you’ll also hear about the Reconstruction period from 1862-1900 and more.
From there, you’ll want to get a bit of grub, with a side of history. Bill Green and his family have been preparing authentic Gullah meals at his restaurant for over 15 years at The Gullah Grub Restaurant. What makes it even better, is that the food is farm-to-table, coming from his wife Sara’s Marshview Community Organic Farm. Bill follows the rules of Gullah traditions when it comes to preparing food, starting with eating in season. Though the restaurant is closed to the public right now, it’s a staple within the community.
For the ultimate Gullah experience, you’ll want to book a tour with the Gullah-N-Geechie Mahn Tours, to get more of a backstory on the rich culture, along with a comprehensive visit to some of the low country’s most iconic Gullah destinations and attractions. Discover an Episcopal church built entirely of oyster shells by the Gullah or learn about the oldest Baptist church in all of South Carolina.
If your time is limited but you still want to brush up on everything Gullah, the new Gullah Cultural Center located across from The Gullah Grub Restaurant, serves as a hub for all things Gullah and Geechie. From art exhibits to books and documentaries, this is the perfect one-stop shop for visitors interested in learning more about this historic culture.
While the Gullah Gullah Island show is long gone, the knowledge it taught our kids on the Gullah culture, along with lessons on healthy eating, telling the truth, and problem solving are forever cemented in history.