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Gullah Geechee People of South Carolina

Charleston at sunset

The Gullah people of South Carolina have a rich heritage that’s associated with both their African roots and adopted European customs. Descended from enslaved African Americans that were brought to Charleston through the 1800s, Gullahs live predominantly in South Carolina, and the Geechee people generally live in Georgia and Florida.

Discover more about this rich heritage, including where to find examples of the Gullah in Charleston today.

Where Are the Gullah Geechee People From?

The Gullahs hailed from many different areas of Africa, including the Gold Coast, Congo, and Angola.

Angola may be the basis of the word Gullah; some believe that Gullah may be derived from the world Gola, which was an African tribe that lived in Sierra-Leone. 

Yet, the largest groups of people came from the Rice Coast. Subgroups from this area of Africa included:

  • Baga 
  • Fula
  • Kissi
  • Kpelle
  • Limba 
  • Mandinka
  • Mende 
  • Susu
  • Temne 
  • Vai 
  • Wolof

Nearly all the Gullahs in South Carolina integrated their ancestral traditions with western culture. This includes language, religion, and food. They kept what the could (often what they were allowed) and adopted the traditions that were forced upon them in the new world. 

Enslaved African Americans

It’s important to remember how the Gullah Geechee people got to America. They were captured in Africa, brought to the new world on slave ships (surviving horrendous conditions at sea, malnutrition, disease, and abuse from their captors). 

They were sold to South Carolinians as well as other slave owners in the South. 

So many people can trace their roots back through the South Carolina slave trade that it’s estimated 80% of African Americans have at least one ancestor that was brought to the U.S. through Charleston.

To find out more about the slave trade and Slavery History in Charleston, take our self-guided tour — or, book a private tour to understand more about this topic.

Gullah Geechee Culture

Most Gullah Geechee culture is a combination of African and European music, food, art, and religion. Many enslaved African Americans were forced to abandon their ancestral traditions in the South — though many were allowed to incorporate some traditions as long as they adopted newer, western ones in the process.

The enslaved were allowed to sing while working in the fields because the tunes kept the beat of the work at a steady pace. Some plantation owners outlawed certain styles of heavily rhythmic music (including the playing of drums) because they believed the enslaved might use it as a means of secret communication.

Call-and-response was popular in the fields; it’s still used today in gospel, R&B, and rock-and-roll styles of music (which all have roots in African spirituals). 

Basket weaving is one of the main handicrafts that the Gullah in South Carolina are known for, and tourists flock to the historic market to purchase them. 

Gullah Geechee Language

Like many creole languages, the Gullah Geechee language is a mixture of African and European languages. This particular creole is the only African creole in the U.S. and is the basis for much of the language in the South. 

The language is very lyrical, and speakers use a lot of euphemisms and figures of speech. 

An example of one such figure of speech might be, “My head left me,” or, “I forgot.” 

Oral storytelling was of major importance in the culture, as many enslaved African Americans were forbidden (by penalty of death) to learn to read or write. Much like Aesop’s fables, stories of the Gullahs used animals that acted like humans to tell tales of morality. 

Gullah Geechee in the American south is similar to other creole languages, including:

  • Barbadian Creole
  • Belizean Creole
  • Guyanese Creole
  • Jamaican Patois

Culinary History and Cuisine

Food is an extremely important part of Gullah culture and history in South Carolina, and many dishes are rooted in African and European traditions — as well as the traditions of the Gullah people after they reached North America.

Gullah cuisine is based on using what’s available and what’s in season. It utilizes ingredients that were brought to the U.S. from Africa during the slave trade (including okra) and Native American cooking techniques. Fresh seafood, beans, rice, greens, and tomatoes are also staples of the local Gullah cuisine. 

Famous Gullah Geechee chefs, like BJ Dennis and Michael Twitty, are starting to bring this cuisine to a larger audience. 

Religious Practices

Like most Gullah Geechee culture, religious practices are a melting pot of African and European traditions.

While gatherings of enslaved African Americans of three or more were illegal in most areas of the U.S., many still gathered in secret. African styles of music were used in prayer, and the Gullah Geechee people also incorporated Christian traditions that were forced upon them. 

While many of the tenants of old religions died out, some rituals and practices remained. 

Those who were polytheists began worshipping one god. Christian stories, hymns, and prayers were incorporated into religious practices. Yet, the Gullah people still maintained respect for their ancestors and incorporated their respect and love of nature into sermons and ceremonies. 

The Gullah People of South Carolina

There are plenty of Charleston attractions that celebrate the Gullah culture! If you want to know more about the history of slavery in Charleston, we recommend heading to the Old Slave Mart Museum and the Charleston Museum.

If you want to hear stories of enslaved African Americans that lived on plantations, we recommend visiting Boone Hall Plantation. In addition to the main house and grounds, this museum features a tour of the slave quarters and guides paint a more honest picture of slave life. 

Head to Hannibal’s Kitchen to enjoy some iconic southern cuisine. We recommend trying the crab rice and the okra soup!

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