Gullah are African
Americans who live in the Low Country region of South Carolina and Georgia, which includes both the coastal plain and the
Sea Islands. Historically, the
Gullah region once extended north to the Cape
Fear area on the coast of North Carolina and south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on the coast of Florida; but today
the Gullah area is confined to the South Carolina and Georgia Low
Country. The Gullah people are also called
Geechee, after the Ogeechee River near Savannah,
The term Geechee
commonly used in Georgia.
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
influences from African languages in grammar and sentence
structure. The Gullah
language is related to Jamaican Creole, Barbadian Dialect, and the Krio language of Sierra Leone in West Africa.
Gullah storytelling, cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming
and fishing traditions, etc. all exhibit strong influences from
West and Central African cultures.
"Gullah" may derive from Angola, where many
of the Gullahs' ancestors originated. Some scholars have
also suggested it comes from Gola, an ethnic group living
in the border area between Sierra Leone and Liberia in West
Africa, another region where many of the Gullahs' ancestors
originated. The name "Geechee," another common name for
the Gullah people, may come from Kissi, an ethnic group living in the border area
between Sierra Leone, Guinea and
Some scholars have also suggested Native American
origins for these words. The Spanish called the South Carolina and
Georgia coastal region Guale
Native American tribe. The Ogeechee
, a prominent geographical feature in coastal Georgia,
takes its name from a Creek Indian
word. Regardless of the origins of these names, Gullah language and
culture have strong connections to the African continent.
the Gullahs' ancestors were brought to the South Carolina and
Georgia Low Country
through the ports of Charleston and Savannah.
Charleston was the most important port in North America for the
Atlantic slave trade. Almost half of the enslaved Africans brought
into what is now the United States came through that port. Savannah
was also active in the Atlantic
largest group of Africans brought into Charleston and Savannah came
from the West African rice-growing region, which stretches from
what are now Senegal, Gambia, and
Guinea-Bissau in the north to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia in the
south. African rice
cultivated in this section of West Africa for possibly up to 3,000
years. 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. Modern
historians call it the "Upper Guinea Coast." The second-largest
group of Africans brought through these ports came from the
Congo and Angola regions in
Central Africa. Smaller numbers also
were imported from the Gold
Coast (what is now Ghana) and the
Origin of Gullah culture
The Gullah region once extended from
SE North Carolina to NE Florida.
The Gullah people have been able to preserve so much of their
African cultural heritage because of geography, climate, and
patterns of importation of enslaved Africans. By the mid-1700s, the
Carolina and Georgia Low Country was covered by thousands of acres of
African farmers from the
"Rice Coast" brought the skills for cultivation and tidal
irrigation that made rice one of the most successful industries in
The semi-tropical climate that made the Low Country
such an excellent
place for rice production also made it vulnerable to the spread of
. These tropical diseases were carried by mosquitoes
that were brought unintentionally
aboard the slave ships that came from Africa. The mosquitoes bred
in the swamps and inundated rice fields of the Low Country. Malaria
and yellow fever soon became endemic
in the region.
Africans were far more resistant to tropical fevers than the
European slave owners. The white population of the Low Country grew
at a slower rate than the black population because the land was
devoted to large plantations. More and more enslaved Africans were
brought as laborers into the Low Country as the rice industry
expanded. By about 1708 South Carolina had a black majority.
acquired its own black majority after rice cultivation expanded
there in the mid-1700s, and malaria and yellow fever became
endemic. Fearing disease, many white planters left the Low Country
during the rainy spring and summer months when fever ran rampant.
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 contact
Gullah customs and traditions
African influences are found in every aspect of the Gullahs'
traditional way of life:
- The Gullah word guber for peanut
derives from the KiKongo word
- Gullah rice dishes called "red rice" and "okra soup" are
similar to West African "jollof rice"
and "okra soup". Jollof rice is a style of cooking brought by the
Wolof and Mandé peoples of West Africa.
- The Gullah version of "gumbo" has its
roots in African cooking. "Gumbo" is derived from a word in the
Umbundu language of Angola, meaning
- Gullah beliefs about "hags" and "haunts"
are similar to African beliefs about malevolent ancestors, witches, and "devils" (forest spirits).
- Gullah "root doctors" protect their clients against dangerous
spiritual forces using similar ritual objects
to those employed by African medicine
- The Gullah "seekin" ritual is similar to coming of age ceremonies in West African
secret societies such as the Poro and Sande.
- The Gullah ring shout is
similar to ecstatic religious rituals performed in West and Central
- Gullah stories about "Bruh Rabbit"
are similar to West and Central African trickster tales about the clever and conniving
rabbit, spider, and tortoise.
- Gullah spirituals, shouts, and other musical forms employ the
"call and response" method
commonly used in African music.
- Gullah "strip quilts" mimic the design of
cloth woven with the traditional strip loom
used throughout West Africa. The famous kente
cloth from Ghana is woven on the strip loom.
Civil War period
When the U.S. Civil War
began, the Union rushed to
blockade the Confederate
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. Many Gullahs served with distinction in the Union Army
's First South Carolina
. The 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 Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, began as the very first school for
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. Free
blacks were unwilling to work in the dangerous and disease-ridden
rice fields. A series of hurricanes
devastated the crops
in the 1890s. Left alone in remote rural areas in the Low Country,
the Gullahs continued to practice their traditional culture with
little influence from the outside world well into the 20th
In recent years the Gullah people—led by Penn Center and other
determined community groups—have been fighting to keep control of
their traditional lands. Since the 1960s, resort development on the
Sea Islands has threatened to push Gullahs off family lands they
have owned since emancipation
, but they have fought
back against uncontrolled development on the islands through
community action, the courts, and the political process.
The Gullahs have also struggled to preserve their traditional
culture. 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" will extend from southern North Carolina to
northern Florida. The project will be administered by the US
National Park Service
strong input from the Gullah community.
Gullahs have also reached out to West Africa. Gullah groups made
three celebrated "homecomings" to Sierra Leone in 1989, 1997, and 2005.
Sierra Leone is at
the heart of the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa
where many of the Gullahs' ancestors originated. Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone, sent
many African captives to Charleston and Savannah during the mid-
and late 1700s.
These dramatic homecomings were the subject
of three documentary films—"Family Across the Sea
"The Language You Cry
" (1998), and "Priscilla's Homecoming
Celebrating Gullah culture
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 Low
Country. Hilton Head
Island, South Carolina, for instance, hosts its "Gullah Celebration" in
February, which includes "De Aarts ob We People" show, the "Ol’
Fashioned Gullah Breakfast," "National Freedom Day," the "Gullah
Film Fest", "A Taste of Gullah" food and entertainment, a
"Celebration of Low Country Authors and Books," an "Arts, Crafts
& Food Expo," and "De Gullah Playhouse." Beaufort,
South Carolina hosts its "Gullah Festival" in May, and nearby Penn
Center on St. Helena Island, South
Carolina holds its famous "Heritage Days" in
November. Other Gullah festivals are celebrated on
Island, South Carolina and Sapelo
But Gullah culture is now being celebrated throughout the United
States. Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana recently held an event
to showcase the Gullah culture.
Purdue's Black Cultural
Center maintains a bibliography of Gullah publications as well.
Metro State College in Denver, Colorado recently hosted a conference on Gullah culture,
called "The Water Brought Us: Gullah History and Culture" which
featured a panel of Gullah scholars and cultural activists.
Metro State students and members of the community attended the
event, which was covered in the local press. These events in
Indiana and Colorado are typical of the attention Gullah
culture now receives on a regular basis throughout the United
Gullah culture has proven to be particularly resilient. Gullah
traditions are strong not only in the rural areas of the Low
Country mainland and on the Sea Islands, but also in urban areas
like Charleston and Savannah. But some of the old fashioned ways
have persisted even among Gullah people who have left the Low
Country and moved far away. Many Gullahs migrated to New York
starting at the beginning of the 20th century, and these urban
migrants have not lost their identity. Gullahs have their
own neighborhood churches in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens.
Typically they send their children back to rural communities in
South Carolina and Georgia during the summer months to be reared by
grandparents, uncles and aunts. Gullah people living in New York
also frequently return to the Low Country to retire. Second- and
third-generation Gullahs in New York often maintain many of their
traditional customs and sometimes still speak the Gullah
Overview of Gullah Culture
Gullah cultural topics
Gullah historical topics
Gullah historical figures
Gullah leaders, artists, and cultural activists
Famous African Americans with Gullah roots
Gullah cultural festivals
- Gullah Celebration, Hilton Head Island, SC
Festival, Beaufort, SC
- Penn Center Heritage Days, St. Helena Island,
- Island Heritage Festival, James Island, SC
- Geechee-Gullah Festival, Sapelo Island, GA
- Gullah history
- Ball, Edward (1998) "Slaves in the Family,” New York: Farrar,
Straus, & Giroux.
- Carney, Judith (2001) "Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice
Cultivation in the Americas," Cambridge: Harvard University
- Fields-Black, Edda (2008) "Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West
Africa and the African Diaspora," Bloomington: Indiana University
- Littlefield, Daniel (1981) Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the
Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina," Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University Press.
- Miller, Edward (1995) "Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from
Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915," Columbia: University of South
- Pollitzer, William (1999)
"The Gullah People and their African Heritage," Athens: University
of Georgia Press.
- Smith, Julia Floyd (1985) "Slavery and Rice Culture in Low
Country Georgia: 1750-1860," Knoxville: University of Tennessee
- Smith, Mark M. (2005) "Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a
Southern Slave Revolt," Columbia: University of South Carolina
- Wood, Peter (1974) "Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South
Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion," New York:
- Gullah language and storytelling
- Bailey, Cornelia & Christena Bledsoe (2000) "God, Dr.
Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life
on Sapelo Island," New York: Doubleday.
- Geraty, Virginia Mixon (1997) "Gulluh fuh Oonuh: A Guide to the
Gullah Language," Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing
- Jones, Charles Colcock (2000) "Gullah Folktales from the
Georgia Coast," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Jones-Jackson, Patricia (1987) "When Roots Die: Endangered
Traditions on the Sea Islands," Athens: University of Georgia
- Mills, Peterkin and McCollough (2008) "Coming Through: Voices
of a South Carolina Gullah Community from WPA Oral Histories
collected by Genevieve W. Chandler," The University of South
- Montgomery, Michael (ed.) (1994) "The Crucible of Carolina:
Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture," Athens:
University of Georgia Press.
- Sea Island Translation Team (2005) "De Nyew Testament (The New
Testament in Gullah)," New York: American Bible Society.
- Stoddard, Albert Henry (1995) "Gullah Animal Tales from
Daufuskie Island, South Carolina," Hilton Head Island, SC: Push
Button Publishing Company.
- Turner, Lorenzo Dow (2002) "Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect,"
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Gullah culture
- Campbell, Emory (2008) "Gullah Cultural Legacies," Hilton Head
South Carolina: Gullah Heritage Counsulting Services.
- Carawan, Guy and Candie (1989) "Ain't You Got a Right to the
Tree of Life: The People of Johns Island, South Carolina, their
Faces, their Words, and their Songs," Athens: University of Georgia
- Creel, Margaret Washington (1988) "A Peculiar People: Slave
Religion and Community Culture among the Gullahs," New York: New
York University Press.
- Cross, Wilbur (2008) "Gullah Culture in America," Westport,
- Joyner, Charles (1984) "Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina
Slave Community," Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Kiser, Clyde Vernon (1969) "Sea Island to City: A Study of St.
Helena Islanders in Harlem and Other Urban Centers," New York:
- McFeely, William (1994) "Sapelo's People: A Long Walk into
Freedom," New York: W.W. Norton.
- Parish, Lydia (1992) "Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands,"
Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Robinson, Sallie Ann (2003) "Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie
Way" and (2006) "Cooking the Gullah Way Morning,Noon, and Night."
Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press.
- Rosenbaum, Art (1998) "Shout Because You're Free: The African
American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia," Athens:
University of Georgia Press.
- Rosengarten, Dale (1986) "Sea Grass Baskets of the South
Carolina Lowcountry," Columbia, South Carolina: McKissick Museum,
University of South Carolina.
- Twining, Mary & Keigh Baird (1991) "Sea Island Roots: The
African Presence in the Carolinas and Georgia," Trenton, New
Jersey: Africa World Press.
- Young, Jason (2007) "Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic
Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery,"
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.
- Historical photos of the Gullah
- Georgia Writer's Project (1986) "Drums and Shadows: Survival
Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes," Athens: University of
- Johnson, Thomas L. & Nina J. Root (2002) "Camera Man's
Journey: Julian Dimock's South," Athens: University of Georgia
- Minor, Leigh Richmond & Edith Dabbs (2003) "Face of an
Island: Leigh Richmond Miner's Photographs of Saint Helena Island,"
Charleston, South Carolina: Wyrick & Company.
- Ulmann, Doris & Suzanna Krout Millerton, New York:
- Children's books on the Gullah
- Branch, Muriel (1995) "The Water Brought Us: The Story of the
Gullah-Speaking People," New York: Cobblehill Books.
- Clary, Margie Willis (1995) "A Sweet, Sweet Basket,"
Orangeburg, South Carolina: Sandlapper Publishing Company.
- Geraty, Virginia (1998) "Gullah Night Before Christmas,"
Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company.
- Jaquith, Priscilla (1995) "Bo Rabbit Smart for True: Tall Tales
from the Gullah," New York: Philomel Books.
- Krull, Kathleen (1995) "Bridges to Change: How Kids Live on a
South Carolina Sea Island," New York: Lodestar Books.
- Seabrooke, Brenda (1994) "The Bridges of Summer," New York:
- Raven, Margot Theis (2004) "Circle Unbroken," New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux.
- Works of fiction set in the Gullah region
- Conroy, Pat (1972) "The Water Is Wide," Boston: Houghton
- Dash, Julie (1999) "Daughters of the Dust," New York: Plume
- Gershwin, George (1935) "Porgy and Bess," New York:Alfred
- Heyward, Dubose (1925)"Porgy," Charleston, S.C.: Wyrick &
- Hurston, Zora Neale (1937) "Their Eyes Were Watching God," New
York: Harper Perennial.
- Siddons, Anne Rivers (1998) "Low Country," New York:
- Naylor, Gloria (1988) "Mama Day," New York: Ticknor &
- Straight, Susan (1993) "I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked
Out All the Pots," New York: Hyperion.
Gullah Gullah Island
Children's show on Nickelodeon.
- Radio programs
- Slavery in America
- George Gershwin Completes the Score for Porgy
- Porgy Critique
- The Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive