When thinking about black history, we often reflect on those who came before us. In a city like Charleston, the spirit of the Gullah community is alive through everyday customs and practices that you may not have even known had originated from the Gullah people.
Early Origins of the Gullah People
The Gullah people are descendants of West Africans slaves who were located in the lowcountry region of South Carolina including its sea islands. Historians have linked Charleston’s Gullah ancestry to Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, and Angola. The culture and language of the Gullah people is a blend of West African and European practices. The Gullah language has been inaccurately referred to as broken English when it is actually an English creole language. They use their language to pass down folk tales to younger generations and to sing spirituals in order to preserve the Gullah culture. Before, during, and after slavery, this group of people worked mostly off the coast of the state in fishing and agricultural industries. The climate and environment of South Carolina is similar to that of West Africa so the Gullah community was very knowledgable on land cultivation.
Food for the Soul and the South
The Gullah people are responsible for Charleston’s rich food history. The city is known famously for its shrimp and grits, rice pilaf, and lowcountry seafood boil. Many of these dishes were both affordable and able to feed a family for the week when made in one pot. Oysters and okra soup are both dishes Charlestonians began to eat after the Gullah people introduced it to the community. When dining in the downtown area, it is easy to point out which meals had some African influence with southern flare. Next time you are hungry, we recommend you try these black-owned Charleston Gullah restaurants: Hannibal’s Kitchen, Bertha’s Kitchen, East Side Soul Food, and My Three Sons of Charleston.
African Artistic Roots
Pieces of the Gullah culture can be seen thoughout Charleston. Sweetgrass creations are sold in the city market in the style of baskets, roses, bags, etc. by the locals. Originally used as functional baskets to carry items and to minnow rice, the artistic skill of the Gullah people is a hot commodity for tourists and locals to collect. Local sweetgrass artist, Corey Alston (pictured above) is known for his beautiful craftmanship and his work is featured in the Charleston City Market and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Lowcountry artist Jonathan Green, grew up on the sea islands and reflected his Gullah upbringing through his art. He is known in the creative world as an important artist of the Southern experience. In religious spaces, the ring shout is practiced among the Gullah people and many black Baptist and Methodist churches throughout the South. Dancing, call and response singing, and percussive hand clapping made up the praise and worship services which paid homage to their African origins.
Celebration and Culture
The Gullah culture is celebrated in numerous ways across the Lowcountry. Every May, the city of Beaufort hosts The Original Gullah Festival with a weekend full of food, art, and workshops. Also in May, the Gullah Gala “Charleston Renaissance; Birth of Art,” will be featuring music, fashion, and local businesses at Founders Hall in Charleston, SC.
The Charleston Gullah community has preserved their African heritage and customs more than any other African American group in the United States. Next time you find yourself in the Charleston area, take time to attend a Gullah tour, eat at local soul food restaurants, and speak to the Gullah people in the market to learn more about the rich black history here in the holy city.