Gullah is the name given to the culture of a group of descendents of West Africans who settled on the remote Sea Islands along the southern Atlantic coast, from North Carolina to Florida. They came to American as slaves from Africa’s “rice coast”, stretching from Senegal and Angola to Sierra Leone and Liberia. It is generally accepted that the origin of the word “Gullah” comes from the term “Gola Negroes”, referring to numerous imported and enslaved Angolans.
The Gullah culture incorporates the heritage of Africa in their language, customs, art, food, and religious beliefs. It is noted for its folktales and lore, close family ties and strong spirituality, and a reliance on a rice-based diet. Their melodic native tongue is a type of pidgin-creole, a blend of African dialects and Elizabethan English.
For about 100 years, between the 1860s and the 1960s, the population of Hilton Head remained steady at between 2,000 to 3,000 souls. The residents were almost all Gullah. Living on a remote Sea Island, Hilton Head’s inhabitants were isolated, allowing their way of life to survive intact, unaffected by the economic and cultural changes taking place on the mainland.
The Gullah on Hilton Head mark their history here with references to “before the bridge” and “after the bridge”. The bridge refers to the construction of the first drawbridge that connected the Island to the mainland in May, 1956.
Before the bridge, while nearby Savannah, Beaufort and Charleston struggled with post-Civil War Reconstruction, turn-of-the-century industrialization, two World Wars, and numerous economic booms and busts, life on Hilton Head continued on in its quiet rural agrarian pace.
After the bridge, about two-third of the Island’s 30,000 acres was sold to resort developers. Life on Hilton Head changed rapidly with tourists arriving year-around to experience this unique island life. The “native Islander” community has moved with the times and has created numerous daily and annual celebrations of their culture. From guided tours of historic Gullah neighborhoods to demonstration of sweetgrass basket weaving to the annual month-long Gullah Festival every February,
This remarkable way of life has, over the years, attracted many historians, linguists, anthropologists, and even filmmakers interested in this rich way of life. As a further celebration, in 2006 the U.S. Congress passed the “Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act” authorizing $10 million in expenditures over the next 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites extending from southern North Carolina to northern Florida.