Travelers curious about Africa but unable to venture so far should grab a Gullah-English glossary and head for the Gullah region. “I don’t think there is any doubt that these sea-island communities constitute the one place outside of the African continent where the roots of Africa have been maintained most clearly,” said Walter Mack, executive director of the Penn Center, an institute on St. Helena Island, S.C., dedicated to the preservation of sea-island cultures along the Southern U.S. Coast, including the Gullah, or Geechee, peoples. (Geechee is another name for Gullah.)
In an interview, Mack explained how this region evolved into Gullah country. In the 17th and 18th centuries, landowners brought people from the rice-growing regions in Sierra Leone and surrounding parts of Africa to the slave-trading port at Charleston, he said, and eventually to these parts to toil in the rice plantations.
As rice farming grew, more enslaved people were brought in, eventually making this region one of the most populous communities of slaves in the U.S. Left largely alone to labor in the plantations, the Gullah clung strongly to whatever they could remember of home, including cooking traditions, customs and language patterns. When this part of the country was liberated by Union troops early in the Civil War, many of the freed slaves remained in the area, carrying on with the traditions from back home.
My own excursion through Gullah country started at the Penn Center. Founded in 1862 by Quakers as a school for the children of freed slaves, it is spread over 50 acres amid moss-covered oak trees on St. Helena Island. The early history of blacks in the U.S. hangs in the air, and a visitor is instantly drawn in.
From Sweetgrass Baskets to Crab Soup
During a visit to the Penn Center’s small York Bailey Museum, exhibits offered a close-up on some of the Gullah traditions. One exhibition explained the tradition of sweetgrass basket weaving. Another displayed photos of students at work on the Penn campus. The gift shop offers baskets and other Gullah artifacts for sale.
After a couple of hours touring the museum and the bucolic Penn Center grounds, a Gullah lunch began calling my name — loudly. So I dropped into the Gullah Grub Restaurant, a highly recommended place about eight miles away. There, in his quaint dining room, chef Bill Green guided me to a couple of the many highlights of his menu: a bowl of “LoCountry Crab Soup,” a dish of shrimp gumbo and, of course, a side of white rice — a staple of every Gullah meal. Green, known throughout the area — and nationally — as one of the standard-bearers of good Gullah cooking, lived up to his reputation.
Beaufort is charming, easy to walk and rich in visual arts and Southern history. The gallery scene is a major draw; African and Gullah works are featured in several venues across town. Among the venues: the House of Ahhs, the Red Piano Too and Lybenson’s Gallery & Studio. I dropped into the latter. The collection included some impressive works from the African Diaspora, ranging from Zimbabwe Shona sculptures to sweetgrass baskets and wood sculptures by local Gullah artists.
Next door stands the Tabernacle Baptist Church, an impressive white wooden structure dating back to the early 1800s. Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who became a Union Naval captain during the Civil War and later a U.S. congressman, is buried in the courtyard.