Historians, linguists and anthropologists such as Drs. Lorenzo Dow Turner and Joseph Opala are credited with much of the meticulous research over the past seven decades documenting the close ties connecting specific areas of West Africa with the Carolina coast. Bunce Island in Sierra Leone was a British slave castle from which many of the ancestors of today’s Charleston residents originated.
Using ship’s manifests, genealogical records, oral histories and recorded songs, scholars continue to trace the first African arrivals who merged African, Native American and European cultures into what are now known as the Gullah-Geechee people.
The Gullah-Geechee are a distinctive group of African Americans whose origins lie along the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, as well as the adjacent sea islands. This geographic dispersion dates back to the establishment of small, isolated African American farming and fishing communities, formed away from urban centers during and after slavery. Such communities have enduring relationships and traditions that have survived slavery, the Civil War, and the emergence of modern American culture.
Because of their historically isolated locations and strong sense of identity, the Gullah are said to have preserved more of their African cultural heritage than any other group of African Americans. They speak a blended language, similar to that of Krio spoken in Sierra Leone and many are skilled in the creation of African styled handicrafts, like sweetgrass baskets and other art objects, enjoying a rich cuisine based upon seafood, vegetables and rice.
Despite adoption of modern American customs and the increased encroachment onto their family-owned properties, these people who interact daily both in and outside rural environs, continue to provide an important glimpse into South Carolina’s past.
The Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor identified by the National Park Service in 2006, and other emerging indigenous groups and organizations, exemplify efforts to increase awareness and preservation of all aspects of Gullah heritage.