The Gullah Geechee are the most fascinating and well-preserved living example of African culture in the United States. And yet every year, millions of tourists pass through America’s Southeastern coastlines unaware of these resilient people and their culture.
Descendants of enslaved West Africans who lived and worked on plantations between the Carolinas and Florida, the original Gullah were masterful rice cultivators brought to the area because of their agricultural expertise. In summer, when plantation owners would vacation in cooler climates, the enslaved men, women, and children living on their plantations were “free” to endure the summer humidity on their own. They farmed their own crops and spent time preserving fragments of the crafts, art, music, religion, spirituality, agriculture, and languages from their homelands. The distillation of that mixture is the foundation of the Gullah culture found today throughout the Gullah Geechee Historic Corridor, which runs from Wilmington, NC to Jacksonville, FL.
Gullah culture and language remained relatively insulated for decades because the communities were often cut off from bridges and highways. Many of the plantations within the corridor were abandoned after the Civil War; in many instances, formerly enslaved people that once worked the land pooled resources to become new landowners. A significant portion of that land is still owned today by their descendants.
Today, this unique pocket of African and American culture can be explored through organized tours and road trips through the Carolinas and Georgia. Here are a few of must-stops along the way:
Catch – Wilmington, NC
There is perhaps no more elegant a place to explore a bit of Gullah cuisine than Catch in Wilmington, NC. There, chef, owner, and James Beard finalist Keith Rhodes serves Gullah-inspired plates like shrimp and grits (featuring Benton’s bacon and baby spinach) and sweet potato salad with baby spinach, goat cheese, and other ingredients.
McLeod Plantation – James Island, SC
Established in 1851, this former plantation was eventually taken over by the people who sowed its soil for sea island cotton. Today, the McLeod Plantation is a 37-acre Gullah Geechee heritage site. Visitors can tour the McLeod family home and six original enslaved-people’s quarters and learn about daily lives of the people who lived here before, during, and after the Civil War. For photography enthusiasts, the grounds are also home to an oak allée (which includes a 600-year-old oak tree) and other picturesque features.
Bertha’s Kitchen – Charleston
Founded by the late Albertha Grant in 1979, this historic Gullah restaurant has been filling bellies in Charleston for more than 40 years.
The signature lima bean and white rice special is a popular choice. But the real can’t-miss order is any dish containing red rice. Consisting of white rice cooked with onion, tomatoes (or tomato paste), chili powder seasoning, pork sausage, and other ingredients, red rice “owes a great debt to the enslaved Africans who brought their knowledge of rice and vegetable farming to the United States,” according to the Gullah Geechee Home Cooking cookbook.
Aunny’s – Georgetown
Delicious plates have been coming out of Aunny’s kitchen for more than a decade. Known for its warm hospitality, the Gullah-owned restaurant specializes in rich Southern cuisine like liver and onions, pig feet pilaf, hog maw, fried chicken, and pork chops.
The Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island – Hilton Head Island
Hilton Head, SC, was once heavily populated by the Gullah Geechee, but a bridge connecting it to the mainland brought with it large-scale development in the form of golf resorts, luxury hotels, and mega-mansions. The Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island preserves what’s left of the history and culture from the area through appointment-only tours, volunteer work, and community events.
Gullah Heritage Trail Tours – Hilton Head Island
Also operating on Hilton Head Island is the Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, a 2022 Tripadvisor Travelers’ Choice winner. The two-hour bus tours take visitors through some of Hilton Head’s Gullah communities, zeroing in on the history, food, and local creole language, which blends colonial English with a number of African languages.
Historic Harrington School – St. Simons Island
The grounds of the Historic Harrington School were built in the 1920s as an educational center for three Gullah communities on St. Simons Island, GA. Today, the property is a center for tourists interested in the Gullah and the history of the region. This is also one of the few places in the world you can still look inside an old Gullah Geechee schoolhouse. (To make an appointment: email [email protected].)
Pin Point Heritage Museum – Pin Point
The Gullah Geechee settled in the small fishing village of Pin Point, GA, in the 1890s.
Today, one former oyster-and-crab factory lives on as the Pin Point Heritage Museum. Here, visitors can enjoy unrivaled views of the area’s marshes or dive into Gullah culture by exploring the grounds and exhibits and talking with the museum staff, many of whom are descendants of the region’s original settlers.
Eric has revolved in and out of passport controls for over 20 years. From his first archaeological field school in Belize to rural villages in Ethiopia and Buddhist temples in Laos, Eric has come smile to smile with all walks of life. A writer, photographer and entrepreneur, the LA native believes the power of connectivity and community is enriched through travel.