Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

Intercoastal Waterway near Wilmington, North Carolina

Intercoastal Waterway near Wilmington, North Carolina

The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor extends from Wilmington, North Carolina, in the north to Jacksonville, Florida, in the south. The National Heritage Area includes roughly 80 barrier islands and continues inland to adjacent coastal counties, defining a region 30 miles inland throughout the United States Low Country. The Gullah/Geechee Heritage Corridor is home to the Gullah people in the Carolinas and the Geechee in Georgia and Florida – cultural groups descended from enslaved peoples from West and Central Africa.

The Gullah and Geechee share similar linguistic, artistic, and societal traits that have remained relatively intact for several centuries due to the region’s geographic isolation. The cultures represent how Africans in the Americas maintained their homeland roots while simultaneously assimilating aspects of new cultures they encountered during and after enslavement. The Spanish came into the heritage area in the 16th century.

Through research, education, and interpretation, the corridor aims to preserve and raise awareness regarding the Gullah/Geechee, among America’s least-known and most unique cultures. Visitors to the country’s southeastern coast have the chance to experience Gullah/Geechee heritage through historical sites, local tours, traditional foods, cultural events, and art galleries.

There are multiple theories about where the Gullah/Geechee people received their name. The name “Gullah” may be derived from Angola, where many Gullah/Geechee people may have originated. Another possibility is that the name came from Gola, an ethnic group that lives in West Africa. The term “Geechee” may come from another West African ethnic group known as the Kissi. It has also been suggested that the “Gullah/Geechee” name may have Native American roots. When the Spanish arrived in the South Carolina and Georgia region, they decided to call it Guale after a Native American tribe they encountered. Guale became one of four primary Spanish mission provinces along with Timucua, Mocama, and Apalachee.

When the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution banned slavery in 1865, most of the African and American-born slaves along the southeastern coast remained in the region that had come to be their homes. Life on the barrier islands was relatively isolated from the mainland, and few outside visitors ever contacted the newly freed communities. Because of this geographic isolation and a strong sense of cultural connection, the African Americans who today self-identify as Gullah/Geechee retained their African heritage to a substantial degree.

Most Gullah/Geechee live in rural communities of low-level, vernacular buildings along the Low Country mainland coast and on the barrier islands. Towns once dotted with dirt roads and traversed by oxen, mules, and horses. The Gullah/Geechee are the speakers of the only African-American Creole language developed in the United States – one that combines elements of English and over 30 African dialects. Oral traditions, folklore, and storytelling are cultural traditions that have gone essentially unchanged for generations. Religious ceremonies such as ring shouts, artisan crafts like sweetgrass basket weaving, and culinary traditions such as “hoppin’ John” and sweet potato pone are all preserved as part of the culture of the Gullah/Geechee.

Recently life has changed for the Gullah/Geechee. The barrier islands were accessible only by boat until the building of the first bridges started in the early 1950s. Since then, many traditional Gullah/Geechee communities on the islands have been altered by cultural infiltration from mainlanders or lost entirely to real estate development. The advent of air-conditioning transformed the hot, humid islands into desirable, ocean-side property bringing outsiders into what was once solely Gullah or Geechee territory. Despite recent losses, the Gullah/Geechee people remain a testament to the power of human adaptability and cultural survival, even in the face of outside pressures from the modern world.

Charleston, South Carollina

Charleston, South Carolina

Because of the nature of the Gullah/Geechee culture and its associated corridor, many aspects of the area’s heritage are intangible and cannot be experienced through a solitary site. Local institutions and organizations thus offer regional tours and assistance. The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society in Georgia and Gullah Tours out of Charleston, South Carolina, provide boat tours that focus on Gullah/Geechee culture, language, music, and storytelling.

The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor protects, bolsters, and showcases the traditional Gullah/Geechee culture in the region, and its relation to the overall history of slavery, plantations, abolition, and emancipation in the South. Several cultural and educational institutions interpret this heritage for visitors. Geechee Kunda is a museum and community education center in Riceboro, Georgia, which features exhibits, galleries, classes, and events about Geechee culture, a gift shop, and a family research center. The Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture in Charleston, South Carolina, focuses on Gullah heritage in the Low Country and the broader theme of the African Diaspora in America. The center offers exhibits, public programming, tours, and an extensive archival collection.

Cumberland Island, Georgia

Cumberland Island, Georgia

In addition to museums, visitors to the heritage corridor can experience the area through many federally recognized historic places. The National Park Service administers Cumberland Island National Seashore. Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest, southernmost barrier island, with four major historic districts and 87 structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The island is still home to Geechee descendants of slaves who worked the plantations there through the mid-1800s. Park interpretive services include guided ranger tours and a museum with exhibits on the history and culture of the area.

Visitors interested in plantation history may also enjoy another unit of the National Park System, the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The site interprets one of the authors and signers of the United States Constitution. In addition to the 1828 Farmhouse, the site focuses on plantation life and agricultural history on the 28 preserved acres of the original 715-acre property. This includes regularly scheduled Gullah heritage celebrations and a Gullah film festival.

One of the most notable historical places within the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is the Penn School Historic District on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. The site is a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 47-acre area contains 18 historic buildings dating from the mid-1800s. Brick Church, the oldest building still standing, was constructed in 1855 by slaves for early Baptist planters in St. Helena. It was later used as a church, community center, and school for black and white abolitionists during the Reconstruction Era and was one of the earliest schools for the newly freed slaves. Missionaries constructed the other buildings on the island when they came there to assist former Gullah slaves with their newfound freedom after their owners abandoned the island during the Civil War. In addition to the early school and missionary buildings, the district includes Gantt Cottage, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Leadership Conference often met during the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Florida’s connection to the Gullah/Geechee culture and heritage corridor is rooted in the longest-standing tradition of black and Native American freedom. Spanish Florida was established within the Guale chiefdom in the late 16th century. Disease and warfare significantly reduced the size of the Guale. Those who survived migrated to the Spanish missions; many of these members became known as the Yamasee.

Fort Mose, Florida courtesy Wikipedia

Fort Mose, Florida, courtesy Wikipedia.

Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, or Fort Mose in St. Augustine, Florida, is located in the nation’s oldest city and is recognized as the oldest sanctioned free black community in the United States. In the 17th century, Spanish control in the southern region was threatened by the establishment of English colonies in South Carolina. In 1687, Spanish officials reported the first runaways from the nearby English settlements. The Spanish crown, interested in maintaining control in the southeast, encouraged runaways to abscond from English settlements and colonies. In 1693, a proclamation was issued granting freedom to all runaway slaves from English settlements. Then, in 1702, the English forces from South Carolina invaded Spanish Florida and destroyed refugee missions in the Guale region. In 1738, Spanish authorities issued a charter to create Fort Mose, and as early as 1739, fugitive slaves inhabited Fort Mose.

St. Augustine, Florida Colony

St. Augustine, Florida Colony

Blacks agreed to help defend St. Augustine from outside European invasion in exchange for certain liberties. The protection served three primary functions: maintaining a social and strategic relationship with the Spanish, maintaining the Spanish foothold in St. Augustine, and advancing Blacks within Spanish society. The Spanish provided food until the first crops were harvested, a priest for religious instruction, and a military unit. In time, Fort Mose was considered the first line of defense for Saint Augustine.

Today, Fort Mose historic state park is a national historic landmark. Visitors enjoy both the ecological treasures and the historical past of Fort Mose.

Self-taught and visionary artist Minnie Evans was born and raised in Pender and New Hanover Counties, the northernmost points of the Gullah/Geechee corridor. The Cameron Art Museum of Wilmington, North Carolina, houses the Minnie Evans Study Center, a central repository for archival material regarding the life of Minnie Evans. In addition, the lands around the Cameron Art Museum once witnessed the Civil War “Battle of Forks Road,” in which U.S. Colored Troops played a critical role.

Freed Slaves From Cumberland Island, Georgia

Freed Slaves From Cumberland Island, Georgia

In Winnabow, North Carolina, the St. Philips Church at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson occupies land once cultivated by enslaved workers for the longleaf pine-based naval stores industry and on Lower Cape Fear River rice plantations. This land also witnessed the liberation of former slaves as it served as a camp for black refugees in 1865. Another site, St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church of Wilmington, North Carolina, represents the grit and innovation of African Americans in the northern section of the Gullah-Geechee Corridor. The church sits on Campbell Square, on land designated for “the Negro population of New Hanover County” since 1845. In May of 1865, not even one month after the close of the Civil War, “642 Negroes joined the African Church” under the leadership of Reverend  W. H. Hunter, an African American chaplain with the Union Army. In 1866, the Wilmington Board of Alderman passed an ordinance rededicating Campbell Square to the use of “colored people,” specifying that four churches and a school should occupy the land. St. Stephen is one of those churches.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2022.

Also See:

Destinations Across America

Mysterious Places in America

National Parks

Scenic Byways & Historic Trails

Source: National Park Service