Gullah Culture: The heart and history of Hilton Head Island
Author: Paul deVere
strong>“Ef oona ent kno weh oona da gwine, oona should kno weh oona come from.”
Hilton Head Island’s shape is often compared to a tennis shoe. The toe is Sea Pines. The sole is the 12 miles of beach. But if you draw a line from just below the heel, just below Port Royal Plantation, west to Spanish Wells, and look at the rest of the shoe, you are seeing the land of a culture that is over two centuries old. It is a culture that is musical, magical, rich in traditions, with intimate ties to places like Sierra Leone. And it is fast leaving the island. The culture is known as Gullah.
“When I was growing up here, it was a Converse tennis shoe. Now it’s a Nike, very rich,” said Emory Campbell with a smile. He was the driver of the tour bus and guide on the Gullah Heritage Trail Tour that passes along the less-traveled roads of the island. Campbell can trace is family back for five generations on Hilton Head Island. He is a writer, lecturer and Director Emeritus of the famous Penn Center on St. Helena Island, and has championed the Gullah cause most of his adult life. He knows his history.
To understand the Lowcountry and one of the reasons life here is so compelling to so many, taking the Gullah Tour should be as required as getting South Carolina tags for your car. With great understatement and gentle, if sometimes acerbic humor, Campbell paints a picture of life of native islanders, from the pre-Civil War era to contemporary times as he travels those roads. Spanish Wells, Marshland. Baygall. Squire Pope. He has been a champion of preserving the Gullah culture most of his adult life.
As a brief, oversimplified primer, Gullah culture refers to the way life of the inhabitants who live and lived on South Carolina’s Sea Islands and along its coast. It is also called “Geechee” along the Georgia coast. The culture encompasses storytelling, food, religion, music, crafts, folklore, and occupations, such as farming and fishing. The people developed their own language, which includes about 20 percent African words, and pronunciation. They also kept an extraordinary amount of their African heritage alive to this day. Think red rice, gumbo, “Br’er Rabbit,” root doctors, tote, and sweet grass baskets. That’s all Gullah.
To get an idea of what life was like on Hilton Head before development, and be teased into wanting to know much more about Gullah culture and customs, the two-hour Gullah Heritage Trail Tour is a must do.
“There are now 38,000 people on the island. When I grew up, there were about 1,500 at most. I thought everyone was Gullah, except Dick and Jane,” Campbell said, recalling his early education in the1940s and early 50s and the popular basal reader. Those 1,500 people made up ten distinct neighborhoods on the island. “Another part of the [Gullah] culture is family. Every neighborhood is extended family. The neighborhoods were unique because they were self-sustaining,” Campbell said.
Before development, he explained, each community had a little farm, and a specialty. “You would go to Marshland for boats,” Campbell said. They made bateaux, small, flat bottom boats for fishing and crossing the creeks. The Jonesville neighborhood, begun by Caesar Jones, a Gullah, “always had a blacksmith shop,” Campbell explained, “and a mill for grinding corn for grits.” Shrimp and grits, a popular entrée in fine restaurants, was standard fare on a Gullah table, Campbell said.
Driving along Union Cemetery Road, Campbell pointed to one of Port Royal Plantation’s golf courses. “Most of the commercial watermelon farming was done in Port Royal because of the high, sandy soil,” he said. Even after developers bought the land, “they allowed us to farm in many of the open fields.” Hilton Head Plantation was known for its tomatoes.
Campbell told dozens of stories along the way, almost at each intersection, pointing out new parks, old tabby ruins, surprising water views still “undiscovered.” He recalled hauling Drum out around Bagall and Fish Haul Creek in early spring. They were big fish and could weigh between 80 and 200 pounds. “It was enough to feed the island,” Campbell said.
Most everybody knows how to get to the island’s beaches, golf courses and restaurants. Taking the Gullah Heritage Trail Tour is how to get to the island’s heart and history.