Image above taken from AfricanAmericanCharleston.com
A great deal of Charleston’s character was influenced by Gullah culture—and for those of you who are unfamiliar with the word “Gullah,” it is a word used to describe an African American culture found in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia.
This fascinating culture dates back to the late 1600s when the transatlantic slave trade brought slaves over to the south. Europeans and African American slaves soon colonized South Carolina, and over the years, the African Americans in the area formed a tight-knit community and culture that is still alive today.
In the 17th-century, the rice crop was introduced to Charleston, which spurred even more importation of slaves into the Lowcountry area. The slaves were already knowledgeable in rice planting and cultivation due to their lifestyle in West Africa as farmers. The increase in slaves brought even more African culture to the Lowcountry and the Gullah culture began to slowly grow and strengthen.
During the boom in rice farming, life-threatening diseases were also on the rise, including yellow fever, which appeared more frequently during the humid months. When the humid, summer months approached, white plantation owners and many of the white plantation managers would move inland for the summer to prevent exposure to yellow fever and other tropical diseases. During this time, Drivers (trusted slaves who were put in charge while the white plantation owners and managers were away) would be established and manage the plantations and farming. With little European influence on the slaves during these months, African culture remained intact and the Gullah culture continued to expand. From art to cuisine, and language to rituals and customs, the slaves continued to uphold their African traditions.
Gullah culture today can be seen through . . .
Image to the left taken from MuseumoftheCity.org
Art: Now a symbol of Charleston, the sweetgrass basketry created by the Gullah people in the Lowcountry is one of the most popular souvenir items for visitors to Charleston. The basketry is also a common staple found within local restaurants and Charleston homes, and is extremely similar to the shukublay art found in Sierra Leone (West Africa).
Gullah artisans create the sweetgrass baskets by utilizing a traditional weaving technique found in West Africa, as well as other regions throughout Africa. First, they bundle dried sweetgrass and weave it into a basket, using palmetto leave strands to bind the sweetgrass bundles.
Cuisine: There is truly nothing like some good old Lowcountry Gullah cooking. Some of the most popular Gullah dishes and sides that are seen at many of the best restaurants in Charleston include shrimp and grits, fried okra, collard greens, shrimp creole, seafood gumbo, shrimp boil, she crab soup, and shrimp and oyster po’ boys.
Image above taken from the Gullah Gourmet website
Folklore: To ward off evil spirits or “haints,” as it’s referred to by the Gullah people, the Gullah people would paint the ceilings of their porches a type of sky blue. This blue eventually became known as “Haint Blue” or “Gullah Blue” and was used to fool the evil spirits into thinking that the ceiling or was the sky. It was believed that the spirit would then fly up into the ceiling thinking it was the sky, and continue upwards; thus, not entering the home.
Today, this blue ceiling tradition is still used on porches all around the Lowcountry and is seen on everything from homes to restaurants.
Language: The language spoken by the Gullah people is an English-based creole language. It combines the English language with languages from Africa that have been altered. And a fairly large number of words and phrases in the Gullah language are still used in Sierra Leone today.
The best ways to explore Gullah culture in the Lowcountry:
- Take a tour with Gullah Tours in Charleston
- Eat at the famed Mount Pleasant cafe, Gullah Cuisine
- Visit Gullah Gourmet in Charleston for some Gullah spices, boils, rubs, and delectable Gullah dishes.
- Visit the Market in downtown Charleston and purchase a sweetgrass basket
- Stop by Gallery Chuma in downtown Charleston to view or purchase some Gullah paintings
- Visit the Avery Research Center for African American History & Culture at the College of Charleston