DISCOVER ST SIMONS ISLAND BLACK HISTORY BY UNCOVERING THE SECRETS OF THE GULLAH GEECHEE

The Gullah Geechee is the name given to the decedents of African slaves from west and central Africa who worked the southern rice and cotton plantations from coastal North Carolina to Florida. Discover St Simons Island black history by learning about the Gullah Geechee who once inhibited this Georgia’s Golden Isles.

DISCOVER ST SIMONS ISLAND BLACK HISTORY BY UNCOVERING THE SECRETS OF THE GULLAH GEECHEE
Photo courtesy of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

More so than some slave cultures, the Gullah Geechee retained a lot of their African heritage and passed down a strong sense of place and family. The Gullah Geechee culture can be found in the distinctive Gullah Geechee language, arts, crafts, cuisine, and music. And it’s starting to be shared with the rest of us too.

THE GULLAH GEECHEE CULTURAL HERITAGE CORRIDOR

The National Park Service has designated a Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that extents from Wilmington, NC to Jacksonville, FL. Somewhere in the middle lies the Sea Islands including St. Simons Island, GA. It was created to call attention to the historic and cultural contributions of the Gullah Geechee people.

The Gullah Geechee people are the descendants of West and Central Africans who were enslaved and bought to the lower Atlantic states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia to work on the coastal rice, Sea Island cotton and indigo plantations. 

FINDING THE GULLAH GEECHEE ON ST SIMONS ISLAND

I had heard about the Gullah Geechee culture before, but I had always pictured former slaves singing hymns under a live oak. Then I did a story for the Golden Isles Visitors Guide and had the opportunity to interview Amy Roberts, executive director of the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition.

Amy’s ancestors were slaves on the Retreat Plantation on St. Simons Island. My in-laws live in a subdivision called Retreat, which presumably was where the Gullah people like Amy’s ancestors toiled.

The plantation era is certainly a significant one in the African American history of the island, but it’s just the beginning, and there is a whole lot more than the Heritage Coalition is working to save…and share.

Want to know more? There is a very interesting article from Coastal Illustrated.

THE HARRINGTON GRADED SCHOOL AND GROWING UP ON ST SIMONS

The St Simons Island African American Heritage Coalition’s mission is to save and share the Island’s African American history from freedom to civil rights. They just completed a milestone in the renovation of The Harrington Graded School, an elementary school that was built for African Americans on St. Simons Island.

The Historic Harrington School, formerly known as the Harrington Graded School, was built in the 1920s and served as the main educational structure for three African American communities on St. Simons Island. It hosted grades 1-7 until desegregation in the 1960s.

The schoolhouse now serves as a cultural center with paintings depicting the struggles of African Americans coming to the new world, artifacts from the school, and a starting point for tours of the island’s African American history.

The day we visited, Amy and her cohort Emory Rooks were at the schoolhouse. Both attended school here and had a wealth of stories about the schoolhouse, what it was like to go to school there and growing up on St. Simons and the legacy of the Gullah Geechee. I could have listened to their stories all day. The video below is just a small taste of the stories. Learn why Hazel’s Cafe was such a success and where the best fishing was on the island.

HAMILTON PLANTATION

Also located on St Simons Island visitors can find Hamilton Plantation and the remains of this once antebellum plantation containing two surviving slave cabins, originally a set of four built before 1833 and before the Civil War. Among the better surviving slave cabins in the South, they are made of tabby, a cement consisting of lime, water, and crushed oyster shells. 

GEORGIA SEA ISLAND FESTIVAL

For more than 40 years, St Simons Island on Georgia’s coast has celebrated the African American musical traditions, crafts, and food of the coastal barrier islands during the Sea Island Festival. There will be cuisine, arts & crafts, demonstrations, vendors and live entertainment.

The festival was first organized in 1977 by members of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Mable Hillery and Bessie Jones, and carried on today by Frankie Quimby and the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition.

This festival attracts visitors for all over the United States.

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