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.
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.
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.
The Harrington Graded School and Growing Up on St. Simons
The St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition’s mission is to save and share the Islands 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 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.
In addition to the Heritage Center and tours, they also sponsor the Georgia Sea Island Festival in June to celebrate the Gullah Geechee culture. There is lots of music, good food, crafts, and demonstrations, plus my favorite, stories under the live oaks.