Hilton Head Island’s Gullah Culture and History

Learn about this African-influenced culture and the people who have helped preserve it in the Carolina Sea Islands.


You won’t find any street lights, buildings more than five stories tall or neon signs in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, which includes 12 miles of pristine beaches, rolling golf greens and swaying palmetto trees. What you will find on your Hilton Head Island vacation is an eco-friendly paradise and a culture steeped in African-influenced Gullah history.

As the second largest Barrier Island on the East Coast of the United States, Hilton Head has earned a much-deserved reputation as a haven for luxury vacations, but beneath the polished surface lay keys to the centuries-old Gullah culture. Gullah represents one of the oldest surviving cultures in the United States and Hilton Head Island boasts some of its most important landmarks.

History of the Gullah People

The Gullah people live in communities along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts and are concentrated in the South Carolina Sea Islands. Descended from enslaved Africans who were brought to the area to cultivate rice and cotton, the Gullah people managed to preserve their language, food and culture due to the region’s isolation. The lilting dialect that traces back directly to the Krio language of Sierra Leone, the intricate artistry of sweet grass baskets and the legendary flavor of shrimp and grits are just a few Gullah culture hallmarks.

Gullah Tours and Attractions

If you want to grasp the full impact of Hilton Head’s Gullah history on your cultural vacation, a trip with Gullah Heritage Trail Tours is a must. Led by the noted Gullah community leader and Hilton Head native Emory Campbell, the two-hour tour reveals some rich insights about the culture. “Hilton Head was mostly owned by Gullah people until forty years ago,” says Campbell. “Before then, this land was in Gullah families since the 1860s.” 

Hop onto the yellow bus and visit historical sites that, before the bridge that connected Hilton Head to the mainland was built in 1956, represented Gullah community highlights. Wade through the sandy shores of Driessen Beach Park/Burkes Beach, named for the Gullah families that once owned the property.

View the Cherry Hill School Building, which was one of the first one- and two-room school houses built for Gullah children in 1937. According to Campbell, the building was “controlled by one teacher and lots of switches.” Walk through the Drayton Plantation Tabby Ruins, which display five chimney remnants of the slave quarters of the Drayton Plantation, or glimpse several Gullah cemeteries that were built on the waterfront so that their spirits can travel back to Africa. 

St. Helena Island

Explore more Gullah cultural sites on nearby St. Helena Island. Tucked between marshes and draped in Spanish moss, St. Helena is one of the most lovely and distinct of the Sea Islands.

Head to Penn Center, a national historic landmark where one of the country’s first school for freed slaves opened in 1862 and now serves as a museum and cultural center for Gullah culture. The museum boasts displays and photos of Penn’s important role in documenting Gullah history. Cornhusk doormats, bateaux (handmade flat-bottom boats) and 80-year-old sweet grass baskets line the halls.

“My parents and grandparents took classes here,” says Rosalyn Browne, director of history and culture for the Penn Center. (Emory Campbell served as the previous director.) “The school [at the Penn Center] closed in 1948 and changed its focus to community service.” Evidence of various community interests also occupies the colorful gift shop. The small space brims with plaques of Gullah sayings, handmade quilts and calendars by prominent Gullah artist Jonathan Greene. 

Gullah Cuisine

Top off your Gullah cultural experience with a visit to Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s in the Pineland Station area of Hilton Head. Sample Gullah treats like low country boil, fried catfish, collard greens, hoppin’ john (a type of pea and rice dish), crab cakes and sweet onion pie, prepared with Gullah spices. Dye Scott-Rhodan, the owner and chef of the restaurant, cooks everything from scratch using recipes passed down in her family since the early 1800s.

On St. Helena, stroll the idyllic 50 acres of the Penn School campus dotted with oak trees and then cross the street to another Gullah institution, Gullah Grub Restaurant. Lined with shelves of dishes, seasonings and Gullah knickknacks, Gullah Grub resembles a cozy living room. Bill Green, the chef, cooks with produce and seasonings that he’s grown personally. You can taste the distinct tang of pepper, onion, thyme and parsley sprinkled into the fried whiting, hoppin’ john and collard greens. Grab several bottles of “Mr. Bill’s” packaged seasoning to take home—the flavors will haunt you if you don’t.

Sweet Grass Basket

If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a sweet grass basket artist like Jery B. Taylor, selling her baskets outside of the Gullah Grub Restaurant. The delicate designs cover tiny saucer-sized bowls up to yawning platters. Taylor learned the art of sewing sweet grass baskets from her grandmother and has displayed her designs everywhere from art fairs to museums within the Smithsonian Institution. Prices for sweet grass baskets range from $25 to $600 and incorporate sweet grass, palmetto and bulrush strands.

Sweet grass sewing techniques have been passed down for at least 400 years, and the baskets symbolize the ultimate example of the preservation of Gullah culture. 

Destinations: South Carolina, Hilton Head Island

Themes: Beach Vacations, Historical Vacations

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

One of the sagas' in my second book, Pieces of the Quilt: The Mosaic of An African American Family, is of Great-Great Grandmother, Leah Ruth-Warner. She was born in Guinea West Africa about 1818, and enslaved at the age of twelve, along with other children from her village. By this time it was 1830 and buying African Slaves was illegal. However the ship my ancestor skirted by law, by taking the children to Bermuda to be seasoned. They were taken to Bermuda, tortured and brainwashed, and then sold in South Carolina. Leah was sold to Robert Ruth of Beaufort District South Carolina, and remained there until 1857. She bore several children by Robert Ruth, including my Great Grandfather, Samuel Ruth, who was born about 1850. While she was at the Ruth Plantation she was allowed to marry another slave, Jack Warner. She also bore children by him, one of which was sold. When Robert Ruth Auctioned the family off, the light skinned children were sold to Savannah while Leah, Jack, Isabella, and Georgy, were sold to Hilton Head SC. Leah and Jack remained on Hilton Head after the Civil War, along with their children Georgy and Isabella. About 1889, one of Leah's sons, Samuel Ruth returned to Hilton Head on a perilous journey to locate his mother. By that time her son Georgy and husband Jack were deceased, and daughter Isabella was living in Savannah. He located his mother, and persuaded her to move to Pennsylvania, where she remained until her death at the age of ninety-seven. Leahs' other children were; Daniel Ruth who remained in Georgia, as did Emma, and Isabella (who married a Gillian). They remained in contact with their brother Samuel and mother. My book includes more information on this family, as well as other's who were from Georgia and South Carolina. This is a chronicle of my ancestors, some of whom were part of the history of the Sea Island of Hilton Head SC. Pieces of the Quilt:

Great Article - and for more Great article. Many people travel to these places to get an authentic experience. If anyone is interested in seeing how the Gullah culture is being effected by new growth and development in the area, I would suggest seeing the documentary "Bin Yah: There's No Place Like Home" cheers, JFN

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