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St. Helena Island: the Gullah heartland

In the United States, when we hear the word creole, it probably brings to mind the Louisiana creole culture, with its mix of French of African influences. In fact, my experience has been that most Americans associate the word creole as referring to a derivative of French language and culture. However, that’s not actually the case. Creole languages and cultures are derived from the mixing of several different root languages and cultures, not just French.

In fact, right here in the United States, there is another very old creole culture that is quite distinct from the Franco-Creole of Louisiana. The Gullah culture and language of the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, sometimes known as Geechee, is found primarily in the sea islands and along the coastal region. It is an Anglo-Creole with its own rich history and heritage. It has more in common with the creole cultures of the English-speaking Caribbean (such as Jamaica) and with the Krio culture of Sierra Leone in Africa. For instance, words found in Jamaican Patois, such as oonu, as a plural of “you”, or nyam, meaning eat, can also be found in the Gullah language.

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St. Helena Island, in South Carolina, is often considered the heartland of the Gullah people. At one time, the Gullah culture was prevalent along the coast from Wilmington, North Carolina all the way south to Jacksonville, Florida. Over time, the discernible presence of the Gullah culture has diminished through assimilation with the broader American culture, particularly as the region has become less isolated, both physically speaking, as well as through advancements in mass communication. Still, the Gullah people hang on and St. Helena Island has become a center for the preservation of their heritage.

St. Helena Island is a mostly rural area, but the small, unincorporated town of Frogmore is the commercial center of the community. Here you will find shops, such as Frogmore’s Lowcountry Store and the Red Piano Too Art Gallery. You will find a handful of restaurants in Frogmore, some of which specialize in Lowcountry and Gullah dishes. Local cuisine features familiar fare to fans of Southern cooking, along with traditional Gullah recipes and, of course, seafood is plentiful.  Gullah Grub and the Foolish Frog are popular options and, if you’re headed out to Hunting Island State Park, you can drop by the roadside classic, Shrimp Shack.

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The ancestors of the Gullah people were brought to this region as slaves to work on the rice plantations. During the American Civil War, once Union troops had occupied this region, the slaves were given their freedom. It was not long before efforts were made for the education of the newly freed slaves and the Penn School was established near Frogmore by an abolitionist missionary from Pennsylvania, Laura Matilda Towne. This school remained in operation until 1948, but afterward remained open as the Penn Center.

The Penn Center is, perhaps, the most important attraction today on St. Helena Island. It represents a significant historical and cultural landmark, not only for the Gullah and other African-Americans, but for everyone. The Penn Center continues to offer educational resources, provides conference and meeting spaces, maintains a museum and an art gallery. The grounds are beautiful and peaceful and, in times past, has attracted the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spent time here during the formative stages of his Civil Rights career.

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Other locations to see around St. Helena Island are the ruins of various churches and plantations, including the Chapel of Ease, Fort Fremont and the Riverside Plantation. There are numerous other similar sites in the area, for those who wish to get outdoors and do some exploring.

From the coastal cuisine, to the local historical legacy, to the rich heritage of the Gullah people, St. Helena Island is a unique destination, offering a laid-back and off the beaten path vibe that you simply won’t find at a more typical beach vacation destination. Whether this is your primary destination, or as a day trip from elsewhere on the coast, it’s worth the effort to get here, to unwind and even to step back in time just a bit.

You can see more photos from St. Helena Island, nearby Hunting Island and the city of Beaufort by visiting our Facebook gallery.

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