The Gullah Islands off the eastern U.S coast are home to a unique African-American history and culture.
Gullah/Geechee people of today are descendants of enslaved Africans from various ethnic groups of west and central Africa who were forced to work on the plantations of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.
They lived near the coast and on barrier islands that were separated from the mainland by creeks, rivers, and marshes. Because of their geographic protection from outsiders and strong sense of family and community, Gullah/Geechee people maintained a separate creole language and developed distinct culture patterns, which included more of the African cultural tradition than African-American population in other parts of the United States. They are also the only African American population of the United States with a separate, long-standing name identifying them as a separate people.
Isolation in colonial times later became isolation by choice.
People chose their simple lifestyle, their language and their culture. This isolation allowed them to maintain their language, arts, crafts, religious beliefs, folklore, rituals and food preferences that are distinctly connected to their West African roots.
Until 1950, the islands were only accessible by boat.
1950 brought bridges which led to coastal development, changing job markets, and population shifts which forced many Gullah/Geechee people to leave their ancestral family lands (www.nps.gov).
The great transformation began in 1957 when Charles Frasier launched the construction of Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island. The availability of air conditioning suddenly made the sea islands appealing to affluent people (www.nps.gov).
As the target of expansive commercial and resort development, the subsistence economy of these islands has transformed into a suburban and resort service economy. Golf courses, retirement communities, shopping centers and leisure developments raise the price of land. The consequences for local residents are increasing taxes beyond the means of a community that traditionally survives on subsistence farming and fishing (The Gullah people, pdf file). Gullah people were no longer able to access all of their land, they had limiting hunting and fishing rights, water pollution negatively impacted their maritime economy, and they lost access to traditional burying grounds (www.nps.gov).
This community has been marginalized and has resulted in negative impacts on Gullah culture and community health. 'The decade had brought telephone service, electricity, and grocery markets to the island, but only to the southern portion. Most Gullah inhabitants of northern Hilton Head still lived without electricity or even running water' (The Gullah people, pdf file).
Mainland Gullah/Geechee communities are also threatened by increasing coastal development and population growth with the resulting encroachment into rural neighborhoods (www.nps.gov).
Some of the people who left in the 1960s are now returning to their roots and are among the most active in trying to preserve Gullah/Geechee community and tradition (www.nps.gov).