You won’t be in the Lowcountry long before you will come across the word “Gullah” (pronounced Gull-ah.) With a bit of investigation, you’ll discover Gullah has evolved over generations, and is now used to describe not only a fascinating language, but also an entire culture of a most interesting people; the African slaves of the Sea Islands.

Although most historians will agree on what the term Gullah embodies, controversy surrounds the term’s origin. Some historians believe that Gullah emerged from the word “Angola” which was the port of origin for many of the slaves. They speculate that Angola would have been pronounced “N’gulla,” and argue that “Gullah” eventually became the Lowcountry term for any new African arrival.

Whatever the origin may be, the history of the Gullah language and culture dates back to the early 1800s, when slaves from the Windward Coast of Africa arrived on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Historians have established that nearly 24,000 slaves arrived in South Carolina from 1804-1807. Many of these slaves were chosen specifically for their knowledge of rice cultivation and often came from the same communities within the countries of Senegal and Sierra Leone (a region commonly referred to as the Rice Coast.) The Gullah slaves adapted their unique language, traditions, and beliefs to their new life on the grand plantations which dotted South Carolina’s primitive coast. Geographic remoteness and the common bond of their homeland contributed to the establishment and longevity of this special culture we refer to as Gullah.

From seemingly unworthy marshland, the Gullah slaves established excellent rice crops, which fetched hefty sums for the wealthy plantation owners. While the inequality inherent in the slave system is undeniable, historians maintain that a number of Lowcountry Gullah slaves felt a sense of contribution and pride in producing a superior harvest.

The balance of power was uprooted as a result of the Civil War. During November of 1861, Union troops descended upon the Sea Islands, and quickly established a presence. Plantation owners fled the Lowcountry, while most Gullah slaves had no choice but to remain. Once freed, many Gullah slaves chose to serve in the Union Army, while others remained on and attended the Penn School. The Penn School (now named the Penn Center) was established in 1862 as one of the first schools for freed slaves.

Today, a great number of people are involved in perpetuating this extraordinary, valuable component of our Country’s history.

Explore their efforts by investigating these resources: (children’s resource)

Black, James Gary. My Friend the Gullah. Beaufort, SC: Beaufort Book Co., 1974

Branch, Muriel Miller. The Water Brought Us: The Story of the Gullah-Speaking People. Cobblehill Books/Dutton, 1995

The Penn Center.
The Penn Center is a 50-acre historical campus, located on St. Helena Island, just off Highway 21. It promotes and preserves the history and culture of the Sea Islands, and incorporates the Penn School, a National Historic Landmark. Visitors will discover burial grounds, a well-appointed museum, the Gantt Cottage (where Martin Luther King, Jr. resided) and gorgeous land covered with native flora and fauna. Did we mention the wealth of fascinating history? Visit: or phone: (843) 838-2432

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