My friends know I’m a life-long curious traveler…living in Europe and visiting more than 60 countries around the world. It is a never-ending quest to experience new cultures and simply see what’s over the next rise. So, on occasion, when someone asks for a not-so-obvious destination…I’m rarely at a loss.
There are seven continents - I don’t count Europe and Asia as one - with a lot of fascinating people and places to see on all of them. Well, there are fewer places and people in Antarctica than the others, but you get my drift. Today, I’m writing about a spot you might want to put on your travel bucket list.
It’s a narrow strip of land just 30 miles wide - and includes scores of barrier islands spanning coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and North Florida. It is the land of the Gullah-Geechee Nation…and it lies between the two Jacksonvilles….Jacksonville, NC and Jacksonville, FL…a distance of about 475 miles.
Today, a few million Americans - including a few hundred thousand direct descendants of millions of enslaved Africans brought to North America - call it home. About half of the men, women and children taken from Africa came through Sullivan’s Island…a small barrier island seven miles from downtown Charleston, SC.
A seemingly never-ending flotilla of slave ships docked on the island’s long piers built to accommodate six ships at a time…each with 650 humans destined for enslavement. Between two and three million Africans died onboard ships during four hundred years of slave trade…they were in the minds of those who transported them, sold them and owned them…expendable.
The Gullah-Geechee today don’t consider Sullivan Island their Ellis Island, where millions of true immigrants first saw America. Their ancestors were - after all - brought to America unwillingly. Ironically, Sullivan Island today is much more hospitable…dotted with more than a dozen five-star resorts and hotels.
From the balconies of some of the hotels you can see Fort Sumter, where Confederate artillery pounded cut-off Union forces for 34 hours before the white flag of surrender was flown. Ironically, in this first battle of the Civil War - which saw 4,000 Confederate canon and mortar shells explode in, around and off Fort Sumter - only a single life was lost…a mule.
The Union garrison of 123 men…a dozen of them musicians…mounted a poor defence at best…firing cannon balls that mostly lacked fuses. Unable to explode, the vast majority of the 1,000 rounds fired by Union troops fell harmlessly in Charleston Harbour. By early afternoon, the Charleston Southern aristocracy rode horses and buggies to the city’s wide promenade overlooking the harbour - many with picnic lunches despite the smoke - to watch the battle. Soldiers and civilians on both sides would not fare as well for the next four years…with more than 750,000 Americans losing their lives.
A sober Civil War history notwithstanding, the Gullah-Geechee culture alone is reason enough to visit. The people enslaved throughout the South came from what is now Angola, the Congos, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Gambia and Liberia, among other sources of centuries of slave trade. The languages and cultures of the Gullah-Geechee are similar from North Carolina to Florida…but even today descendants in Georgia distinguish subtle differences…for example, there are “Saltwater Geechee” and “Freshwater Geechee”…those who live on barrier and coastal areas and those more inland.
Regardless, the Gullah-Geechee have a rich heritage…their own language - referred to variously as Sea Island Creole English or simply Geechee. It’s not slang…and is even taught in some public schools in the Charleston area today.
The descendants also have their own head of state. Marquette L. Goodwine, who was elected Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah-Geechee Nation in 2000 - or as she refers to herself the “head pun de bodee” - still reigns today. It’s not just a figure-head job…she actively promotes the Gullah-Geechee culture, educating younger generations and anyone interested in learning. She has even addressed the United Nations.
Of course, you likely know a little about the Gullah-Geechee…even if you don’t realize it. Have you ever locked arms around a campfire and sang “Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya?” That’s Geechee for “come by here.”
Sadly, what the forces of nature and even war could not change for a few hundred years…perhaps because so many Gullah-Geechee were isolated on more than 80 barrier islands…could lose to greed and economics. Many descendants have been forced out by gentrification, unable to pay rising property taxes. Some caved in to multi-million-dollar offers from developers. I’m not saying this culture will disappear in our lifetime…but I wonder what changes the next 400 years might bring.
Pack a bag and go now…and enjoy. There are plenty of reasons to justify a trip…even beyond the compelling historical significance. One…is the food. All who know me understand my culinary proclivities. My photo could be in dictionaries under “foodie”…and Charleston and Savannah - like New Orleans - are among my favourite destinations.
It’s called “Lowcountry” cooking, and the food is heavily influenced by African staples like rice, black-eyed peas, okra, eggplant, sesame seed, cantaloupe and watermelon. The Gullah-Geechee quickly adopted Southern foods…growing crops of mustard and collard greens, rutabagas, tomatoes and harvesting an abundance of seasonal fresh water and salt water seafood.
I grew up in Florida on this kind of food. My sister, Ruth, always said, “We must be part Geechee,” usually as we enjoyed a dish of okra and tomatoes over rice…or shrimp and red rice. I believe Gullah-Geechee food might be the next new thing in food because it’s just plain “good eating” as we say in the South…and a long last…it’s time. A lot of traditional Southern cooking - including “soul food” - comes from the Gullah-Geechee. No, this food doesn’t always photograph well…but I’m tired of food selfies that often look better than they taste anyway. This is thick, hearty and savoury stuff guaranteed to bring smiles.
The Gullah-Geechee descendants - like their ancestors - weave Sweetgrass baskets. When you go…don’t pass on buying one of these fully functional works of art. They can cost a few hundred dollars…but examples of these tightly woven baskets are in the Smithsonian…and they are family heirlooms.
Charleston, by the way, is a fascinating city by any measure. Almost everything that most people believe might have happened in New York, Philadelphia or Washington, DC…actually happened in Charleston first. An online search will confirm this…and likely amaze you.
Finally, don’t miss Angel Oak…a 500-year-old giant Live Oak on John’s Island just south of Charleston. Witness to the first people enslaved in America...and more…this oak is breathtaking. I was there once when a large family of Gullah-Geechee gathered near the massive oak…its branches like an umbrella covering more than 17,000 square feet.
I never meet a stranger, according to my wife, and in talking with the Geechee mother, she explained that “the angels of slaves reside here…it is a shrine.” I looked at the Oak…so close to the ocean you can hear the beach’s repetitive surf…considered its uniqueness…the quiet solitude. I smiled and quietly replied, “I think you might be right.”
Kumbaya, my Lord, Kumbaya.
— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.